The Jet in Germany


Heinkel He 178

A private venture of the Ernst Heinkel AG Company, the He 178 claims the fame of being the first jet-powered aircraft ever. The small experimental fighter He 178, designed by engineer Hans-Joachim Pabst von Ohain, was successfully tested in August 1939. The He 178 was a shoulder-wing monoplane with the cockpit well forward of the wing leading edge. It had a HeS 3 B turbojet engine, a retractable landing gear, a speed of 700 km/h (435 mph), a wingspan of 7.20 m (23 ft 3 in), and a length of 7.48 m (24 ft 6 in). Udet and Milch attended a test flight at the Marienehe base on November 1, 1939, but-in spite of its tremendous potential-the futuristic He 178 did not generate much interest from the RLM. Just like the later Heinkel He 280, a remarkable twinjet-engine combat fighter from 1940, the He 178 appeared at a time when the RLM showed no interest in new development other than that could be used at once for short Blitzkrieg campaigns. Only two prototypes (designated V1 and V2) were built. V1-the aircraft that might have revolutionalized the Luftwaffe before World War II-ended up in the Berlin Air Museum and was destroyed by an Allied bombardment in 1943. Prototype V2, with enlarged wings, never flew.

The handling of the jet programme in Germany also makes an interesting comparison with Britain and the Whittle team. There, events initially showed a remarkable parallel to those in Britain. A young German physicist and inventor, Hans von Ohain, began work on a jet engine in 1934. Thus in both Britain and Germany the gas turbine work was launched by a lone inventor, outside the mainstream of the aero engine establishment. Ernst Heinkel, a mercurial aviation industrialist and self-propagandist, took up von Ohain and an experimental jet-powered Heinkel aircraft made a rather marginal demonstration flight in 1939. However, Heinkel was an airframe company and the German air ministry was not greatly interested in an individualistic ‘sport’ development. Helmut Schelp, the visionary official at the air ministry who did most to stimulate the jet programme, then approached the more established engineering-based companies BMW, Daimler-Benz and Junkers.

BMW and Junkers agreed to take up the gas turbine and were given the latest results of axial flow compressor research emanating from Professor Albert Betz and W. Encke at the AVA aerodynamics research institute at Göttingen (in effect, the German equivalent to RAE Farnborough). Moreover, these two firms were ‘very rigidly directed by the Reichsluftfahrtministerium’. Von Ohain stayed in the jet programme, but not in a controlling capacity, working on a longer-range, second-generation engine, the Heinkel-Hirth 011 turbojet.

Thus in Germany, the greatest weight of support went to established companies, with the original inventor being partly sidelined. The parallel in Britain would have been if, at the outset, Rolls-Royce and, say, Bristol or de Havilland were given the bulk of the development funds and instructions to incorporate the (highly advanced) RAE ideas on compressor design. In fact, as we have seen, the reverse happened. The analytical work of the RAE was put at the service of Whittle’s company, which also got the lion’s share of attention and development finance, until a crisis was reached in 1943. The independent RAE work on axial flow compressors got rather low priority, going forward not with an aviation company, but with Metropolitan-Vickers, a steam turbine concern with no aviation experience.

After 1943, as we have seen, MAP felt impelled to bring Rolls-Royce fully into the gas turbine programme, although Tizard’s initiative in 1941 to broaden it to other companies was perhaps the first implicit acceptance of the fact that Power Jets simply did not have the size, and perhaps the experience, to fully develop the mechanical and the aerodynamic design of the W.2B.

On the basis of this comparison, therefore, it is clear that Whittle got exceptional backing until the programme ran deeply into trouble. Even then, Whittle’s personal conviction, the charm to which his collaborators have attested, and, it must be said, his great talent, secured tremendous indulgence from officials, even though doubts were rife as to whether Power Jets could mature into the type of organisation able to bring the engine into production and serve as the ultimate design authority for it. This forbearance almost certainly delayed development.

Nevertheless, as we have seen, Whittle was without peer in propagandising for the jet. By contrast German turbine engineers appeared much more self-effacing. Whittle largely left the gas turbine industry after the war but, in the post-war years, the lead German engineers continued to work in the area, many of them to a considerable age. Hans von Ohain went to the USA under the auspices of ‘Operation Paperclip’ (the same US initiative that took Wernher von Braun with his V2 team, and many other scientists). He made little capital out of his pioneering jet work and spent many years at the Aeronautical Research Laboratory at the Wright-Patterson Air Force base near Dayton, Ohio, becoming Chief Scientist there. He was subsequently Chief Scientist at another government establishment, the Air Force Aero Propulsion Laboratory, also at Dayton, retiring in 1979.

Anselm Franz, designer of the Junkers Jumo 004 which powered the Messerschmitt 262 fighter, eventually joined the Lycoming company in the USA, directing the development of many gas turbine engines, particularly for helicopters, retiring as vice-president of Avco-Lycoming.

Max Bentele, who worked with von Ohain on the most technologically advanced German turbojet, the Heinkel-Hirth He 011, similarly went to the USA, after a spell in the UK working on a gas turbine for tanks, and was, for many years, in senior positions at Curtiss-Wright Corporation and at Avco-Lycoming. At Curtiss-Wright he became deeply involved with developing the Wankel engine.

The BMW jet team, which had created the BMW 003, escaped this trend of being taken to America. Instead, the leader, Hermann Oestrich, and a proportion of the other experts were ‘spirited away’, it is said, from Munich, which was in the US occupation zone. They reappeared in Rickenbach, Switzerland, at the newly founded Atelier Technique Aeronautique Rickenbach (ATAR). The team designed a series of major post-war turbojets for the French SNECMA engine company which all bore the designation ATAR.


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