11 of the Coolest Jet Planes from the Early Days of the Jet Age

These 11 early jets helped changed the world of flight forever.
Christopher McFadden

War is a terrible thing, but the race to get one up on the enemy often leads to massive leaps in technological development. Originally designed for war, jet engines have changed the world for many millions of people today. 

Here then are some of the early pioneers of jet-engined planes that arose during WW2 and the years that followed.


What were some of the best early jets?

And so, without further ado, here are some of the very best early jets from the 1940s. This list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.

1. It all began with the mighty Messerschmitt 262

early jet planes me 262
Source: Julian Herzog/Wikimedia Commons

One of the most iconic jet fighters of the 1940s was the mighty Messerschmitt 262. Seeing active service towards the end of the Second World War, this aircraft could have turned the tide of battle if the Third Reich had produced them in enough numbers.

Officially the world's first-ever jet fighter, Allied forces were taken completely by surprise when they first encountered them in the skies above Europe. Equipped with two Junkers Jumo 004B-1 turbojets, it almost made Allied propeller-powered planes obsolete overnight.

But they were not invulnerable to Allied fighters. American P-51s proved to be more than capable of combating them in the air -- albeit using special tactics. Of the 1,400, or so, produced, only 300 ever saw active service. 

2. Lest we forget the Arado Ar 234

early jets arado 234
Captured AR-234. Source: SDSASM Archives/Flickr

The Third Reich didn't just create the first jet-powered fighter. They also produced the world's first operational jet-powered bomber -- The Arado AR 234

It was designed and built by the German company Arado and actually saw combat right at the end of the Second World War. Like the ME-262, its combat effectiveness was restricted because of its limited production numbers.

It was used mainly for recon missions but was deployed on some bombing raids where it proved to be very effective. It soon proved very difficult for propeller-powered fighters to intercept.

One even managed to fly over the U.K. in April of 1945

3. The De Havilland Vampire quickly became a legend

early jets de havilland vampire
Source: Arnaud Gaillard/Wikimedia Commons

As impressive as the early German jets were, other nations were also able to produce their own jets prior to the end of the Second World War. One of these was the British De Havilland Vampire

Produced by the same company that made the awesome Mosquito, this early jet was very impressive indeed. Not to mention quite beautiful. 

While it didn't see active service until 1946, the Vampire would quickly replace many piston-engined fighters in the RAF.

4. The Gloster Meteor was a legendary early jet

early jets meteor
Source: Mike Freer/Wikimedia Commons

The only Allied jet plane to be used in anger during the Second World War, the Gloster Meteor was one heck of a plane. It was the first jet-powered fighter ever produced by the British and was powered by turbojets pioneered by Frank Whittle and his company.

While not the most aerodynamic plane in its day, it quickly proved to be a very potent combat fighter. The Meteor would serve in the RAF until the mid-1950s, and just under 4,000 of them were produced. 

It would also serve in air forces for other countries like Australia, Belgium, and Argentina. 

5. The Heinkel HE 162 "People's Fighter" had a quite interesting design

early jets He-162
Source: SDASM Archives/Flickr

Yet another pioneering early jet produced by the Germans was the HE 162 Volksjäger (People's Fighter). This single-engine jet-powered fighter was cobbled together quickly to help defend the homeland during the Allies advancement into Germany in the dying days of WW2.

It was made primarily from materials like wood as metal was quickly in short supply in Germany at the time. It was powered by a BMW 003 engine and first saw active service in 1945. 

The plane would prove difficult to fly at the best of times, with even experienced pilots struggling to keep control of it.

6. The Lockheed P-80 "Shooting Star" was America's first jet fighter

early jets P-80
Source: USAF/Wikimedia Commons

The Lockheed P-80 "Shooting Star" was the USAF's very first jet-powered fighter and it was first designed in 1943. 

Some prototypes and early production models were delivered prior to the end of WW2, and some even saw limited service over the skies of Italy in 1945. But it really came into its own during the Korean War. 

It would prove to be a very capable aircraft and is widely considered the plane that ushered in the "Jet Age" for the USAF. The introduction of the Soviet MiG-15 soon forced the USAF to replace the P-80 with the F-86 Sabre as an air superiority fighter. 

7. The McDonnell FH Phantom was the first jet to land on an American aircraft carrier

early jets phantom
Source: U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons

The McDonnell FH Phantom, designed in the early-1940s, was first delivered to the USAF after the close of WW2.

It was a twin-engined aircraft and quickly proved that jet-engined planes land and take off from aircraft carriers. The success of this jet aircraft would cement McDonnell as an important naval aircraft supplier. 

The Phantom would remain in active service until the mid-1950s. 

8. The Nakajima Kikka could have changed the shape of the war in the Pacific

early jets kikka
Source: Hohum/Wikimedia Commons

Modeled on the German ME-262, the Japanese Nakajima Kikka was Japan's very first jet-powered aircraft. It was developed towards the end of WW2 and never saw service during the war.

Officially known as Kōkoku Nigō Heiki ("Imperial Weapon No.2"), only a handful of them were ever built. It was envisaged for use as an anti-ship aircraft, including in Kamakaze roles. 

Thankfully the Allied ships would be spared facing off with these aircraft before they could be completed. 

9. Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-9 was plagued with technical problems

early jets MiG-9
Source: Mike1979 Russia/Wikimedia Commons

The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-9 was the very first turbojet developed by the Russian aircraft manufacturer and powered by reverse-engineered BMW 003 engines.

The MiG-9 enjoyed some success but was plagued with various problems like engine flameouts when firing its guns during flight. It had a very short service life and was ultimately replaced by the vastly superior MiG-15. 

All in all, just over 370 were ever produced and only three are known to survive today. 

10. The P-59 never really took off

jet planes P-59
Source: Piotr Mikołajski/Wikimedia Commons

The Bell P-59 was yet another early jet plane. Nicknamed the "Airacomet", this plane was the first twin-engined fighter ever produced by the United States. 

It was also the first jet plane to feature air inlet nacelles into the main fuselage. 

It first flew in 1942, but the USAF was not very impressed with its performance and canceled the contract. For this reason, no P-59s ever saw combat but they did influence the design of future turbojet aircraft in the U.S.

11. The Yakovlev Yak-15 was yet another interesting first-generation jet

early jet planes yak-15
Source: Alan Wilson/Wikimedia Commons

And finally, the Yakovlev Yak-15 was an early pioneer in jet-engined aircraft. Codenamed "Feather" by NATO, this Soviet turbojet fighter was developed by the Yakovlev design bureau (OKB) just after the end of WW2.

Its main propulsion was reverse-engineered from German Junkers Jumo 004 engines and was originally planned to be a piston-engined plane. Less than 280 were ever built, and it was mainly used to train piston-engined pilots for the use of jets. 

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