What do IG-88, Obi-Wan’s lightsaber, the Lars family speeder, the Mos Eisley cantina, the Death Star turbo-laser, and the Millennium Falcon all have in common? Sure, they are some of the coolest-looking pieces from a galaxy far, far away. But eagle-eyed fans will know that they were all built using pieces of a scrap aircraft designed to fight World War II. This month, I’m looking at how pieces of the Gloster Meteor jet fighter became one of the most important props in the Star Wars universe!
When you think of World War II airplanes, you might think of sleek propeller aircraft or big bombers. While the war was fought and won with those aircraft, air combat evolved considerably as the conflict raged on. Planes became bigger, faster, more destructive, and had longer range. Most importantly, the propeller airplane was being replaced by a new technology: jet engines.
In the ever-increasing arms race of World War II, faster aircraft became a necessity for both sides. The world’s first jet flew in Germany in 1939. Almost simultaneously, British designer Frank Whittle developed his own jet engine design, and later partnered with the Gloster Aircraft Company to build Britain’s first jet fighter, the Gloster Meteor. Gloster employed numerous engines to power its new fighter, including the Rolls-Royce-produced Derwent engine, which was first run in 1943.
The Gloster Meteor saw limited service in World War II. Various prototypes served multiple roles over their lifetimes, including a naval aircraft and a night fighter. The No. 616 squadron of the Royal Air Force intended to use the fighter to combat the high-speed V-1 flying bomb. By the war’s end, the Meteor took down 14 of the menacing weapons.
Decades after the war, the old Rolls-Royce-Derwent jet aircraft engines were obsolete and sent to scrap yards to await a new fate. Faced with the daunting task of creating an entire galaxy from scratch, the Star Wars crew found a whole new life for these World War II relics. “With my set-decorating budget I couldn’t afford to do what I wanted to do,” set decorator Roger Christian told Star Wars Insider in 2008. “In those days you could buy scrap airplanes from $60, and so I went around Britain buying up scrap aircraft, jet engines — all sorts of stuff. Out of that we did most of the set dressing.”
Available cheap and in bulk, the aircraft parts not only saved time and money, but they added great complexity to the designs of Star Wars. “We bought thousands of pounds worth of aircraft junk and took it to pieces,” said production designer John Barry in an interview seen in Star Wars: The Blueprints. “You can imagine the complexity of drawing that would have to go into making those very complex sculpted forms. But when you just take apart a jet engine, you get wonderful things.”
In Star Wars: The Blueprints, Roger Christian confirmed, “I got truckload after truckload of airplane scrap and taught the guys how to break it down and we made bins of different objects. They learned how to identify things that might look good on set.”
Working with other members of the crew, these scrap airplane pieces made their way into many of the props and sets. Christian continued, “We trained the draftsmen to walk down and identify pieces of interest. In the cantina, there’s some large kind of drink containers behind the bar that were all airplane scrap that the draftsmen had taken and drawn into the set.”
John Barry remembered this process well. In order to transform the scrap into the final props, he said, “All the bar equipment in the cantina, those are all the combustion chambers from jet engines, which we sprayed with a metallic gold process and put light in the bubbles and all the rest. But they have an interest, because somebody’s worked over it and some intelligence has gone into them, so they are far more interesting than anything you could have made from scratch in the time available.”
Although parts of the Derwent jet engine are all over Star Wars, the most recognizable piece is the flame tube. These conical sections are convenient props, as multiple pieces can be found on one jet engine. Their interesting shape made them perfect for the Mos Eisley cantina bar in A New Hope and became the head for bounty hunter IG-88 in The Empire Strikes Back. Related parts dot the life-size gun turret on the Millennium Falcon.
Look closely at Obi-Wan Kenobi’s lightsaber from A New Hope and you’ll find a balance pipe from the Derwent engine. The lightsaber emitter at the top of the saber might look like an elegant weapon, but it’s actually part of an old airplane.
Thanks to a resilient crew, the Gloster Meteor truly did travel from World War to Star Wars!
Special thanks to Chris Reiff and Chris Trevas for their immense knowledge on all of the parts of Star Wars.
Cole Horton is a historian and co-author of the new book, Star Wars: Absolutely Everything You Need to Know from DK Publishing. He also contributes to Marvel.com and runDisney. You can follow him on Twitter @ColeHorton.