The Gloster Meteor was the first British jet fighter and the Allies’ only jet-powered aircraft to engage in combat during World War II. Following the conflict, the British looked to continue developing its jet technology, with one concept being an aircraft that had a cockpit that would see pilots fly from a prone position. To test the effects of acceleration/inertia-induced forces from this stance, they developed the Meteor F8 WK935.
The Reid and Sigrist R.S.3 Desford was developed during World War II. Only one unit of the twin-engine, three-seat trainer was produced, but it was enough for additional development to occur, resulting in the R.S.4 “Bobsleigh,” an experimental aircraft that tested the effects of g-forces upon a pilot when flown in a prone position.
While it was successfully tested from 1951-56, the Royal Air Force (RAF) required a testbed that flew at greater speeds, with much higher g-forces. This led the service to what would eventually become the Gloster Meteor F8 WK935.
Developing the Gloster Meteor F8 WK935
The Gloster Meteor F8 WK935 – also known as the “Prone Pilot” – was developed for two reasons. The first was that the addition of a prone cockpit extended the nose of the airframe, which, in turn, reduced drag. It was also believed that the pilot, now lying down, would be able to withstand a greater amount of g-forces than they would in the typical upright, sitting position.
This was a significant advantage, since the Meteor was a jet fighter capable of flying at greater speeds than the turboprop aircraft seen throughout the Second World War.
Initially, the Bristol Aeroplane Company looked to develop such an aircraft and considered adding a prone cockpit to the Type 185. However, the project ultimately fell to Armstrong-Whitworth.
How pilots flew the Gloster Meteor F8 WK935
The modifications made to Gloster Meteor F8 WK935 were all done “in-house.” The standard cockpit was kept, and it was decided that a prone one would be added. This cockpit included a custom-built couch, controls on either side of the pilot and suspended rear pedals. The aircraft’s tail section was also replaced with that of a Meteor NF 12.
As can be expected, it would be incredibly difficult to escape the WK935 while lying down. To give pilots the chance to bail out in case of emergency, an escape hatch was installed just behind the cockpit. To successfully use it, the airmen had to complete what can only be described as a complex procedure. They first would have to jettison the rudder pedals, move backward toward the hatch and then retract the nose wheel.
Gloster Meteor F8 WK935 specs
The Gloster Meteor F8 WK935 had a very distinct look. That being said, its specifications were almost identical to those of a regular Meteor F8. Aside from the lack of armament, the greatest difference was the addition of the prone cockpit on the nose. This section protruded outwards to a point, and there was a second canopy overtop.
The WK935 was powered by two Rolls-Royce Derwent 8 centrifugal-flow turbojet engines, which each produced 3,500 pounds of thrust. It could reach a maximum speed of 600 MPH at 10,000 feet, and could operate at a service ceiling of around 43,000 feet.
The pilot would be placed in a most uncomfortable position. They’d lie on their stomach on the couch, at an incline of 30 degrees. Their chin and arms would lay on individual rests, and at hand were all of the controls needed to successfully operate the aircraft. Their legs would be bent at the knees and attached to the hanging rudder pedals.
This position would prove successful in dealing with g-forces, but also presented many issues.
Testing the Gloster Meteor F8 WK935
The Gloster Meteor F8 WK935, with Armstrong-Whitworth Chief Test Pilot Eric George Franklin at the controls, took to the skies for the first time on February 10, 1954. What followed was around 55 hours of flight testing during 99 flights, the results of which were ultimately inconclusive.
RAF test pilot C.M. Lambert also flew WK935. In the March 30, 1956 issue of Flight magazine, he stated that, after entering into a loop at 410 knots, “I glanced at the g-meter and saw the maximum-reading needle at 6g with no sign of a blackout.” This was a great achievement, but it wasn’t without its issues.
Lambert later recalled issues with bailing out, saying, “You can’t eject in any direction lying down… The only way out of the prone Meteor was to slip feet-first off the rear end of the couch and through the floor.”
Flying the WK935 also wasn’t very fun. In turbulence, “there was a tendency to pound up and down on the couch, making breathing difficult. It was impossible to keep the head still, and the chin was continually banged on the chin rest, making navigation difficult.”
The aircraft’s issues ultimately led to its retirement
While the prone flying position helped pilots deal with the g-forces they encountered, the development of g-suits offered a similar solution to the problem. This alone made the prone position present in the Gloster Meteor F8 WK935 unnecessary.
The testing, however, also showed the negative elements of flying in such a position. For instance, a prone pilot has a limited rear view, compared to a standard cockpit setup. This would have become a significant issue if the WK935 were to enter into combat against a conventional fighter.
The WK935 was retired soon after and stored at No. 12 Maintenance Unit (MU). It was later sent to RAF Colerne, before arriving at its final home at the Royal Air Force Museum Cosford, where it can still be seen today.