Read a Meteor flight test from 1951

The Gloster Meteor was the first British jet fighter and saw action during World War Two. The design was developed, including the F.8 variant which was flight tested by The Aeroplane 70 years ago…

The post-war years were an exciting time in aerospace, as companies sought to develop aircraft to best utilise the capabilities of the jet engine. The Meteor was a revolutionary aircraft, being the only Allied jet to be involved in combat in World War Two. Gloster saw the potential to improve the design with numerous variants produced, and the type served with no less than 30 air forces. Here is a fascinating insight from the May 11, 1951 issue of The Aeroplane on one of the then latest variants, with its flying characteristics described by Derek D Dempster in exquisite detail: “One needs the foot strength of an Arsenal footballer to keep the aircraft straight at speeds below 120 knots.”

Here’s what he wrote…

Nearly five years ago, the late Sqdn. Ldr. “Wimpey” Wade – then on the staff of THE AEROPLANE – writing of the flying qualities of the Meteor 4, said of its remarkable performance: “... it is virtually impossible to use full throttle, without exceeding the structural limitations of the airframe. No reflection on the Meteor IV’s construction should be read into this statement, but the significance of present-day engine development cannot be more easily realized than by appreciating this fact. As anyone whose job is to overcome this difficulty only too well realizes, in the Meteor IV we have reached a limit in conventional airframe design.”

We have now come to 1951, and Meteor Marks 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11 are being turned out in great numbers, each with a different role to fulfil. This does not imply that Sqdn. Ldr. Wade was wrong. On the contrary, later Marks of Meteor have certainly been refined and improved, but their performance has not drastically changed, and cannot be expected to increase much in the future.

Future fighters will have to incorporate new structural and aerodynamic design and, needless to say, work is going ahead on such aircraft. For all that, however, the Meteor 8 is a very fine aircraft and one that will continue to play an important part in military aviation for some time to come. Recently we were given the opportunity to fly one, and to gain some first-hand impressions of its performance and handling characteristics.

The Meteor 8 is a progressive development of the Mk.4 with the forward fuselage lengthened by 30ins., to make way for an enlarged fuselage fuel tank carrying 325 gallons. The tail unit has been modified in outline with square tips to the tailplane; straight leading- and trailing-edges to the fin and rudder; and elimination of the under-keel surface and tail skid. The cockpit canopy is a single-piece moulding, the whole sliding back and forth on rails and electrically operated – which is a great improvement.

A great many other improvements have also been made, principally the fitting of an ejector seat. Most notable of other, smaller, refinements is the repositioning of the ground/flight switch and the starter-battery cable socket, which are now forward of the retractable step. No longer do the ground staff have to grovel under the port wing looking for the switch in the murky darkness of the wheel bay. Access to the cockpit is by way of two fixed footsteps covered by spring-loaded flaps. The upper of these incorporates a hand-hold. There is also a retractable footstep, lowered by pulling an external lowering handle, which retracts automatically when the undercarriage selector lever is moved to the “up” position.

Gloster Meteor

Climbing in and out of the Meteor cockpit with a parachute alone is fairly easy – but if a K-type dinghy is attached to the seat pack, the manoeuvre becomes extremely awkward. Installation of a Martin-Baker Mk. 3 seat with fitted dinghy and parachute, enabling the pilot to get in and out of the cockpit with agility, will be a welcome improvement. (This seat was illustrated in THE AEROPLANE for March 30 in a summary of a lecture on the problems of pilot ejection). The Martin-Baker Mk. 1 ejector seat is a standard fitting to all Mark 8s and is fired by pulling out a large, red handle immediately above the headrest. This handle draws out from the headrest a flexible face blind, which protects the occupant from the effects of the airstream at high speed. Knee-guards are fitted to the seat pan to prevent the knees from fouling the cockpit side, during an emergency exit, and with footrests to hold the feet and legs firm at the moment of ejection. Chutes allowing the feet to slide direct from the rudder pedals to the footrests without raising them off the floor (which would be almost impossible if the aircraft was subject to positive acceleration at the moment of escape) are also provided.

As already mentioned, the single-piece moulded Perspex canopy with its metal rear portion is electrically operated. It can, however, be pushed back by hand from the outside of the aircraft, after it has been released from its operating mechanism by turning the external release handle, which frees the clutch. From the inside, the hood is operated by two push-buttons situated beneath the cockpit coaming on the starboard side. The closing button operates immediately, but there is a 15-second time lag on the opening button, to allow the pressure seal to deflate.

Pressurization of the cabin is automatic, if the selector lever is in the appropriate notch. An automatic valve starts to increase the pressure at 7,000 ft., and at 24,000 ft. the full differential pressure is 3 lb. per sq. in. Cabin altitude at 10,000 ft., 20,000 ft., 30,000 ft. and 40,000 ft. is 7,500 ft.; 13,000 ft.; 17,000 ft., and 23,000 ft. respectively. Cabin temperature is automatically controlled by a thermostat.

Cockpit layout is traditionally Meteoric with everything coming easily to hand, but positioning of switches and levers gives the impression of being rather haphazard, although no doubt there are good reasons for the various locations. Low- and high-pressure pumps are situated on each side of the seat pan, moving in a vertical plane. The throttles, as on other Meteors, are mounted on a rail on the port side of the cockpit and have built-in friction. The starboard engine throttle lever incorporates the radio transmit button.


Gloster Meteor cockpit

ORDERLY ARRAY – As is usual with a modern fighter, the Meteor’s cockpit gives the impression of being crowded with instruments, levers and switches; but everything comes easily to hand – or eye – to the initiated. The throttles are mounted on a rail on the port side: below them is the dive-brake lever, with undercarriage and flap controls on the port side of the instrument panel. “Aeroplane” photograph

Below the throttles is the dive-brake lever, and just forward, on the port side of the instrument panel, are the undercarriage and flap levers. These have been extended to allow the occupant, who is seated farther aft than in previous Meteors, to reach them without difficulty. Trimmer controls and the fuel-balance cock are somewhat awkwardly placed to the left of the seat pan, and access to them is obstructed by the knee guards of the ejector seat. However, as changes in trim in general flying are negligible and the balance cock is infrequently used, the positioning is of minor importance, and regular pilots of the type will soon accustom themselves to the peculiarity. The rudder trimmer is a small knob, but quite adequate for the job.

A G.4.F compass is fitted in place of a directional gyro on the instrument panel, which is quite conventional. Above the panel is a retractable gunsight, and below are the oil pressure gauges; the phase meter; and three fuel gauges – one for each tank. On the starboard side are the engine fire-extinguisher buttons; pitot-head heater switch; G.4.F compass switch, and other switches. All emergency operating levers, including the emergency undercarriage handle, are on the right-hand side of the seat. The canopy jettison handle is below the cockpit coaming on the right-hand side also. The stick-type control column has a pistol-grip, which incorporates the bomb-release and rocket-firing buttons. The brake lever is mounted forward and, to my mind, is rather awkward to operate in the event of having to apply the brakes hard after landing; it is difficult to reach with the fingers while holding the stick back.

For engine starting, the action is first to have the ground crew turn on the ground/flight switch; ensure that the throttles are fully closed, and then turn on the booster pump of the required engine and press the starting button. The rest can be left to the main starter, which energizes the automatic equipment in the aircraft. There is a pause of about five seconds before the r.p.m. indicator starts climbing and at 1,000 r.p.m. the high-pressure cock lever is eased slowly down to the halfway mark. As the r.p.m. increase it is moved to its full extent, and when the engine reaches the idling speed of 3,000 r.p.m. the other engine may be started.

To move the aircraft forward, about 8,000 r.p.m. are required, but once safe taxiing speed is reached the throttles may be closed right down. There is enough thrust at idling r.p.m to propel the aircraft over smooth surfaces. The use of brakes at all times while taxiing is recommended except when negotiating sharp corners, for which alternate engines can be used. Visibility forward and to the side is excellent and the only disturbing feature of the windscreen is the de-mister filaments that run parallel horizontally. Rearward vision, on the other hand, is very bad because of the metal rear portion of the hood. Obviously, there is much room for improvement here; rearward vision is of paramount importance in a fighter. On the ground, the aircraft moves with extreme smoothness and the manoeuvrability of a high-powered car. Brakes are good and effective and it is possible to pull up in a very short space in the event of an emergency. Communication by RT is clear, but at the time of my flight Gloster’s frequency seemed to have a built-in background of news bulletins and musical programmes, which at high altitude gave the impression of proximity to harps and angels.

“Aeroplane” photograph

For take-off, elevator and rudder trimmers are set to neutral; the flaps raised, unless required for short runway take-off – for which they are lowered a small amount, and the dive-brakes housed. Pitot-head heater, heated windscreen panel, and G.4.F compass switches should also be turned on.

The windscreen panel switches are not grouped together – which is rather unsatisfactory. One of them is on the windscreen frame and the other on the starboard side of the cockpit. Prior to take-off, the aircraft is taxied forward to straighten the nosewheel. This done, the brakes are fully applied and the throttles are opened gently to 12,000-13,000 r.p.m., whereupon the aircraft will start to creep against the brakes. (If it starts to creep before the r.p.m. reach 12,000, the flight should be abandoned until the brakes are adjusted).

On releasing the brakes the aircraft moves forward with considerable speed and as the throttles are opened to the full extent, acceleration is very marked. There is no tendency to swing whatsoever. At 80 knots the nose-wheel eases off the ground and before 120 knots are reached, the aircraft unsticks – all with slight coaxing from the pilot.

One has to be quite smart in retracting the undercarriage once the aircraft is airborne, as the speed starts to build up very rapidly. I had the A.S.I. registering 170 knots by the time I crossed the Moreton Valence aerodrome boundary. Undercarriage retraction, which is very much slower on the Mk. 8 compared with previous Meteors, causes no apparent change in trim. The reason for extending the time for retraction and extension is to prevent overstraining and breaking the hydraulic jacks, which have, in the past, been common Meteor faults.

After take-off, I stooged around the circuit getting the feel of the controls while waiting for Sqdn. Ldr. Waterton, Gloster’s Chief Test Pilot, to take off in a Mk. 7 with our photographer. By comparison with the “Seven” the controls as a whole are far lighter and answer to movements of the stick with greater rapidity – especially in the case of the ailerons which are delightfully light. Rolling is a sheer joy and I was tempted to devote most of the flight indulging in the strenuous art of jet aerobatics.

Formation on the photographic machine was quite easy, but Bill Waterton decided to take over the positioning to enable the photographer to get some really close shots. On completion of the photographic interlude, I opened the taps fully and climbed to 27,000 ft.

Gloster Meteror

“Aeroplane” photograph

To get the best rate of climb with full power, a speed of 285 knots should be assumed, decreasing by two knots every 1,000 ft. above 10,000ft.; three knots per 1,000 ft. above 20,000 ft., and four knots per 1,000ft. above 30,000 ft. Climb on the Machmeter is recommended, and the settings, when no wing tanks are carried should be: 0.5 I.M.N (Indicated Mach Number) from sea level to 10,000 ft.; 0.55 from 10,000 to 20,000 ft.; 0.6 from 20,000 to 30,000ft.; 0.65 above 30,000 ft.; and 0.70 above 40,000ft.

When climbing at full power one has to be far more jet pipe-temperature conscious than r.p.m. conscious, and it is advisable to keep an eye on the temperature gauges all the way up. At 14,600, or peak r.p.m., the temperatures are in the region of 640 degrees C. The maximum engine limitation for the climb at full throttle is 15 minutes, and the temperatures should at no time be allowed to exceed 680 degrees C. Care must be taken to avoid exceeding the engine limitations at high altitudes. Aircraft attitude in the climb is extremely steep and it is hard to believe that it can be sustained. All the same, the high angle of the nose is maintained all the way up. It is quite amusing to watch the altimeter rapidly unwinding itself as fast as it can go and the V.S.I. needle practically round the dial. The present V.S.I. seems quite inadequate for the job in hand and a new one could well be designed for fast-climbing aircraft.

Time taken to 27,000 ft. from 5,000 ft., where I left the photographic machine, took about 5 minutes 45 seconds. This more or less agrees with the climb performance graph for the “clean” aircraft. At height, as at low level, longitudinal changes in trim are slight. The ailerons are effective but increase in heaviness as speed is increased. The rudder is powerful and effective but heavy and very sensitive to trim at high speeds. While at height, I opened up to try out the effects of compressibility. At 0.78 I.M.N. there is a slight nose-up change in trim – but considerably less than on the Mk. 7. It is unadvisable to trim forward, as the nose will go down quite rapidly the moment power output is reduced. Slight snaking is apparent, but on the whole the aircraft is very steady, and provided the rudder is held firm the aircraft is a good gun platform at these high speeds.

Above 0.78 I.M.N. – I pushed on to 0.82 – the starboard wing starts to drop and the aeroplane tends to yaw to starboard, the out-of-trim force increasing quick rapidly. Immediately the throttles are closed full control is regained. The dive-brakes, fitted above and below the wing centre-section, between the engine nacelles and the fuselage, are effective in the extreme and may be used right up to the aircraft’s limiting speed. In a dive from 20,000 ft. they will hold the aircraft well within the limiting speeds.

“Aeroplane” photograph

The Meteor 8 presents no problems in the stall. Warning of its approach is given by slight elevator buffeting some 10 knots before it occurs. This becomes more pronounced as the stall approaches, and slight fore-and-aft pitching is accompanied by vibration. At the stall, which occurs at 100 knots indicated, the aircraft wallows and does not seem to want to drop its nose. It does go down eventually after a little persistent hauling on the control column. Either wing may drop, but not very much.

With dive-breaks extended, the stalling speed increases by some two to three knots, but with flaps and undercarriage lowered it decreases by about eight knots. The use of medium power reduces the speed by a further three knots. The same warning characteristics apply to all types of stall. Buffering in the stall is so strong that the instruments on the sprung panel become a complete blur. Recovery in all cases is rapid and straightforward. Single-engined performance is exceptionally good and “flying on one” presents no difficulties. At cruising r.p.m. at 5,000 ft. a speed of 260 knots can be maintained quite easily, while the rudder trimmer holds the aircraft straight. I was told that it was possible to fly right down to the stall on one engine, but I found that in practice it was very difficult indeed. One needs the foot strength of an Arsenal footballer to keep the aircraft straight at speeds below 120 knots.

As I said earlier, aerobatics in the Mk. 8 are a sheer joy, although manoeuvres in the looping plane tend to cause considerable popping in the ears. It is no exception to start a loop at 10,000 ft. and to go over the top at 16,000 ft. For the approach and landing, following the cockpit check, the turn into wind should be made at approximately 130-140 knots. The approach speed should then gradually be reduced during finals, reaching 110 knots on crossing the boundary. Throttles closed, the aircraft settles down on to the main wheels and remains in the tail-down attitude until the elevator becomes ineffective. The nose-wheel then drops gently on to the ground, and the use of fairly coarse brake brings the aeroplane to a standstill. Finally, to stop the engines the high-pressure cocks are turned off, in addition to all switches and appropriate knobs.

In the event of a baulked landing – depending on the fuel available – the throttles should be fully opened; the undercarriage raised once airborne again and the flaps progressively raised. Once the A.S.I. needle registers 155 knots start to climb and repeat the exercise. A minimum of 40 gallons should be allowed for an overshoot on every flight. After my final landing at Moreton Valence I was very gratified to hear the controller come over with: “Very smooth…” on the RT. A little self-flattery perhaps on my part, if the message was intended for me.

POST-FLIGHT DISCUSSION – The author discusses the finer points of Meteor flying with Sqdn. Ldr. Waterton, Gloster’s Chief Test Pilot (left), and Mr M. Kilburn, one of the company’s production test pilots (centre).
“Aeroplane” photograph

To sum up – the Meteor 8 has an outstanding performance for an aeroplane of its class. This performance, accompanied by many docile characteristics; ample warning at each end of the speed range; higher critical Mach Number; and improved all-round manoeuvrability at high, as well as low, speeds, is proving valuable to the R.A.F. and to the air forces of the Commonwealth and of other nations.

Little more can be expected from an aircraft of this generation of fighters, than that already available in the Meteor 8. It represents a tremendous achievement, and it is doubtful whether it will be bettered until newer designs come into service.

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