Meteor Night Fighters
Aviation historian Malcolm V Lowe details the development and RAF career of Armstrong Whitworth’s radar-toting Meteor night fighters
Gloster’s Meteor is fittingly regarded as one of the iconic products of Britain’s aircraft industry.
It was the first jet fighter to reach operational service with the RAF, and the type had an illustrious service career in British colours. Meteors were manufactured in a variety of significant versions, initially as single-seat day fighters and two-seat trainers, and later as a two-seat, radar-equipped night fighter. It was in the nocturnal role that the Meteor served well into the 1950s, and although ‘after-dark’ Meteors were regarded as an interim type until a new generation of jet-powered ‘all-weather’ fighters left the drawing board, they served the RAF well during their decade or so of frontline service.
The history of the Meteor itself dates to the early days of successful jet engine development in Britain. Design work in earnest began during 1941, and the first Meteor flew in March 1943. Early production examples entered RAF service with 616 Squadron Auxiliary Air Force during the summer of the following year. The type duly proved to be successful and had considerable growth potential, resulting in continuing development by the Meteor’s creator, the Gloster Aircraft Company.
Events during World War Two confirmed the overriding necessity for radar-equipped night fighters. At the end of the conflict, the RAF’s nocturnal fighter force was concentrated on the de Havilland Mosquito, which had admirably fulfilled this specialised and increasingly sophisticated role. However, the advance of technology and performance required a new generation of night fighting warplanes for the post-war era, especially in the face of the increasing threat posed by the Soviet Union. In response, Britain’s Air Ministry formulated Specification F.44/46, which was released officially during early 1947, for an advanced, jet-powered night fighter Mosquito replacement. This requirement was later updated as F.4/48, but led to a protracted development period in which an eventual frontline type emerged well into the 1950s, the delta-winged Gloster Javelin all-weather fighter. Clearly, an interim machine was needed until the F.4/48 requirement could be fulfilled, and thus was born the night-fighting Gloster Meteor. Adapting the single-seat daytime Meteor, which did not have radar, into a capable night fighter seemed an obvious solution, but Gloster at that time was fully committed to day fighter Meteor development and manufacture. Therefore, the project was passed to Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft (AWA), another member of the Hawker Siddeley grouping that also included Gloster.
Development work by AWA was covered by a different official Specification, F.24/48, issued in early 1949, and Operational Requirement OR.265. The new type was based on the existing Meteor T.7 two-seat trainer, because two crew members were vital, but many modifications were also necessary – although as much as possible of existing Meteor structure was intended to be used to save time. The vertical tail design was altered from the T.7’s prominent rounded shape to the F.8’s more angular unit; the forward fuselage was completely revised and lengthened to allow radar to be installed, and the wings were modified outboard of the engines to give necessary greater span – similar to that of the early Meteor Mk.III. Armstrong Whitworth modified an existing Meteor T.7, VW413, into a trials/prototype configuration at Bitteswell, Leicestershire, and it first flew in late January 1949, with many of the intended changes incorporated. Further development work, and successful testing with the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment at Boscombe Down, led to production contracts that eventually included four distinct Meteor night fighter marks. The type was given the prefix ‘NF’, for night fighter, the first production model being the NF.11. It received the company designation G.41L, which eventually covered all nocturnal Meteors.
The rest of this article is in the October issue of FlyPast. It’s available in UK shops via the website – www.flypast.com. Alternatively, you can download a digital edition from www.pocketmags.com – simply search ‘FlyPast’.