“The airspeed indicator was stuck in the red danger zone, which is over 1100kph. I noticed that rivets began popping out of the tops of the wings. The aircraft began vibrating and shaking wildly, banging my head against the sides of the cockpit,” Hans-Guido Mutke, Me 262 pilot.
For every famous pilot who flew the Me 262 in the last days of the war, there are a dozen more that history has all the but forgotten.
Fahnrich Hans-Guido Mutke looked certain to be just such an unremembered and uncelebrated pilot.
Born in Neisse, Germany, on Mar. 25, 1921, he became a medical student but was called up to join the war effort. After pilot training he joined Nachtjagdgeschwader 1 in 1942, flying Messerschmitt Bf 110s and Dornier 217s against British bombers.
Then, in the March of 1945, he was transferred to 10./EJG 2 (Erganzungsjagdgeschwader 2 or ‘Operational Fighter Training Group 2’) at Lechfeld for retraining on the Me 262, since his experience with twin-engine fighters made him an ideal candidate.
As told by Dan Sharp in his book Spitfires Over Berlin, on Apr. 9, Mutke was ordered to carry out a training mission at high altitude and therefore climbed to just over 36,000ft — close to the Me 262’s ceiling of 37,565ft. He was at this near-maximum altitude when he overheard a flight controller warning that a P-51 Mustang was about to intercept one of his fellow trainees and decided to fly down to help.
He pushed his Me 262 ‘White 9’ over into a steep 40-50° left bank with both engines on full power and plunged downwards.
In just a few seconds, the aircraft began to shudder violently.
Mutke himself recalled: “The airspeed indicator was stuck in the red danger zone, which is over 1100kph. I noticed that rivets began popping out of the tops of the wings. The aircraft began vibrating and shaking wildly, banging my head against the sides of the cockpit.
“I moved the stick wildly around the cockpit. For a brief moment, the aircraft responded to controls again, then went back out of control. The aircraft still did not respond to pressure on the stick so I changed the incidence of the tailplane.
“The speed dropped to 500kph, the aircraft stopped shaking and I regained control. After diving about three miles I was able to return to base. On the runway the mechanics were very surprised by the appearance of the aircraft, which looks as though it had been shaken by the hand of a giant.”
In another interview, Mutke stated: “What happened had never happened to another pilot as I entered a very dangerous realm without knowing it. I had no idea what was happening. I thought there was something wrong with the aircraft.”
The mechanics may have been bewildered by the state of Mutke’s jet fighter but his superiors were not impressed.
He said: “When I landed, the commander was furious and demanded to know if I had gone above the red fork mark of 950km.
“I said, ‘Of course not. You know, this might be a Monday production’. That means it was made the day after the workers had been drinking.”
Mutke soon discovered that the comrade to whose aid he had been rushing got shot down anyway, but had managed to parachute to safety.
And that might have been the end of the story.
During a conference to mark the 50th anniversary of jet powered light in 1989, Mutke mentioned his experiences of Apr. 9, 1945, to some of the experts present and they discussed with him the possibility that he might in fact broken the sound barrier some two years earlier than Chuck Yeager – who officially became the first man to go supersonic on Oct. 14, 1947.
The precise details of Mutke’s flight, the suitability or otherwise of the Me 262 for passing through the sound barrier, the accuracy of its in-flight instruments and the technical difficulties of proving or definitively disproving pilot’s story have occupied the minds of Me 262 enthusiasts and the aircraft’s detractors ever since.
Those who support his claim – he died on Apr. 8, 2004, donating his body to anatomist Gunther von Hagens – cite a handbook on Me 262 written by the USAAF in January 1946 based on tests of captured aircraft.
This states: “At speeds of 950 to 1000kph the airflow around the aircraft reaches the speed of sound, and it is reported that the control surfaces no longer affect the direction of flight. It is also reported that once the speed of sound is exceeded, this condition disappears and normal control is restored.”
Computer simulations carried out at Munich Technical University in 1999 concluded that the Me 262 might have been able to go supersonic.
Professor Otto Wagner told Reuters, which was reporting on Mutke’s claims in 2001: “I don’t want to exclude the possibility but I can imagine he may also have been just below the speed of sound and felt the buffeting, but did not go above Mach 1.”
In addition, engineers recreating the Me 262 at the time in the US, using modern engines in a replica airframe, said they believed Mutke might have been right.
Jim Byron of the Me 262 Project said: “We met with Herr Mutke and having listened to his story, we believe he could have accomplished this in the severe dive and engine flameout.”
Wartime flight tests by Messerschmitt engineers determined the Me 262 would become uncontrollable beyond Mach 0.86, leading to an ever steepening dive that could not be corrected by the pilot. Higher speeds would then result until the airframe came apart due to high G loads.
Some believe that Mutke’s changing the tailplane incidence enabled him to overcome the steepening dive and level out to regain control briefly at just above supersonic speed.
Sceptics have pointed to the unreliability of German measuring equipment during the later stages of the war and compressibility in pitot tubes that resulted in inaccurate readings close to the speed of sound.
Also counting against the Me 262 was its fuselage, designed without knowledge of the area rule, which would have resulted in very high drag at transonic speeds. Nevertheless, it is acknowledged that engine thrust combined with the pull of gravity during a steep dive might have supplied sufficient force to push the Me 262 through the sound barrier and into supersonic flight.
In all likelihood, while the air passing over Mutke’s aircraft might have exceeded Mach 1, his jet probably did not. However, it will never be known for certain just how fast he really went.
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Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and Noop1958 via Wikipedia