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Germany’s First Jet Fighter: The He 280

What might have been

 

Could Nazi Germany have gotten a jet fighter into combat much earlier than it did? What if the Reich had rushed the Heinkel He 280 into service rather than waiting for the similar Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter that came later?

A sky full of He 280s, faster and deadlier than any fighter in allied service, might have prevented the U.S. Eighth Air Force from building up its bomber offensive over Europe — and might, even, have forced the allies to postpone the invasion of occupied Europe that took place at Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Maybe even, in the wildest imaginations of a few leaders in the Third Reich, squadrons of He 280s might have turned the tide and won the war.

Designers credited the He 280 with a top speed of 508 miles per hour, making it in every respect a formidable competitor to the Messerschmitt Me 262.

It didn’t happen that way, and the now-obscure He 280 ended up being a “might have been.” If we compare its potential with its record, the He 280 might even be called a brilliant mistake.

 

Heinkel History

It didn’t have to happen that way. The firm of aviation pioneer Ernst Heinkel was in first place in the race to develop a jet-powered aircraft in the 1930s, with Willy Messerschmitt’s company lagging behind. The high-wing Heinkel He 178, using a 992-pound thrust HeS 3 engine drawn from a patent by Hans von Ohain, became the world’s first aircraft to fly under turbojet power on Aug. 27, 1939, piloted by Erich Warsitz (who’d also been the first to fly under liquid-fueled rocket power in a different Heinkel test ship).

On Sept. 1, 1939, Adolf Hitler’s tanks ground into Poland, the European war began, and what had been a research project was now a “war machine project,” as Hitler described it.

He 280 drawing

Three-view drawing of the Heinkel He-280 jet fighter.
Image by Kaboldy via Wikimedia Commons

The Reich’s aeronautical future clearly belonged to the twin-engined Heinkel He 280, which qualifies as the world’s first jet fighter, although it appears never to have been fully armed. The He 280 went aloft with Fritz Schäfer in the cockpit at Rostock-Marienehe on Sept. 22, 1940. That was an unpowered glide flight, but Schäfer completed the first powered flight of this first jet fighter at the same location, using the He 280V2 second prototype, on March 30, 1941.

 

Striking Silhouette

Noteworthy in the appearance of the aircraft were its twin engines, twin fins and tricycle landing gear, all of which gave it a superficial resemblance to the B-25 Mitchell medium bomber. The aircraft used 1,852-pound thrust Junkers Jumo 004A turbojets in lieu of Heinkel’s troubled He S8. If surviving recordings are to be believed, the engines throbbed in a louder version of what might be called purring, rather than emitting the thunderous roar of later turbojets. The first flight was smooth and unremarkable.

An Heinkel He-280 takes off for a test flight. Notice the missing engine cowling. Early flights were carried out with cowlings removed in order to minimize the risk of fire as a result of dripping fuel. Bundesarchive photo

A Heinkel He-280 takes off for a test flight. Notice the missing engine cowling. Early flights were carried out with cowlings removed in order to minimize the risk of fire as a result of dripping fuel. Bundesarchive photo

Schäfer reportedly told Ernst Heinkel that the He 280 was a little difficult to control in turns but that an experienced pilot should be able to fly it easily. He also reported the He 280 to be a little sluggish on landing but said that otherwise it handled well.

Designers credited the He 280 with a top speed of 508 miles per hour, making it in every respect a formidable competitor to the Messerschmitt Me 262.

The He 280 offered a compressed-air powered ejection seat, the world’s first aircraft to be so equipped. Unfortunately, Generalfeldmarschall (Air Marshal) Ernst Udet, whose opinion then held considerable sway, was unimpressed by the aircraft. That hurt its prospects deeply.

In their book Me 262, Colin Heaton and Anne-Marie Lewis speculate:

“This is where history took a strange course [they write]. Had Udet been impressed enough to approve continued development, Heinkel would have received the extra funding they needed. This infusion of capital and political support would likely have led to the firm solving all of the problems they were having with the engines.”

Equipped with three 30mm cannon and capable of 512 miles per hour, the He 280 would have provided a bridge between the Fw 190 and Me 262 and would have enabled the Luftwaffe to maintain superiority in Europe at a time when the Allies had no comparable aircraft.

In tests, the He 280 proved itself speedier than the best German fighter, the Focke-Wulf Fw 190. “During a demonstration, the He 280 completed four laps on the oval circuit course before the Fw 190 could complete three. The maximum weight displacement of the He 280 was 4,296 kilograms (9,470 pounds) compared with 7,130 kilograms (15,720 pounds) for the Me 262. The He 280 could have gone into production by late 1941 and maintained the air superiority that the Fw 190 had been designed and built for. The initial teething experience with the He S8 engine would have plenty of time to be ironed out just as production of the fighter airframe had begun.

Udet and Air Inspector General Erhard Milch saw the He 280 as an aircraft that could be in frontline service as a stopgap in anticipation of the Me 262. Equipped with three 30mm cannon and capable of 512 miles per hour, the He 280 would have provided a bridge between the Fw 190 and Me 262 and would have enabled the Luftwaffe to maintain superiority in Europe at a time when the Allies had no comparable aircraft. Heinkel, of course, had even grander aspirations.

 

Sky Supremacy

This is intriguing speculation but it fails to go far enough. With a smaller footprint, greater ease of maintenance and better reliability than the Me 262, the He 280 could have become operational by mid-1942. At that point, although the Royal Air Force was bombing Germany at night, the Allies did not yet have a full-fledged air campaign over the continent. The fledgling U.S. Eighth Air Force was still struggling merely to come into existence.

He 280

An He 280 prototype at rest after skidding off the runway. The He 280 could arguably be called the first turbojet powered fighter aircraft in history even though it never entered production. Bundesarchive photo

The Americans were going to change everything with their own four-engine heavy bombers and with high altitude precision daylight bombing of military and industrial targets. Yet as late as October 1943, they lost 60 bombers on one mission and had not yet fielded a true escort fighter, the P-51 Mustang. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was telling anyone who would listen that the Allied air campaign would have to succeed or plans for the invasion of Europe would have to be put on hold. If hundreds of He 280s had been in the field before the bombing campaign even began, before the first P-51 arrived or even before the first American bombers reached Berlin in March 1944, B-17s and B-24s could have been swept from the skies.

Was the Heinkel effort deterred in part by Ernst Heinkel’s misguided effort to develop an advanced four-engined bomber, the He 177 Grief (Griffon), — something the Germans would never do successfully? Was the effort deterred by Heinkel’s personally falling into disfavor with Hitler and other Reich leaders?

The He 280 would have reigned supreme. Battered by their losses, unable to command the air, the Allies would have needed to sue for a peace agreement that would allow Hitler to keep much of Western Europe, turn his guns to the east, and overwhelm the Soviet Union.

Or maybe not: From an engineering perspective, the He 280 was more complex and may have had less growth potential in its design. The Me 262 with good engines would have been better tailored for air defense.

Was the Heinkel effort deterred in part by Ernst Heinkel’s misguided effort to develop an advanced four-engined bomber, the He 177 Grief (Griffon), — something the Germans would never do successfully? Was the effort deterred by Heinkel’s personally falling into disfavor with Hitler and other Reich leaders?

We can only speculate.

Heinkel He 280

  •  Type: Single-seat, twin-jet fighter
  •  Powerplant: Two 1,102-pound thrust (4.9 kN) Heinkel He S8 (He 280V3) or two 1,852-pound thrust Junkers Jumo 004 Orkan (He 280V6) or two 1,323-pound thrust (5.89 kN) BMW 109 003 turbojet engines
  • Performance: Maximum speed 508 miles per hour (817 km/h) at 3,940 feet (1200 m); rate of climb 3,756 feet per minutes (1145 m/min); service ceiling 32,000 feet (10000 m); range 230 miles (370 km)
  • Weight: 3,666 pounds (1663 kg); loaded 11,475 pounds (5205 kg)
  • Dimensions: Wingspan 40 feet (12.20 m); length 34 feet 1 inch (10.40 m); height 10 feet (3.06 m); wing area 233 sq ft (21.50 sq m)
  • Armament: Three MG 151 20-mm cannon

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...