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Wednesday, February 25, 2004 - Page updated at 11:09 A.M.
By Peyton Whitely
EVERETT A replica of one of the rarest airplanes in the world may soon take to the sky once again.
The plane is a Messerschmitt 262, the world's first operational jet fighter. The revolutionary aircraft were built by Nazi Germany during World War II.
Last Wednesday, one of five replicas being built by a group that plans to sell them was moved out of a hangar here. After a few false starts, the plane's two engines were fired up.
That the plane is functioning again is the result of something of a detective tale and determination. The next step will be to have it flying again, perhaps by next month.
"There's a detective story, an Internet hunt and crawling around in basements in Berlin," said Jim Byron, a retired Boeing executive and co-director of the Me-262 Project, which is building five of the replicas at Paine Field.
Just over a year ago, their efforts were dealt a serious blow.
On a Jan. 17, 2002, test flight only the second time the first completed replica had been flown something went wrong.
Wolfgang Czaia, a former West German air force and American Airlines pilot flying the plane, had just touched down on the tarmac when the left landing-gear assembly collapsed. The plane went off the runway and came to rest with its tail extending into the air, its path stopped by a concrete block that kept it from going over an embankment.
No one was hurt, but the plane suffered extensive damage.
The landing gear and wing had to be rebuilt. Most importantly, Byron said, the builders had to figure out why the gear collapsed in the first place. That led to some sleuthing.
But finding a part designed more than 60 years ago, for a plane of which only eight originals exist in the world, was like seeking the proverbial needle in the haystack.
The group discovered that an 89-year-old former World War II German mechanic had a small private museum in his Berlin home. As luck would have it, he had an original Me-262 actuator.
The Paine Field builders were able to borrow the part, disassemble it and discover the cause of the gear collapse.
It turned out that the landing-gear assembly depended on 12 small ball bearings that were supposed to snap into place to lock the gear down and support the weight of the plane. On the 2002 flight, they didn't lock properly. The fitting had been improperly machined when the replacement-gear assembly was built in Texas.
Eventually, the Paine Field builders had all new landing-gear assemblies produced.
"It took six months of research and six months of fabrication," said Byron.
Eventually, everything was reassembled, and the rebuilt jet rolled out of its hangar last week for the first time in more than a year.
The Me-262 first flew in 1942 and was far superior to any aircraft that Allied forces had in Europe, cutting through American bomber squadrons and outspeeding pursuers by reaching 540 mph, about 100 mph faster than U.S. fighter planes.
But German leader Adolf Hitler had insisted on developing the plane as a bomber, for which it was unsuitable, and by 1944, it was too late to produce enough of the jets to stop Allied bombers.
Just 1,433 Me-262s were built, and about 1,000 of them were destroyed on the ground by Allied air attacks.
That's how the plane's history might have ended, except that a military-aircraft enthusiast named Steve Snyder made a deal in the early 1990s with the Navy to restore one of the originals, which was decaying at a Pennsylvania Navy base.
Part of the deal was that Snyder would be allowed to disassemble the plane, copy it and build five new Me-262s.
Snyder formed a company and started restoration and production in Texas. Financial problems followed. Then Snyder was killed in the crash of one of his other planes in New Jersey in 1999.
But in 1998, Bob Hammer, a retired Boeing engineer who heads the Paine Field work, had received a call from Snyder, and a deal was struck to move the work. The supplies and parts for building five Me-262s were moved from Texas to Paine Field in 1999.
The replicas are duplicating nearly every item of the originals, from paint to gunports for the four 30-millimeter cannons, although no operating weapons are fitted. The single major change is using modern General Electric engines, rather than original Junkers engines that had to be rebuilt about every 20 hours.
Of the replica planes, one is going to the Messerschmitt Foundation in Germany and the other, the one with the landing-gear problems, has been purchased by a retired Arizona judge. Three others remain unsold, available for about $2 million each, without engines.
Peyton Whitely: 206-464-2259 or email@example.com
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