Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
Yet another title in the ‘Boys’ series published by Grub Street, Meteor Boys contains vivid descriptions by forty Meteor pilots of their experiences flying Great Britain’s first operational jet fighter. Compared with its German contemporary the Me 262 Sturmvogel, the Meteor was a fairly pedestrian design, however, its centrifugal Derwent jet engines were more reliable than the German axial flow engines and the airframe was remarkably robust. My first recollection of the Meteor was when I was 6 years old; my father was Station Commander at RAF Thorney Island where 3 squadrons of Meteor 4s were based. They made such a deep impression on me that I decided on my future career at that early age. The exploits of those pilots who flew the Meteor in those far off days, when the jet age was in its infancy, make fascinating reading in our risk averse, health and safety conscious era. Handling the primitive jet engines was very challenging for the pilots, who were all well used to powerful piston engines with rapid throttle response.
The sheer speed of the Meteor and its enormous appetite for fuel caught many out. There were many casualties, especially as the Meteor was not equipped with an ejector seat until the F8 appeared in the early 1950s. The Meteor held two traps for the unwary, its single engine handling at low speeds and the ‘Phantom Dive’. There were many accidents, usually fatal, during practice single engine flying when an engine was normally shut down leaving little chance of recovery from a poorly handled or baulked approach. The ‘Phantom Dive’ occurred if the airbrakes were left out when the landing gear was selected down. The main wheels came down one at a time so a powerful rolling dive developed from which there was no recovery possible from circuit height, when this normally happened. Indeed, the RAF’s last flying Meteor was lost this way in 1988 at the Coventry Air Show. Sometimes we never learn.
The book begins with a thoughtful preface written by the Right Honourable Lord Tebbit, who flew Meteors with 604 Squadron RAuxAF until it was disbanded in 1957. It continues by describing the Meteor’s operational service in the last year of World War 2; subsequent chapters cover the Meteor’s work as a day fighter, a mount for the Auxiliaries, its employment as a night fighter and its use as an advanced trainer. Lesser- known aspects of its service in the roles of fighter reconnaissance, high level photo reconnaissance, target facilities and as a stop-gap trainer when the Gnat suffered availability problems in the 1960s are also well described. There are many contributors well-known to an RAF pilot of my generation. It is quite amazing to discover that our first ever operational jet fighter is still doing valuable service today as a test vehicle for Martin Baker Aircraft’s wonderful ejection seats. Dave Southwood (one of my more successful students and noted test pilot) gives an excellent description of how this vintage jet fighter is being flown today in the furtherance of ejection seat development; the operation of the sole single seat F8 still flying in Australia is also well documented.
My first experience of flying in a jet occurred at RAF Biggin Hill in 1955, when, at the tender age of 12, I managed to persuade my uncle, who was commanding 615 Squadron, to let me have a trip in a Meteor T7. I was strapped in with no hope of ever abandoning the aircraft, we got airborne and beat up my school and did some aerobatics. I was hooked, so when I discovered that Meteor Boys was being promoted at a book signing at the Duxford September Air Show, I had to go and buy one. It was money well spent, especially as it has some notable signatures on the flyleaf, including that of Lord Tebbit.
I strongly recommend this book.