Armstrong-Whitworth (Gloster) Meteor Night Fighters

NF14

In the immediate post-war period the RAF took very little interest in night fighter development. With the Luftwaffe destroyed and the lack of any credible night bomber threat from Eastern Europe the proven wartime De Havilland Mosquito force remained the RAF’s primary means of night bomber interception. Development of a jet powered night fighter was for the moment delayed until such a time a requirement was deemed necessary and the infantile technology had caught up to compensate for the weight penalty the night fighting equipment imposed.

TU4

Tu-4 “Bull”

Then on August 3rd 1947 military observers in Moscow were stunned to see what appeared to be B-29 Superfortresses taking part in the Aviation Day parade. In reality these were reverse engineered B-29s built as the Tupolev Tu-4 “Bull” and they caused a lot of concern in the west for it showed that the Soviets now had a genuine strategic bomber with very high speed and altitude performance. The west would later discover that the Tu-4 was inferior to the B-29 but nevertheless it allowed the Soviet aviation industry to leap-frog ahead and the technological lessons learned from the Tu-4 would be put in to more advanced designs later (in fact the Tu-16 “Badger” and the mighty Tu-95″ Bear both owe a lot of their fuselage design to the B-29/Tu-4). With the blockade of Berlin a year later and the start of the Cold War a confrontation with the Soviet Union was looking increasingly likely. If that happened the RAF’s Mosquito night fighters would prove inadequate against the Tu-4 and with more powerful jet engines now available it was decided to proceed with development of jet night fighters.

De Havilland Vampire NF.10

De Havilland Vampire NF.10

The RAF was not the first air force to contemplate using jet night fighters. The wartime Luftwaffe tested their advanced Messerschmitt Me 262 in the night fighter role producing the Me 262B-1a/U-1 and these scored a handful of kills against RAF night bombers. In the late 1940s the RAF decided that an interim jet powered night fighter based on the jets already in service should be developed pending the development and introduction of a dedicated new aircraft. The De Havilland company had already produced a jet powered night fighter by mating the radar, equipment and cockpit from the Mosquito to a Vampire airframe. This produced the Vampire NF.10 which was primarily for the export market but with an embargo in place against its main customer, Egypt, the RAF decided to take them on and this became the first operational RAF jet night fighter in 1951. The RAF was not overly impressed by it however and it was seen as a short term solution until a more powerful jet powered Gloster Meteor could be produced in sufficient numbers. This actually put the Vampire NF.10 in the unenviable position of being an interim aircraft until the “interim night fighter”, the Meteor, became available.

Meteor T.7

Meteor T.7

Gloster had begun work on a night fighter version of the Meteor as far back as 1946 when the RAF issued specification F44/46 calling for studies in to future night fighter designs. The natural starting point was the Meteor T.7 trainer as this already had provision for a second crewmember. When the RAF became serious about producing a jet night fighter Gloster decided that they were going to start from scratch with a new design that ultimately lead to the Gloster Javelin all-weather fighter series but the RAF needed a powerful night fighter in the interim and so Armstrong-Whitworth were commissioned to produce the Meteor night fighter. Armstrong-Whitworth had extensive experience building Meteors under a sub-contract with Gloster and so the tooling was largely in place. Gloster handed over their own studies and provided them with an early Meteor T.7 to serve as the prototype.


Meteor NF.11

Meteor NF11

To produce the NF.11 the T.7 was modified with an enlarged and lengthened nose to house the AI.10 radar set. This was the same radar set that had guided De Havilland Mosquitoes against the German Luftwaffe in World War Two and was essentially an American SCR-720 set developed for the Northrop P-61 Black Widow. The radar antenna spun around on its vertical axis through an entire 360 degrees 10 times every second while at the same time it slowly nodded up and down to provide altitude coverage between +50 and -20 degrees. This provided the observer with a 150 degree scan in front of the aircraft which produced a c-shaped image on his screen due to the transmitter switching off when it was pointed back towards the aircraft. In order to fit the motor that drove the scanner assembly a small bump under the nose was required and this became one of the distinguishing features of this variant. This set had a range of almost 10 miles against a bomber sized target when atmospheric conditions were good.

The radar and accompanying equipment in the rear cockpit added almost 3,000lbs to the weight of the aircraft and this required structural and aerodynamic changes to compensate. The wings were modified to feature the longer outer wings of the high altitude PR.10 variant. The original Meteor day fighters had four 20mm cannons in the nose but the fitting of the radar made it almost impossible to retain the guns here and so they were relocated to the wings just passed engines; a major modification as it meant the access doors had to be designed to help take the stress of high speed flight. The NF.11 had four Hispano V 20mm cannons each with 160 rounds of ammunition. One of the last features added to the aircraft was the fitting of a Meteor F.8 tail which was more streamlined than the T.7.

The modified T.7 prototype first flew in 1949 albeit without radar. The first full NF.11 flew on May 31st 1950 and the RAF was suitably impressed to order 200 examples with service entry beginning in 1951. Pilots transitioning from Mosquitoes were pleased with their new mount which offered height and speed advantages over their wartime aircraft. Pilots coming from day fighter Meteor squadrons were not so impressed however. The aircraft was significantly slower with its Derwent 8 engines taking it to just 578mph compared to the Meteor F.8 which topped out at 616mph. It was nevertheless capable for intercepting the Tu-4 which was seen as its main quarry and so the speed criticism was largely irrelevant.

One thing that was retained from the T.7 that was universally loathed by aircrew, groundcrew and enthusiasts alike was the heavily framed canopy. This was an exceptionally heavy component for its purpose that was awkward to handle and restricted the view outside the cockpit. It’s strange that Gloster adopted this design and no doubt newly qualified pilots were amazed at the view the actual fighter version afforded them after qualifying in the trainer.Gloster Meteor Fireflash NF.11 A Meteor NF.11 conducted the first launch of a British air-to-air missile in 1951 when a modified example fired the first Fairey Fireflash missile.

  • Powerplant: 2x Derwent 8 (3,700lbs thrust each)
  • Max Speed: 541mph
  • Service Ceiling: 40,000ft
  • Length: 49ft 7in (15.09m)
  • Wingspan: 39ft 11in (12.18m)
  • Armament: 4x 20mm Hispano V cannons

Meteor NF.12 

Meteor NF12

As the NF.11 was solidifying itself in service work was underway on a more capable version that featured an Anglicised version of the American APQ-43 radar in an even longer nose. Known as the AI.21 in British service this radar featured a 200kW transmitter gave a range of up to as much as 25 miles (40 km) when conditions permitted. It also included various beacon homing modes, as well as an air-to-surface mode for detecting ships. The Mk.21 differed from its APQ-43 forebear in that it was fitted with a British strobe unit and had variable pulse repetition frequency settings.

To help address the balance issues that resulted from this the tail was given a noticeable extension that had an almost crooked appearance. The new radar offered much improved signal processing over the AI.10 installed in the NF.11 but it was never able to supersede the older model and only 97 were built. To help compensate for the marginal weight increase more powerful Derwent 9 engines were fitted that produced a mere 100lbs of extra thrust each. The NF.12 entered service with the RAF in 1953.

  • Powerplant: 2x Derwent 9 (3,800lbs thrust each)
  • Max Speed: 541mph
  • Service Ceiling: 40,000ft
  • Length: 49ft 7in (15.09m)
  • Wingspan: 39ft 11in (12.18m)
  • Armament: 4x 20mm Hispano V cannons

Meteor NF.13 

The Meteor NF.13 also appeared in 1953 and was essentially a tropicalised version of the NF.11 for use by the Middle East Air Force. In the 1950s the RAF still had huge commitments in the region and with the Soviet Union taking more of an interest in supporting Marxist and anti-western uprisings the need for modern jet night fighters became more evident. The NF.13 was produced by the fitting of enlarged intakes for the Derwent 8 engines that helped compensate for the ambient heat in places such as Aden that reduced thrust in jet aircraft. The aircraft were also fitted with a radio compass to help with navigation over large featureless deserts and to improve crew comfort a cold air unit was fitted that blew cool air in to the cockpit. Forty examples of this version were delivered to the MEAF and they would serve in the Suez War in 1956.


Meteor NF.14

Meteor NF14

The Meteor NF.14 was the definitive night fighter variant of the Meteor. Effectively an updated NF.12 the aircraft finally dispensed with the loathed heavily framed canopy inherited from its Meteor T.7 forebear. Instead a “full blown” two piece canopy was developed that afforded the crew a superb view of the outside world. As well as saving a few pounds in weight and being easier to handle the new canopy was intended to help the crew spot their targets at night and observe their tracer fire more effectively to allow them to make corrections if needed. The aircraft retained the Anglicized APQ-43 radar set designated as the AI.21 from the NF.12.

Despite efforts to save weight the aircraft was at the end of its development life and the Derwent 9 engines couldn’t propel it any faster than 576mph under the best of conditions. By the time the NF.14 was making its presence known in frontline squadron service the Soviets were deploying the Tu-16 “Badger” bomber which was almost 70mph faster than the Meteor making interception nearly impossible. This fact served to spur on development of the Javelin and from 1954 the Meteor night fighter squadrons began to disband and re-equip with new types. The first models to go were the NF.11s which were drawn down between 1954 and 1955 followed by the tropicalized NF.13 variant which left frontline service in 1958. Strangely, two Meteor NF.11 squadrons found a new (albeit short) lease of life in the coastal defence role strafing surface vessels. In the remaining years the aircraft had left it primarily served abroad in areas where the threat level was not as sophisticated as in Europe such as the Far East although night fighter Meteors remained in Germany until 1960.

No.60 Squadron was the last Meteor night fighter squadron, disbanding at RAF Seletar, Singapore in 1961. It therefore also holds the accolade of being the last frontline Meteor fighter squadron in RAF service. In 1969 the Biafran government attempted to smuggle two Meteor NF.14s to the African breakaway republic to help in its war against Nigeria but the effort failed when one crashed in to the sea on its delivery flight while the other was impounded at Bissau in Portuguese Guinea.

  • Powerplant: 2x Derwent 8 (3,700lbs thrust each)
  • Max Speed: 576mph
  • Service Ceiling: 40,000ft
  • Length: 49ft 7in (15.09m)
  • Wingspan: 39ft 11in (12.18m)
  • Armament: 4x 20mm Hispano V cannons
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18 responses to “Armstrong-Whitworth (Gloster) Meteor Night Fighters

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