A fearsome fighter, restored for viewing An aircraft group wants to keep the Messerschmitt Me-262. It will be at the Willow Grove Naval Air Station Air Show.

Posted: September 06, 2001

Thank your lucky stars the Messerschmitt Me-262 wasn't ready for combat until 1944. It might have made Hitler's air force invincible.

The fighter was the first combat plane ever powered by jet propulsion, a remarkable feat of German engineering that still sends shivers down the spine when historians wonder "what if?"

Built by slave labor in subterranean factories, the Me-262 Sturmvogel or "Stormbird" was more than 100 m.p.h. faster than its rivals, and it flew as early as 1942. But mass production was delayed because Hitler allegedly wanted a jet bomber, not a fighter, and sent engineers back to the drawing board. Though deadly, the Me-262 was too late to change the course of World War II.

Now one of the original Me-262s - seized from Germany by a special team of Army Air Corps pilots after the war - has been fully restored. Nicknamed "Vera," it waits, sleek and sharklike, in a hangar at the Willow Grove Naval Air Station, where it will be shown to the public Saturday and Sunday at the annual Air Show.

"It's an incredible prize of war. There can't be more than a handful of these planes left in the world," said Milton Shils, the president emeritus of the Delaware Valley Historical Aircraft Association. "Hitler was going to build 2,000 of them. Thank God they only got about 300 of them airborne."

Shils' group raised $400,000 to ship Vera, then a rusted wreck, from Willow Grove to Texas and later Everett, Wash., to be restored by retired Boeing technicians starting in 1993. It returned to Willow Grove late last year.

Shils, 83, fought tooth and nail to get the plane restored. Now that it is back in Willow Grove, he will have to fight to keep it. The Navy, which owns the Me-262, might be more inclined to exhibit it at the Naval Air Museum in Pensacola, Fla., the same place Navy brass sent a locally restored Brewster Buccaneer dive-bomber in 1996, to the outrage of its restorers.

The aircraft association has one year to build a structure to exhibit the Me-262, Shils said, or Vera will follow the Buccaneer. A Navy spokeswoman said that the Navy had no preference on where the plane was displayed but that a custody agreement gave the one-year deadline. Plans for an aeronautical museum are ready, and a site on the base at Route 611 and County Line Road has been set aside. Now all the aircraft group needs is several million dollars.

Like any crucial mission, said retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Ron Nelson, a member of the aircraft association, "the museum is do or die. We will build it."

Lucky for them, Vera tends to command devotion, and perhaps donations, too, with its shiny coat of mottled green and gray paint. The group hopes to begin soliciting donations at the Air Show.

Nearly every inch was revolutionary, with a swept-back wing shape and leading-edge wing slats just like those on modern jetliners. Its twin turbojet engines, Junkers Jumo 004s, provided about 1,000 pounds of thrust, but started with the pull of a rip cord, just like a lawn mower. The Me-262 had a top speed of 550 m.p.h., about 110 m.p.h. faster than propeller-driven American fighters. Its four 30mm cannons tore apart Allied bombers.

Of course, the Me-262 was a terrific danger to its own pilots. Quality metal was scarce in war-torn Germany, and one can see the tape that was used to seal seams in Vera's cheap metal skin. Those powerful engines burned out after 12 to 25 flight hours, and would be completely replaced - if the pilot was lucky enough to land.

To avoid Allied bombers, the Me-262 was built in underground vaults dug by slave laborers. Prisoners from concentration camps also built the plane itself. Thousands died.

In the skies, the Me-262 was outnumbered. One battle pitted 37 Me-262s against more than 1,000 American bombers and fighters. Hundreds more Me-262s were destroyed on the ground in bombing raids.

At war's end, a scramble ensued to capture advanced German technology before the advancing Soviet troops did.

In May 1945, the Army Air Corps sent Col. Harold Watson and a dozen pilots to an Me-262 base in Lechfeld, Germany, to study, repair and fly as many planes as they could to southern France, where a British aircraft carrier picked them up for the trip to a military research facility in Maryland.

Vera was one of those Me-262s, and was about to be scrapped when an officer at Willow Grove had the plane shipped up in 1947. She languished in a field until the Delaware Valley Historical Aircraft Association took action in 1993.

Matt Blanchard's e-mail address is mblanchard@phillynews.com.

To Donate

Call the Delaware Valley Historical Aircraft Association at 215-443-6039 or go to the group's Air Show exhibit.

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