- By Douglas Gantenbein
- Air & Space magazine, November 2006
NASM (SI Neg. #78-17901-15)
(Page 2 of 3)
The goal of the Me 262 Project was not to make an identical copy of the original aircraft; some concessions have been inevitable. The original Junkers Jumo jet engines, for instance, were famously prone to breakdowns and often good for no more than 10 hours of flight (although some built with higher quality steel reached a service life of 200 hours or more). So the engines used by the Me 262 Project are the reliable, proven GE J85 engines found on many business jets. The Me 262’s nose gear was notoriously fragile, with the Germans losing many aircraft to nose wheel collapses. Hammer fashioned a brace for the gear that eliminated the problem. And all the aircraft have modern radios and navigation gear.
Overall, though, the team has stuck as closely as possible to the real thing. While aluminum would have been lighter, the skin was made of steel, like the skin on the originals—a concession to wartime aluminum shortages. The instrument panel was made from plywood, as were the landing gear doors. The use of Phillips-head screws seemed like a reasonable substitute, but guests from the Messerschmitt Foundation, who planned to make a flying copy of the Me 262 the centerpiece of their collection of Willi Messerschmitt-designed airplanes, insisted that slotted screws, identical to those in the original, be used. “We only need 500, but had to buy 15,000 of them,” Byron chuckles, comparing his request for slotted screws to walking into a modern RadioShack and asking to buy television tubes. “They said ‘We’ll do it,’ but once they set up to make slotted-head screws, they had to crank them out like yards of sausage.”
Hammer’s group needed nearly four years to transform its pile of parts into a flying Me 262. Problems abounded. At one point, for instance, the team was confounded by the controllers for the engine generators, which provide electricity to the aircraft. “It was the worst kind of problem—an intermittent one,” says Hammer. The controllers would occasionally burn out a relay for no apparent reason, shutting down power to the aircraft. “It was driving me nuts.” Finally, Hammer found a retired electronics engineer who agreed to pore over the controllers’ complex wiring schematics (“They looked like a road map from here to Greece,” says Hammer). After two days, the engineer unearthed a fault in the original Air Force wiring diagram, which caused the project team to miswire the controllers.
The team also faced headaches in getting the brakes to work properly (modern disc brakes replace the failure-prone drum brakes on the original), and in balancing the 2,500 pounds of thrust from the GE J-85 with the flying characteristics of the Me 262, which was designed for a less-powerful engine. “People think that once you have an airframe, you’re 90 percent of the way there,” says Hammer. “Hell no. That’s only about 15 percent…. The rest is integrating all the rest of this stuff so it works together.”
Hammer came to greatly admire the Stormbird. The name (Sturmvogel in German) refers to the fighter-bomber version of the aircraft, but seems more fitting than the fighter’s name, Schwalbe, which means Swallow. “I was really impressed with the way the airplane was designed for easy assembly,” he says. “They were building this thing in woods and caves and everywhere else, so parts were built all over the place and then put together.” The cockpit “tub,” for instance, was a single assembly that could be dropped into a fuselage. Wing and control components were similarly designed for easy construction and assembly.
Finally, on December 20, 2002, aviation history was made…again. Wolfgang Czaia, a former pilot for the modern German Luftwaffe (Czaia still flies Lockheed F-104 Starfighters as part of the Starfighters Airshow Demonstration Team) and a retired 757/767 captain for American Airlines, flew an Me 262 dubbed White One at Paine Field. For 35 minutes, Czaia made gentle turns and tested the airplane’s stall characteristics while keeping the gear down. “A pleasure to fly,” Czaia wrote in his flight test report. “Overall, a great first flight.”
On the next flight, January 18, the gear was retracted. Right away Czaia had problems, with two red lights on his instrument panel. An observer in a chase airplane reported the gear up and doors closed. Czaia cycled the gear again. This time the nose wheel dropped only part way while the main gear stayed up. Finally, he activated an emergency system that used compressed nitrogen to blow the gear down. Success—or so Czaia thought.
As Czaia touched down, the main landing gear on the aircraft’s left side collapsed. Within seconds, the speeding Me 262 had careered off the runway and over an embankment. “That was a pretty rough ride,” recalls Czaia. “CNN had a camera in the cockpit that day and caught the whole thing.”