High Desert Hangar Stories: First WWII Allied jet fighter finds new home at Planes of Fame

by Bob Alvis, special to Aerotech News 
It’s no big secret that I love the sleek lines of some of the British aircraft through the years. Researching the history of these vintage warbirds, you discover just how important many of these designs were when it came to advancements in aviation.

Coming across an old article about the Gloster Meteor, I was happy to not only discover a storied past, but that we have some local Aerospace Valley history with these birds as well. When it comes to flight test firsts, the Meteor was right up there with the flight test operations at Muroc in World War II and had many firsts that predated some of our own aircraft!

First some background about this sexy Brit and its development.

The Gloster Meteor was the first British operational jet aircraft and the only Allied jet used in combat in World War II, with design work beginning in 1940. Two engines were used, because the early turbo jets had insufficient thrust for the required performance of one engine. Taxi tests began in 1942 and in 1943, after design changes, the first flight took place in March of that year. In August 1944, the plane was put into active service and a Meteor, in service with the RAF 616 Squadron, claimed the first Allied jet fighter victory with the downing of a German V-1 flying bomb.

Al Letcher’s Meteor, currently on display at the Air Force Flight Test Museum at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. (Courtesy photograph)

The production Meteor F4 held the world speed record at 606 mph until 1945, and it was raised to 616 mph by another Meteor after that.

Picking up the phone and first talking to George Welch from the Air Force Flight Test Museum at Edwards AFB, I was informed that a picture exists of a Gloster Meteor with a P-59 at Muroc during World War II; the very first jets from both Allied countries sharing the ramp, in a photo that was probably a classified project at the time.

Picking up the phone again and talking with Steve Hinton from Fighter Rebuilders, which has both a Meteor and a P-59, he shared the mindset of the two countries and how they approached the construction of those early jets. The British took their time to come up with a workable, refined design, while we the Americans were just looking to get a jet in the air. The sleek and smooth design of the Meteor next to the, shall we say, “clunky” design of the Airacomet, said a lot about the rush to get those jets airborne and into combat.

The Meteors served many years in the service of countries around the world in different roles, and the proven airframe stood up well to hard use. Those early jet engines, that on many early jets were a constant maintenance nightmare, really were the standard on the Meteor for longevity and low maintenance.

The sleek lines of the Planes of Fame Meteor now housed in Chino, Calif. (Courtesy photograph)

So fast forward to last August and the arrival of a pristine, airworthy Gloster Meteor touching down at the Planes of Fame in Chino, Calif., and the staff walking out to greet this British classic and welcome it as a permanent flying addition to the museum’s collection of Warbirds! With the pandemic shutdown and restrictions, the aircraft’s arrival was just a blip on the radar. When viewing its two passes on YouTube at the Chino Airport, it’s really sad that the public could not be there to enjoy this special occasion — but it’s nice to hear Steve Hinton say the public will get a chance to enjoy it in flight at air shows in the coming years!

So with the arrival of this Meteor, my thoughts turned to the Air Force Flight Test Museum at Edwards.

During my call to George Welch, I brought up the Meteor that sits outside their museum that has some pretty cool history itself — thanks to a very passionate aviation enthusiast who, for years, called the Antelope Valley and Mojave Airport home. In the 1970s, Al Letcher was pretty much building his own RAF squadron at Mojave. His acquisitions of de Havilland Vampires, as well as a Meteor, were helping to fulfill that dream and for some years he worked on getting those birds airworthy. The nice thing about Letcher’s Meteor is that it was good to go from the very start — it had left England on June 18, 1975, and put down at Mojave on June 22, during the Mojave Air Races that year. It was not long until Al embraced the all-white paint scheme of the No. 616 Squadron in Belgium from 1945. Al felt that the Meteor could not be hangared due to its size, and that the white urethane paint scheme would be compatible with our desert climate. I will say that, seeing the photos of it in flight and on the ground, it sure was one beautiful jet and I bet you it turned a lot of heads wherever it went!

A 1945 photograph of an operational Gloster Meteor. (Courtesy photograph)

So, after all these years where did Mr. Letcher’s Meteor end up? After having my talk with Steve Hinton, he casually shared the information that the Meteor ended up at Edwards at the Flight Test Museum! Further into the conversation, it was also shared that at the time, it was the oldest flying allied jet in the world! So now with it becoming a static display, the recently acquired Gloster Meteor at Planes of Fame now holds the title of the oldest flying Allied jet of the World War II era.

So a pretty entertaining aspect of this story and this Edwards Museum Meteor has Al Letcher, Steve Hinton and George Welch crossing paths, as Steve told me the story about the filming of an episode of Wonder Woman at Chino. Al’s Meteor and Lynda Carter became on screen partners for an episode, while Steve and his crew could be seen in the background towing a Corsair. This bit of movie magic is now in the possession of the U.S. Air Force, the Edwards Flight Test Museum and George Welch — less Lynda, dang it!

I so love these beauties, am happy to share these photos and story, and look forward to seeing the Planes of Fame Meteor in the air! This is some really cool history that was the first in many aspects in aviation. It originated “across the pond,” far from the deserts of the Mojave, but now lives on here for future generations to enjoy!

So, until next time, carry on chaps! Bob out!

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