“The necessity is the mother of invention“.
And during war time, “necessity” is a constant companion in every single step towards victory or defeat. It can be translated as “surviving” and, in order to save and destroy lives, technology advanced fast. In the aviation field engineers and designers worked in a frenetic pace to create airplanes that could fly higher and faster than the enemy’s.
In a matter of just few years, war planes evolved from flimsy biplanes covered in canvas to full metal, supercharged killing machines.
By the end of the war they were flying at the edge of the speed of sound.
And so high that the crew wouldn’t survive without a pressurized environment.
Both sides pushed the concept of a piston-powered airplane to its limits.
The next step in this evolution was the jet propulsion and again, the necessities of war made both sides dig deep into this new technology.
Even if Hitler didn’t quite understand the kind of weapon the ME 262 was; just the fact the Germans successfully flew them in combat was the final proof that the piston-powered war planes were utterly obsolete right there.
The FAB dilemma.
At the end of war, the Brazilian Air Force was the most powerful one down south of the USA. We had a good number of tactical military airplanes strategic distributed in air bases across the country.
But time was changing quickly and what was state of the art during the war was, at this point, already obsolete.
It didn’t take too long for FAB to lose its air power dominance in South America.
In 1947, our good neighbor (and rival in just about everything) Argentina, became the first Air Force to operate a jet fighters in South America when they bought 100 Gloster Meteor F. Mk. IV from the UK.
Brazil and Argentina always have some kind of “love and hate” relationship and even if we never had any kind of territorial dispute or any motive for belligerence whatsoever, our generals were a bit uneasy to know that, all of a sudden, our neighbor had 100 heavily armed jet fighters ready for combat.
The Gloster Meteor was the only allied jet fighter that saw some action during WW II. The first prototype flew in March 5, 1943 and became operational on July 12, 1944.
Just like the Thunderbolt, the Meteor was big and heavy but very powerful and with an outstanding firepower. It was designed to take off and climb pretty fast and to shoot down intruder bombers.
When the RAF had the new fighter ready for combat, the defeat of Nazi Germany was just a matter of time, so the commanders decided not to expose the plane to any unnecessary danger of being downed over enemy territory and fall on the hands of the Germans or, even worse, the Soviets.
Instead they were used mostly against the V1 flying bombs.
The cannons used on the first versions of the Meteor were terribly unreliable and the pilots used a dangerous but effective trick to bring the bombs down: Fly side-by-side and tuck the wingtip under their fins, and flip them into a nosedive.
Besides its groundbreaking jet propulsion technology, the Meteor had a very conservative design when compared to the ME 262 but was a much more reliable machine.
– Max speed: 600 mph
– Service ceiling: 43000 feet.
-Range: 600 miles
-Rate of climb: 7000 ft/min
– Wingspan: 37ft 2 in.
– Engine: 2 Rolls Royce Derwent axial turbojets, 3600 lbf each
– Armament: 4 x 20mm cannons.
– Payload:: 2 x 1000 lbs bombs or rockets.
The Argentines started a very long tradition in the South American air forces to fly the Meteor.
The Brits also sold the jet fighter to Ecuador, Chile and as we are going to see, Brazil.
Interesting fact: It is well know that South America became a safe haven for some Nazi officials after the war, especially in Argentina and Brazil. The reasons for that are: first, a huge community of Germans immigrants in both countries that were willing to harbor those former soldiers and second, obviously, a government sympathetic to the Nazi regime.
The “Brazilian” Nazis tried to live a quiet, “under the radar” life, but in Argentina they were more openly accepted by the society.
One of those high rank German officials who chose Argentina was Adolf Galland. He was one of the top Luftwafe aces with 104 victories and flew mostly Messerschmitt BF 109 and later the ME 262. During his last months during the war he was elevated to the position of General and for that reason he was forbidden to fly ever since.
But he found a perfect opportunity to jump into a fighter’s cockpit again in the Argentine Air Force. He was hired on the spot by the government to pass on some of his valuable experience flying the M262 in combat to the Argentine pilots.
Among his privileges was to have his exclusive Meteor to be used during the flight lessons.
Now it was personal: if our neighbors were flying jets, we should at least start considering the options on the market.
As usual, whenever we need weapons we go to our most trusted supplier, the USA. In 1947, FAB sent four officials to spend a week at Williams Field, in Arizona, flying the USAAF first operational jet fighter, the Lockheed F80 Shooting Star.
They had a good time in the States and, more importantly, they loved the plane but our government wasn’t willing to buy them yet.
Actually, it would take five more years to convince the administration to spend some money on jet fighters and the ground crew had to be creative in keeping those ageing Thunderbolts and Warhawk in flying conditions.
At this point of the story, we can go back to the beginning of the first post of this series, back to the Fighters Day, 1952. Now the FAB had completely forgotten about the Shooting Star and had only one plane in mind, the hottest American jet fighter in the early 50s.
The F86 Sabre, built by North American Aviation, was the only Western jet fighter that could face “mano-a-mano” the new threat from the Soviets, the MIG15. It was powerful, agile and had the best avionics the American engineering could offer. All that capability was proven in combat, in the skies over Korea.
As one can figure, all that wouldn’t come cheap. The tag price for a Sabre in 1952 was around US $ 220,000.00 and since the plane was in high demand at the time because of the Korean war, that price could get even higher .
Since the time of the “Lend and Lease” plan was long gone, now we had to pay in cash for the planes. Cash was and still is a big problem in Brazil, so the solution was to pay in raw material, something like food (grains and or meat), metal (iron, aluminum, etc), wood, cotton, something that could be considered as good as cash.
Negotiations were still in the beginning when the American Congress raised some concerns about selling “state-of-the-art” weaponry to such an unstable “democracy”
Our President/dictator Getulio Vargas ruled the country from 1937-1945. He was overthrown in a 1945 coup, only to return to power as the democratically elected president in 1951.
Can you blame the American congressmen not feeling comfortable about selling jet fighters to us?
Vargas had a short temper and he saw the refusal from the Americans as an offense. Immediately he turned to the next big supplier, the Brits.
The British military aviation industry was a very prolific one, with many options for every combat application.
The planes had a cutting-edge design, were powerful and reliable. More than supplying equipment for the needs of RAF and Royal Navy, that industry had one main target: exports.
The fighter that caught the attention of our pilots was the de Haviland Venom. That beautiful and singular design reminds a jet version of a Lockheed Lightning and better yet, it would put us one step ahead of the Argentines.
“Sorry but no”; that was the Brazilian government answer, they decided to go for the Meteors. The plane was cheaper, readily available and was still considered as a front line fighter.
The “not so easy” deal.
The two governments came to an agreement to exchange 70 Meteors for prime quality wood, one of the most needed raw material in the reconstruction of the post war England.
Each plane was sold at the equivalent of US$ 121,500.00.
The order would be divided in: (pictures showing the Meteor dressed in the colors of the Belgian Air Force)
60 single seater F Mk 8
And 10 two seaters T Mk 7
The two countries were just about to shake hands on this when the Vargas administration tried a very crooked movement–they changed the “currency”, instead of wood they wanted to pay in cotton.
Obviously the British government wasn’t very happy with that decision and they just turned off the negotiation.
It took a lot of effort from the Brazilian diplomats to keep the deal going on and certainly the fact that post-war England was badly in need of any raw material helped a lot.
The fighters were paid for with 15,000 tons of cotton.
As soon as the deal was consolidated, a team of 10 best pilots and 5 chief mechanics were sent to England to start the long learning process on how to operate and properly maintain those new fighters.
The Meteors were just about to became the very first jet fighter for FAB and the personal involved in making them operational had to learn everything from the beginning.
The Brazilian officials spend a few days at the Rolls-Royce assembly plant where they learnt all about the Derwent axial jet engine. After that they went to Gloster Aviation Co. to see all the details of the Meteor up close.
It took two weeks of learning at those facilities before any of the pilots could jump in a Meteor.
At the end of the classes, the group was sent to Stradishall RAF base, in Suffolk, where they would finally learn how to fly the new fighter.
A New Challenge for the Fighting Ostriches.
The Brazilian pilots have good memories about the American hospitality during their training period in 1944 but they can’t say the same about the infamous canned food served at the time. A similar situation was faced again during the training days in Stradishall Air Field.
Life in some of British cities in the early 50s wasn’t easy. Besides all the reconstruction struggle, the allied nations were pouring truck loads of money into the occupied Germany capital, Berlin, in order to keep the remaining society from falling into total chaos.
As one of the pilots recollects:
“Even the most basic needs were in short supply, for example, bread. During the WWII the Britons could buy it freely but on the early days of the Cold War they could only buy a daily ration of bread.”
As a result the meals served to the Brazilians had just one option of meat: rabbit. “The boys ate every possible cooking variation of rabbit meat found on the books” , remembers Major Eduardo Magalhães,
And he continues: “At some point we had to call for help and the Commander of the First Fighter Group loaded a B17 with lots of red meat, charcoal and a couple barrels of Cachaça (the Brazilian equivalent of the Mexican Tequila), everything for a memorable barbecue. We didn’t have enough food and booze for the entire base but we were at least able to invite our instructors. That was a such a great party”.
While the pilots were receiving the training, the logistic team was pretty busy dispatching the 70 Meteors to Brazil.
Instead of flying them all the way, the Brits decided to disassemble each unit, pack the parts, put them on trucks, take the load to London harbor and load them into Brazilian ships bound for Rio de Janeiro.
Again the Meteors would be put in trucks and taken to Galeão Air Base, where a team of engineers from Gloster Aviation would help the Brazilians to put the planes back together.
That was the only way to deliver the Meteors as “brand new” planes and also gave to the ground crews a great opportunity to have a “hands-on” experience with the planes.
The Paint War
After all 70 fighters were assembled and in flight conditions, it was time to wear the colors of the FAB.
By the early 50s most of the country was covered by forests, so naturally, the idea was to give the planes a greenish camouflage paint scheme.
But the British technicians didn’t share the same enthusiasm about colorful Meteors. According to the engineers, any coat of paint on the planes’ surface would negatively affect their aerodynamics. The only option to optimize the performance of the Fighters was to keep them in bare aluminum.
Why such a fuss over it when the RAF itself had very colorful squadrons ?
After a lot of heated meetings, it was decided to keep the planes in bare metal. Since there was no threat of war in South America at the time, stealth gave up in favor of speed.
Some of the Meteors received the FAB green and yellow star and a paint scheme known as “splashed egg” on the nose and on the engine intakes. Just a little touch, enough to visually identify the planes from different squadrons during combat training. The most common colors were red, blue and yellow.
A New Era
The Gloster Meteor wasn’t only the first jet plane in the FAB, it was the first jet plane to cross the skies of Brazil. From now on, everything would change, from longer runaways to a more efficient air traffic control and a new and complicated jet fuel logistic.
Picture above shows Meteors in maintenance inside the “Zeppelin Garage”, Santa Cruz Air Force Base.
In the early 50s, Brazilian radar system was totally obsolete, its operational limit was 39,000 feet and above this, the Meteors were kings. The pilots would fly unsupervised and they could play wild games as much as the fuel capacity allowed them to.
Following the FAB new experience, the Brazilian air liners began to retire their piston-powered planes and replace them with modern jet units.
The scariest issue the pilots had to face during the first couple of months operating the Meteor was the original canopy apparently wasn’t strong enough to stand high level of variation in temperature. Imagine a plane sitting for hours under the blazing sun in Rio de Janeiro and then in a matter of minutes rocketing to the frigid 30,000 feet temperatures. In many cases the canopy just started to crack, forcing the pilot to rush back to the base. In a couple of occasions the canopy simply disintegrated, scaring the hell out of the pilot. Thank God nobody got seriously hurt and the FAB quickly replaced the original canopy out of every Meteor.
The operations with the new fighter continued with no major problems throughout the years. The plane was rugged and reliable. FAB concentrated the Meteors in Rio de Janeiro (First Fighter Group) and down south in the city of Canoas (Fourteenth Fighter Group) but around late 50s, it became imperative to bring jet planes to the northern part of the country.
In 1956, in an attempt to re establish the USA as a main military supplier, FAB bought 58 Lockheed AT33 (two-seater) to operate as advanced trainers across the country and as a front line fighter for the Fortaleza Air Base in northern Brazil.
A year later came 33 Lockheed F80-C Shooting Star as reinforcement for all FAB units.
Lockheed F-80 Shooting Star.
– Max speed: 600 mph
– Service ceiling: 46,000 feet.
-Range: 1,200 miles
-Rate of climb: 4,580 ft/min
– Wingspan: 38ft 9in.
– Engine: 1 Allison J33 centrifugal turbojet 4,600 lbf
– Armament: 6 x 0.50 in Brownig machine guns
– Payload:: 2 x 1000 lbs bombs.
Very quickly a huge rivalry started between the pilots of the Meteor and the Shooting Star.
Lighter and more maneuverable, the American fighter was always in advantage during “dogfights” but every time a Meteor pilot was in a uncomfortable position, all he had to do was to push the levers and disengage at once. Even if both fighters had a similar top speed, the Meteor had a better acceleration.
Most of the FAB top officials at that time were WWII veterans and if there was one thing they knew how to do was ground attack.
That expertise was widespread in the pilots training program.
The problem was the squadron leaders were pushing the Meteors to perform a task which it wasn’t designed for.
Knowing that Brazilian Meteors were being punished by flying in low altitude missions, Gloster Aviation started to send warning letters to the FAB high command. Those letters were systematically ignored and the excuse for that was our planes had too few hours under their wings to be concerned about structural problems.
In 1963 Gloster was bought by Hawker Siddeley Aviation and the new owners decided to take a more personal approach to the issue.
In 1965 a team of Hawker technicians came to Brazil and inspected the wing root of every single FAB Meteor.
The tests results were astonishing, 50% of planes were immediately “junked” for showing severe cracking on the wing root and the other half were sent to the hangars to receive structural reinforcement.
The low altitude training was pretty much banned.
The Brazilian officials were already looking for a modern fighter to replace our ageing planes but this idea would take years to become reality. As a quick solution, FAB bought 30 “second hand” Shooting Star from USA.
In july, 1971 the FAB officially retired the remaining Gloster Meteors still in service. In the same year the first wave of the Northrop F5 Tiger came to FAB.
A year latter, the brand new Air Force Base in Anapolis began receiving the the Dassault Mirage III and the new era of supersonic flight had started for FAB.
But the old Meteor wasn’t ready to die, not yet.
A Die Hard Fighter.
In mid 1970, the First Fighter Group was getting ready to receive the new F5 Tiger and a team of mechanics were cleaning up the building used to store spare parts for the Meteors.
Digging through the stock pile, they found something really interesting, a brand new F8 fuselage.
After some talks between the squadron leaders and the base Commander, the team of mechanics received the green light to start gathering the best parts they could possibly find and begin the assembling job.
By the time when the FAB grounded all the remaining Meteors in 1971, this “new” plane was ready. It received the final technical “OK” and considered fly worthy with the ID # 4460. The team finally made an old dream come true, the Meteor was painted in green camouflage.
Obviously the Air Force wouldn’t keep a vintage fighter flying just for the “beauty ” of it, so the guys at the First Group must find a purpose to have the 4460 operational. The plane became the official towing target for the group and a passionate team of pilots and mechanics kept that Meteor active for 3 more years.
On April 22, 1974, the 4460 flew from Santa Cruz Air Base to Campo dos Afonsos where, after some acrobatics maneuvers, it landed and was taken into the Air Force Museum hangar after a fresh coat of paint.
For those who had or will have the opportunity to visit the museum, that F8 in camo is still in flying condition.
After 21 years of good service for the FAB, the Gloster Meteor era was over. Every single pilot who flew it has nothing but good memories to tell.
Simple, efficient, reliable, it was the perfect airplane to take us, peacefully, into the jet era.
My Second Favorite Curbside Classic.
Naturally, after the retirement the remaining Meteors, some of them were placed mostly as “Gate Guardians” in front of the air bases across the country.
The only air base in my hometown is called CINDACTA II, it is basically a air traffic control base which receives radar signal from all over southern Brazil. That is the place where I served for a year as a private in 1988.
By the late 70s we received an F8 Meteor and placed it in front of the entrance.
Many times during that year, I passed by the monument, in my uniform and saluted our old guardian. And it was impossible not to think about those glorious days when a few lucky guys had the the privilege to jump inside that cockpit, fire up the engines and take the plane as high as it could possibly fly.
Both Rolls Royce Derwent were removed from the Meteor before it became a display and one of them was donated to our University. The guys from the Mechanical Engineering Course used to fire it up on a stand, once a year for decades until they ran out of spare parts. Unfortunately I never saw it.