Air Speed Record set at Reculver, 7th November 1945
On 7th November 1945, Group Captain Hugh Joseph Wilson, CBE, AFC, Royal Air Force, Commandant of the Empire Test Pilots’ School, Cranfield, set the first world speed record with a jet-propelled airplane, and the first speed record by an airplane in excess of 600 miles per hour (965.6 kilometers per hour), when he flew the Gloster Meteor F.4 (Mk.IV) EE454 ‘Brittania’ to 975.68 kilometers per hour (606.36 miles per hour) at an altitude of 250 feet (76.2 meters) over a course from the Herne Bay Pier to Reculver Point, along the south coast of the Thames Estuary.
He and Gloster’s chief test pilot Eric Stanley Greenwood flying EE455 ‘Yellow Peril’, who would also set an average speed of over 600 mph, used Manston as the base for their record attempts, almost in a replica of the arrangement for the bouncing bomb tests.
They broke the official air speed record held since the start of the war, after unofficial speeds were recorded during World War II.
A need for speed
After the end of World War II, thoughts were turning to taking forward the innovation that wars inevitably bring and a return to peacetime aviation.
Before the war and even shortly after the first flight by Wilbur Wright (initially 6.82 mph in 1903, then 37.85 mph in 1905), the airspeed record had risen consistently after the first officially recognised record by Alberto Santos-Dumont in 1906 of 25.65 mph. By the outbreak of World War II, the absolute air speed record reached 469.220 mph in a Messerschmitt Me 209, a piston-engined racing aircraft designed purely for breaking speed records, flown by Friedrich “Fritz” Wendel. The naming of this aircraft was altered to be designated as Me 109R; a propaganda tool to try and give an air of invincibility to the Bf 109 fighter which would not be dispelled for some time. This aircraft would retain the piston-engined record until 1969.
During the war, unofficial records were set by the Messerchmitt Me 163 and Me 262 up to 702 mph. However official recording would obviously have to wait for the post-war world.
Months of preparation for the attempt, with two Meteor F.3 (Mk.III) fighters, EE454 and EE455, modified on the production line to the new F.4 (Mk.IV) version to attempt the speed record. The Rolls-Royce Derwent Mk.I turbojet engines were replaced with Derwent Mk.V turbojets which produced 3,500 pounds of thrust each. The wings were shortened, the tips reshaped and the canopy cut down. The aircraft were lightened and all armament removed, surfaces smoothed and painted in a gloss finish. EE454 retained the standard camouflage and was named ‘Britannia’ while EE455 was painted in a distinctive yellow-gold colour and was known as the ‘Yellow Peril’.
Many commentators and historians have described EE455 as being painted in ‘all yellow’, whereas even in the black and white photos of the time, there are often signs that parts of the wings were different, at least at some point.
In March 2017, the model maker “Special Hobby” announced that they were of the opinion that the outer wings were left unpainted and thus they went on to alter their model kit, which details both of the two aircraft in the test. By the time they released their model, they had further refined their research to suggest that the tailplanes were also in the aluminium finish after their box artwork had been completed for the release in May 2017. It is thought that the use of yellow was to help spectators spot the aircraft, but it could also have helped the timing systems. Given the writing on the nose, it could also have been an ideally bright ‘advertisement’ billboard.
Many hours of flight testing went into ensuring the aircraft would be stable enough at high speeds, whilst at the very low altitude of below 250 feet required by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale‘s rules.
The course was set as an 8 mile (12.9 km) straight from the Herne Bay Pier to Reculver Point, although the record would be recorded over a 3 km course marked by sighting balloons. The timing course was from opposite what was then the Miramar Hotel (now a care home, but used by Barnes Wallis and others during the Bouncing Bomb tests) on the East Cliffs along to the Reculver Towers.
Each aircraft would be required to make four passes over the course, two in each direction. During each run, they not only had to keep below 250 feet during the runs, but below 1,300 feet during the turns.
On the 7th November 1945, the weather would be cold and overcast, with visibility between 7 and 12 miles along the course, with 8 to 12 mph wind from the North West. Hardly ideal conditions but still considered good enough.
Group Captain Wilson took off from Manston in EE454 around 11:30am and climbed to around 400ft before half-circling over the Isle of Thanet, then lining up his flight with the balloons flying along the coast and the red marker floats offshore. He had been delayed around an hour due to technical issues.
On his first run, a 12 mph wind offset him and brought him close to the Reculver Towers. His remaining runs would be unaffected and true.
Group Captain Wilson’s runs in EE454 would be recorded at 604, 608, 602 and 611 mph, with Gloster’s chief test pilot Eric Stanley Greenwood flying EE455 at 599, 608, 598 and 607 mph. In their earlier test runs, they had managed a maximum of a 613 mph run and 612 mph run respectively.
Wilson’s average speed, being the higher of the two, set the record to 606.36 mph (975.9 km/h against Greenwood’s average of 603 mph.
Initial results, eagerly flashed around the world, had actually suggested that Greenwood had achieved the higher speeds and his average speed was announced first, but the final results were confirmed by more sophisticated timing equipment.
The following account by Eric Greenwood is taken from the Argus (Aus) 9 November 1945.
How Speed of 603 MPH was Attained.
Greenwood Tells Amazing Story of Flight.
In this article Mr Eric Greenwood, chief test pilot of the Gloster Aircraft Co, who attained a speed of 603 mph in a Meteor jet plane at Herne Bay (Kent) on Wednesday, tells the story of his runs over the course.
As I shot across the course of three kilometres (one mile seven furlongs), my principal worry was to keep my eye on the pier, for it was the best guiding beacon there was. On my first run I hit a bump, got a wing down, and my nose slewed off a bit, but I got back on the course. Below the sea appeared to be rushing past like a out-of-focus picture.
I could not see the Isle of Sheppey toward which I was heading, because visibility was not all that I wanted.
At 600mph it is a matter of seconds before you are there. It came up just where I expected it. In the cockpit I was wearing a tropical helmet, grey flannel bags, a white silk shirt, and ordinary shoes. The ride was quite comfortable, and not as bumpy as some practice runs. I did not have much time to pay much attention to the gauges and meters, but I could see that my airspeed indicator was bobbing round the 600mph mark.
On the first run I only glanced at the altimeter on the turns, so that I should not go too high. My right hand was kept pretty busy on the stick (control column), and my left hand was throbbing on the two throttle levers.
Hurtled into sky
I had to get in and out of the cockpit four times before the engines finally started. A technical hitch delayed me for about an hour, and all the time I was getting colder and colder. At last I got away round about 11.30am. The Meteor first hurtled into the sky.
On the first run I had a fleeting glance at the blurred coast, and saw quite a crowd of onlookers on the cliffs. I remember that my wife was watching me, and I found that there was time to wonder what she was thinking. I knew that she would be more worried than I was, and it struck me that the sooner I could get the thing over the sooner her fears would be put to rest.
On my first turn toward the Isle of Sheppey I was well lined up for passing over the Eastchurch airfield, where visibility was poor for this high-speed type of flying. The horizon had completely disappeared, and I turned by looking down at the ground and hoping that, on coming out of the bank, I would be pointing at two balloons on the pier 12 miles ahead. They were not visible at first. All this time my air speed indicator had not dropped below 560 mph, in spite of my back-throttling slightly.
Then the guiding light flashed from the pier, and in a moment I saw the balloons, so I knew that I was all right for that.
On the return run of my first circuit the cockpit began to get hot. It was for all the world like a tropical-summer day. Perspiration began to collect on my forehead. I did not want it to cloud my eyes, so for the fraction of a second I took my hands off the controls and wiped the sweat off with the back of my gloved hand. I had decided not to wear goggles, as the cockpit was completely sealed. I had taken the precaution, however, of leaving my oxygen turned on, because I thought that it was just that little extra care that might prevent my getting the feeling of “Don’t fence me in.”
Normally I don’t suffer from a feeling of being cooked up in an aircraft, but the Meteor’s cockpit was so completely sealed up that I was not certain how I should feel. As all had gone well, and I had got halfway though the course I checked up my fuel content gauges to be sure that I had plenty of paraffin to complete the job.
I passed over Manston airfield on the second run rather farther east than I had hoped, so my turn took me further out to sea than I had budgeted for. But I managed to line up again quite satisfactorily, and I opened up just as I was approaching Margate pier at a height of 800 feet. My speed was then 560 mph.
Shook base of spine
This second run was not so smooth, for I hit a few bumps, which shook the base of my spine. Hitting air bumps at 600 mph is like falling down stone steps – a series of nasty jars. But the biffs were not bad enough to make me back-thottle, and I passed over the line without incident, except that I felt extremely hot and clammy.
At the end of my effort I came to one of the most difficult jobs of the lot. It was to lose speed after having travelled at 600 mph. I started back-throttling immediately after I had finished my final run, but I had to circuit Manston airfield three times before I got my speed down to 200 mph.
British Movietone film showing preparations for the record attempts and EE454 ‘Britannia’ in flight. It goes on to show the course, balloons and cameras.
Pathé news film showing flights over the course and spectators. Later shows Group Captain Wilson and Eric Greenwood.
Movietone News film showing both aircraft and pilots and some of the runs, showing the Herne Bay pier and film from inside an aircraft over the marker floats.
British Pathé film showing both pilots and aircraft, balloon and flypast.
British Pathé film showing flypasts, Reculver and Herne Bay pier (unissued/unused material).
Two bronze plaques were made to commemorate the record and were intended to mark both ends of the run. Some references, suggest they were erected (on the cliffs behind the Miramar Hotel that marked the Western end, and one by the Reculver Towers that marked the Eastern end of the course), but moved because of cliff erosion; other references suggest they were never installed at all and spent years in a Council yard and could have been thrown away, or melted down, had they not been spotted and saved. They were on display in what was Makcari’s cafe on the corner of William Street and Central parade (on the sea front), but when the business was sold, the plaques’ owner loaned them to the RAF Manston History Museum, where they are currently on display.
There is also a commemorative board as part of the Herne Bay Cultural Trail, near the car parking at the end of the pier. The boards appear to show 606.25 mph rather than 606.36 mph, but the former figure does appear elsewhere as well.
We hope to confirm both of these in due course and will publish photos here.
In 1946, the RAF High Speed Flight was reformed. It had originated in 1927 to compete in the Schneider Trophy and won with the Supermarine S.5, that would eventually lead on to the development of the Supermarine Spitfire. The Flight would include notable pilots including Wing Commander Roland Beamont DSO, so closely linked to Manston during the war with No.609 Squadron.
This time, the Flight’s aim was to make another attempt on the World Air Speed record. This time over five laps of the 3km course between Littlehampton and Worthing, Group Captain E.M. Donaldson DSO, AFC, acheived a speed of 616mph, with Squadron Leader W.A. Waterton AFC, 614mph. They flew Meteor F.4s, EE549 and EE550 respectively.
The wartime record would be finally beaten in 1947 by Chuck Yeager in the Bell X-1, reaching 891 mph.
Flight, 15th November 1945: https://www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive/view/1945/1945%20-%202245.html
This Day in Aviation (shows a copy of the official speed record (FAI Record File Num #9847): https://www.thisdayinaviation.com/tag/gloster-meteor-f-mk-iv/
The Argus, Melbourne, Victoria. Thursday 8 November 1945 and Friday 9 November 1945, available from http://trove.nla.gov.au.
Special Hobby post, March 21st 2017: http://www.specialhobby.info/2017/03/gloster-meteor-yellow-peril-sh72361-not.html
You can purchase the Meteor model in the UK here: https://www.hannants.co.uk/product/SH72361
Special thanks to Ron Stilwell (Thanet Military Publications, http://www.thanetmilitarypublications.co.uk)
Add your Contribution
Do you have more details or photos you can add to this article, if so, please contact us? We ideally would like to add a photo of EE454 ‘Brittania’ that isn’t covered by copyright restrictions.
Many of the figures based in this article are quoted differently in the various recognised sources. We have therefore based on figures we believe correct, but will amend if new certifiable information can be obtained. Other details may also be corrected as any issues are found.