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Arado Ar 234 “Blitz”

Though they’re not so well-known now, Germany’s revolutionary jet-powered Arado Ar 234 “Blitz” bombers – or Lightnings in English – claimed a few notable distinctions. 

They were the world’s first operational jet bombers, the first jet aircraft to fly reconnaissance missions, and the last Nazi machines to soar over Great Britain in April of 1945, just weeks before Germany’s surrender. 

Fast, relatively small, and more advanced than anything the Allies had, ironically, Ar 234s were rarely used as bombers, and most variants were ultimately relegated to the reconnaissance role because they could outrun even the fastest Allied fighters like Spitfires, Mustangs and Thunderbolts.  

History

Credit: unknown (Smithsonian Institution)

The Ar 234 story began in late 1940, not long after the world was thrust into the second great war of the 20th century. 

The German Ministry of Aviation was interested in procuring a high-speed, jet-powered aircraft primarily for reconnaissance use, though even in the early going some considered them good bomber candidates as well.  

Of the aircraft manufacturers that received the Ministry’s RFP, only Arado submitted a design.  

Dubbed the E-370, their plane featured a streamlined fuselage, high-mounted wings and a pair of Jumo 004 turbojet engines housed in narrow nacelles under the wings. 

The Jumos were the first engines of their type to be used operationally, but in early versions power was lacking, and later variants were equipped with four BMW 003 jets which were slung from the wings in two distinct configurations – one in which each engine had its own nacelle, while in the second they were housed in larger “double” nacelles. 

During the war thousands of Jumo engines were built, many of which powered Messerschmitt Me-262s, the world’s first operational jet fighters.  

Depending on variant, the Jumos operated at between 6,600 and 10,000 rpms and produced anywhere from 1,650 to 2,600 pound-feet of thrust. 

By comparison, North American Sabres from the early ‘50s sported GE turbojets that produced nearly 6,000 pound-feet of thrust, and the Tumansky engines in Russian MiG-21s manufactured two decades later managed 9,000 pound-feet. 

Arado engineers claimed that 234s would have top speeds of approximately 480 miles per hour (780 km/h), service ceilings of 33,000 feet (10,000 m) and ranges slightly greater than 1,250 miles (1,995 km). 

The Ministry’s original specs called for greater range, but the difference was small, and since Arado was the only company that expressed interest, two prototypes were ordered. 

The airframes and associated systems were nearly finished by the end of 1941, but the Jumo engines were far from being ready, thanks to technological difficulties and supply line disruptions caused by constant Allied bombardment. 

In fact, the first engines weren’t delivered until early 1943, and when they did finally arrive at Arado’s factory they were deemed too unreliable for flight, and were relegated to ground testing only. 

Nonetheless, better engines were eventually delivered, and the first Ar 234 made its debut flight on July 30, 1943 at Rheine airfield in northwest Germany. 

Progress was slow, and the second prototype crashed the following October after experiencing a catastrophic string of mishaps including a fire, inoperable instruments and two engine failures.  

Not surprisingly, the plane lurched into an uncontrollable dive at 4,000 feet (1,219 m), and seconds later slammed into the ground and burst into flames killing the pilot instantly. 

Design Features & Specs

Though Arado 234s would eventually weigh more, designers originally intended to keep weight under 16,000 pounds (7,257 kg). 

To this end, early prototypes incorporated an unconventional landing gear. 

Depending on size and application, landing gears on many aircraft can account for between 10 and 20% of total weight. 

By eliminating wheels, struts and hydraulic systems, 234s would be lighter, faster, and able to carry heavier payloads farther.  

In short, it was the Luftwaffe’s dream scenario, but without these vital components takeoffs and landings would be tricky to say the least.  

Arado’s solution was a detachable tricycle landing gear that made it through preliminary testing, but for a host of reasons was scrapped on production models. 

On the ground the apparatus worked like a conventional landing gear, but once the aircraft was aloft the dollies were jettisoned instead of retracting into the fuselage. 

Of course, these jets were never meant to land on finished airstrips, but instead were restricted to touching down on grassy fields where the relatively soft earth would absorb much of the impact. 

Each 234 would have one reinforced skid plate protruding from the bottom-center of the fuselage, and another near the end of each wing.  

The former would bear the brunt of landing, while the latter prevented the aircraft from rolling over on its side. 

For many test pilots landing in the rain was a particularly hair-raising experience, because the water on the ground acted as a lubricant which prevented the aircraft from slowing down quickly, and since there were no brakes, 234s only stopped when they ran out of momentum. 

Though technically feasible, this setup was hard on airframes, and at least some of the weight savings gained from ditching the landing gear were negated by the addition of more rigid structural components. 

Ar 234s also were among the first aircraft to incorporate high-visibility bubble canopies in the front of their fuselages, as opposed to protruding from the top of them. 

This made them more aerodynamic than conventional designs, but unlike nearly all other bombers they were crewed solely by a pilot whose jobs included flying the aircraft, navigating, aiming and dropping the bombs, and remotely operating the defensive cannon in the tail. 

At 41.5 feet (12.6 m) long, just over 47 feet from wingtip to wingtip, and tipping the scales at just 21,600 pounds (9,800 kg), 234s weren’t big by bomber standards.  

The Junkers Jumo axial flow turbojets in early versions produced nearly 4,000 pound-feet of thrust in tandem, or enough to propel moderately loaded aircraft past 460 miles per hour in level flight. 

Cruise speed was about 400 miles per hour (643 km/h), and if pilots discovered an enemy fighter approaching, they could generally accelerate out of harm’s way if their adversary was detected early enough. 

234s had climb rates of about 2,600 feet per minute (792 m/s), though by comparison P-51 Mustangs were capable of climbing at nearly 3,500 feet per minute (1,066 m/s). 

Hence, Allied pilots often attacked 234s during takeoffs and landings when they were slow and vulnerable. 

Though visibility to the front and sides was exceptional, 234 pilots had no means of viewing what was behind them, except through a periscope derived from ones used on tanks.  

These periscopes were also used for directing fire from the aforementioned cannons facing rearward. 

Though all 234s had periscopes, the cannons were omitted on some variants, because it was assumed that the aircrafts’ speed alone offered adequate protection from enemy fighters. 

Fully loaded, Blitzes could carry about 3,300 pounds (1,500 kg) of bombs, which relative to weight was about what piston-engine bombers could carry. 

But though not necessarily any more efficient on a pound-for-pound basis than aircraft like B-17s and Lancasters, 234s were nearly twice as fast.  

That said, whereas most bombers stowed their ordnance in internal bays, early Arados carried their bombs on external hardpoints. 

Though this arrangement increased drag and fuel consumption while reducing speed and range, it was necessary because the inside of the plane’s narrow fuselages were reserved almost exclusively for precious fuel. 

In fact, later four-engine versions had three internal tanks, the forward most of which held 378 US gallons, the middle one held 219 US gallons, the one nearest the tail another 407 US gallons.

Poor takeoff performance was a constant issue, and the Arado’s engines sucked down fuel at such an alarming rate at full throttle, that by the time they were airborne they’d often already consumed a significant portion of their overall fuel load.  

To increase performance and minimize consumption during takeoffs, some Arados were fitted with two Walter liquid fuelled rockets attached to the wings next to the jet engines. 

Each provided an additional 1,100 pound-feet of thrust, and more importantly, they carried their own fuel. 

These rockets burned for a short time, after which they were jettisoned. 

Variants

Models of the Arado Ar 234C Blitz four-jet bomber by Extrapolaris is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Eventually the Ministry of Aviation asked Arado to produce two new prototypes for even more capable 234s, designated the B and C variants.

But whereas earlier versions had no internal bomb bays, these new models remedied this persistent Achilles heel.  

Now the new jet bombers had fully retractable tricycle landing gears and internal bomb bays, and the first prototype lept skyward in mid-March of 1944. 

Though similar to their predecessors, these new models were recognizable by the moderate humps in the mid portions of their fuselages in which the bulky landing gears were stowed. 

To make the necessary room the central fuel tank was removed, and the for and aft ones were enlarged to make up for the difference.  

But not surprisingly, flight testing revealed that the added weight made the planes nearly 50 miles per hour (80 km/h) slower, which pegged their top speeds at about that of late-war Mustangs and Thunderbolts. 

By late 1944 a number of units had been delivered to operational units, but production was severely disrupted thanks to the aforementioned Allied bombing raids, material shortages and other logistical issues. 

Plans called for Arado to produce as many as 500 234s per month, though all told less than half that were built during the entire war. 

Pilots were generally impressed with their performance, but 234s were taxing to fly, and the Jumo engines were prone to “flaming out” and generally had to be rebuilt or replaced after just 10 or 12 flight hours. 

Of the B variants, some were modified for reconnaissance use, while others served as dedicated night fighters. 

For the latter role, they were equipped with two forward-firing 20 mm cannons and VHF radar units that could track enemy aircraft well past visual range in the dark, at least theoretically.  

To help manage these roles, a second crew member was added in a cramped compartment behind the pilot. 

But despite time consuming and expensive modifications, the aircraft just weren’t capable of tracking Allied planes at night, let alone shooting them down. 

No night kills were ever recorded, and by early 1945 production had shifted to newer variants, most of which featured four BMWs instead of two Jumo engines. 

At just less than 1,400 pounds (625 kg) a piece, the BMW turbojets were housed together in wide wing-mounted nacelles. 

Increasing thrust to nearly 7,000 pound-feet with minimal weight gain, the new and improved 234s were even faster. 

In addition to performance gains, this engine change was largely made to free up Jumo engines for use on Me 262s, which were even bigger priorities.

An improved cockpit was also added including a more flush-mounted rear viewing periscope and fewer individual windscreen pieces which improved aerodynamics and airframe strength and sped up production. 

Additional but ultimately unincorporated upgrades included high thrust Heinkel jet engines and swept crescent wings which would have improved low-speed handling and top-speed performance. 

Although an operational test squadron was ready and waiting for their new birds, just a dozen were finished by war’s end, only half of which had engines. 

Noteworthy Missions

The day before Christmas in 1944, various German divisions launched a number of offensives in and around the Ardennes and the Belgian city of Liege.

Coinciding with one of the severest winters in European history, the windy, cloudy and snowy conditions negated Allied air superiority, and many fighters and interceptors were grounded altogether.  

Cold, hungry, outnumbered and isolated, American soldiers had been tasked with halting the Wehrmacht’s push toward Antwerp in the epic engagement that would come to be known as the Battle of the Bulge. 

Amidst advancing enemy infantry and artillery bursts, GIs reported hearing aircraft approaching, but instead of the telltale rumble and drone of piston engines, they emitted eerie hisses unlike anything they’d ever heard. 

Moments later a flight of 234s screamed overhead, each aircraft carrying a 1,100-pound (498 kg) bomb enroute to an Allied supply facility near Liege. 

The planes flashed past and dropped their bombs, then lighter and even faster, turned and sped toward home. 

But though Allied fighters attempted to intercept them, they got little more than a passing glance the 234’s tales before the revolutionary bombers left them in the proverbial dust. 

Ar 234s also played a pivotal if ultimately unsuccessful role in taking out the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen, which was captured intact by the US 9th Armored Division on March 7, 1945. 

During the Allied onslaught German demolition teams failed to blow the bridge, after which they threw everything but the kitchen sink at it, including infantry, tanks, floating mines and huge mortars and railway guns.

All told dozens of multi-aircraft sorties were flown by 234s against the bridge as well, but they were never able to put their bombs on-target.

The first official record of a Blitz being shot down came a few days later when USAAF Captain Don Bryan made a confirmed kill in his P-51. 

The German bomber was slightly faster, but on that day Bryan and his speedy Mustang managed to get the upper hand. 

Spotting a 234 making a bombing run on the bridge, Bryan hammered his throttle, dove and intercepted the bomber as it made its ascent away from the target. 

Then, blasting away with his .50-caliber machine guns, he knocked out one of the Arado’s engines before slipping behind the stricken machine and finishing the job. 

The End of the “Blitz” 

Throughout the war the Allies were keen on capturing Nazi jets, but 234s only fell into their hands just before and immediately after Germany’s surrender. 

After the war hundreds of German aircraft were snatched up by the Brits, Russians and Americans and whisked back to their respective countries for testing and analysis. 

Of these, jets like the Arado 234 were the most coveted, because their engines and designs were far more advanced than anything the Allies had at the time.  

However, many of the 234s that were recovered were severely damaged or without engines, though those that were airworthy underwent extensive testing until the late ‘40s. 

They might have had more impact if development had continued and more had been produced, but in the end 234s were revolutionary duds that just came too late, though many of their design elements and much of their engine technology found its way into postwar Allied aircraft like MiG-15s and F-86 Sabres. 

Now only one 234 is known to exist – an aircraft that was surrendered to the British at the Wehrmacht airbase near Stavanger, Norway. 

After a 5-year renovation that began in the mid-’80s, it’s now fully restored and on permanent display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, Virginia.

Credits

ARADO Ar 234 BLITZ by Public.Resource.Org is licensed under CC-BY

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