How was the jet engine invented

From jet to jet fighter with Heinkel and Ohain

As of March 30, 2021 11:00 p.m.

Aircraft manufacturer Ernst Heinkel and physicist Hans Joachim Pabst von Ohain are considered to be aviation pioneers. In 1939 the world's first jet plane flies over Rostock with its "He 178". The next world premiere followed 80 years ago with a twin-engine fighter pilot.

by Janine Kühl

The development of a jet engine - the basis for a jet aircraft - began in 1936 when two men with vision and zest for action met: the aircraft manufacturer Ernst Heinkel and the physicist Hans Joachim Pabst von Ohain. Heinkel operates the Heinkel works in Rostock-Marienehe. With a lot of pioneering spirit, ever more powerful aircraft are being built here. Heinkel recognized early on that the speed and range of propeller-driven aircraft with piston engines were limited. In the 1930s, the cruising speed for commercial aircraft was 220 km / h, for fighter aircraft 450 km / h - compared to today's top speeds of 650 and 2,655 km / h, respectively.

Ernst Heinkel and his dream of flying

Higher, faster, further: Ernst Heinkel is a passionate aircraft designer. His Rostock company developed the world's first jet aircraft in 1939 - it took off for the first time on August 27th. more

Target: jet aircraft

That is why Heinkel begins to experiment with alternative types of drive. He is hiring von Ohain, who applied for a first patent for a turbo-jet engine back in 1935. The aim of this collaboration: to develop an aircraft with jet propulsion as quickly as possible.

From the beginning it is clear that this project should be carried out privately and without the Reich Aviation Ministry (RLM). Because Heinkel is disillusioned with the collaboration with the RLM. Almost at the same time as the development of the turbine jet engine, Heinkel and Wernher von Braun built a rocket engine, in the development of which he felt he was not receiving sufficient support from the Ministry.

Secret project takes shape

Aircraft designer Ernst Heinkel is the driving force behind the development of the first jet.

Since Heinkel is pushing the development of the jet propulsion aircraft without the knowledge and support of the Ministry, he provides Ohain and the aircraft designers and mechanics involved with a special barrack on the premises of his plant. Here, after a series of setbacks, the "He S3" engine is secretly being built after a good two years.

The new type of propulsion places special demands on the aircraft it is supposed to carry: The "He 178" has a fuselage made of duralumin sheet metal, a particularly stable aluminum alloy. The wooden wings are arranged on the upper edge of the fuselage and are partly coated with asbestos because of the intense heat generated. A conical thrust tube at the stern and the lack of propellers show at first glance that this aircraft differs significantly from everything known to date.

Maiden flight of the "He 178" test pilot Warsitz enthusiastic

Heinkel can win the experienced Erich Warsitz as test pilot. The two have a great passion in common: striving for higher speed. In the early morning hours of August 27, 1939, the time had come: The "He 178" was towed to the start for its maiden flight. At 600 kilometers per hour, Erich Warsitz made two traffic laps over the airfield in Rostock-Marienehe - and heralded a new era in aviation on August 27, 1939. The maiden flight of the world's first jet aircraft is a technical sensation.

Because of the secrecy, test pilot Warsitz was not even able to attempt taxiing in advance. But the flight went without incident. Warsitz later said that he "immediately had the feeling of complete security". "It was wonderful to fly," he enthuses decades after the pioneering achievement. Only the landing gear cannot be retracted, but the engine and the machine work perfectly.

Ministry has no interest in "He 178"

Since Heinkel would like to present the finished product to the RLM, nobody is officially represented on the maiden flight. At Heinkel's invitation at a later date, Field Marshal General Hermann Göring announced that he would be there. But on November 1, 1939, only his deputy appears with a small delegation. There is no interest in series production. The "He 178" completed a total of twelve test flights before it was destroyed in a bomb attack in the Rostock plant. Replicas of the first aircraft with a jet engine can be seen in the Phantechnikum in Wismar and in Rostock Airport.

Parallel development by Frank Whittle

Von Ohain is not the only one who experimented with turbojet engines at the time. The Englishman Frank Whittle developed a similar engine independently of Ohain, which made its maiden flight in May 1941. Research into jet engines is also taking place at BMW in Munich and Junkers in Dessau. But only Heinkel put this idea into practice so quickly.

March 30, 1941: First flight of a twin-engine fighter plane

The world's first twin-engine jet aircraft, the Heinkel "He 280" became the model for entire generations of new jets.

Ernst Heinkel lets his inventor von Ohain continue to work on the jet propulsion in order to meet the RLM's request for a fighter with jet engines. The "He 280" emerged from the drafts and tests. Because the engines are not yet ready, the flight test of the fighter pilot takes place on September 22nd, 1940, initially in a towing flight. At the test site in Rechlin, pilot Paul Bader lets himself be pulled through the air in the "He 280" without a motor by a converted "He 111" in tow. A good six months later, the time has come: on March 30, 1941, the "He 280" completed the first flight of a twin-engine fighter plane. Fritz Schäfer turns a traffic lap over the test site in Rechlin and brings the jet fighter safely back to the ground.

World premiere with ejector seat

The first flight is a complete success. But then the development comes to a standstill. The efficiency of the engines causes problems. Later, at speeds over 800 km / h, vibrations also occur on the tail unit of the machine. Heinkel continues to experiment with different turbines and test aircraft. When the modified "He 280 V1" was towed on January 13, 1942, technical problems occurred when releasing the tow rope. Pilot Rudolf Schenk saved himself with the ejection seat - the first emergency exit in aviation history.

Jet fighter "Me 262" more sophisticated than "He 280"

But the fighter aircraft is far from the planned series production. Of the twelve machines built, only nine are airworthy. In the spring of 1943 Heinkel ended the project due to technical problems and stopped funding. Because the Reich Aviation Ministry is now relying on the technically more sophisticated "Me 262" from Messerschmitt, which went into series production in 1944 and was used in aerial combat towards the end of the war. Heinkel and von Ohain pioneered a breakthrough technology. The further development and production of jet aircraft, however, are now carried out by others. It has long been forgotten that the age of nozzles began in Rostock.

Close ties to the Nazi regime

The end of the war meant the end of the Heinkel works. Most of the company's facilities are expropriated, destroyed or dismantled. Heinkel himself is a brilliant engineer, but during the Nazi era he was politically not unaffected. As a member of the NSDAP, he received many orders from the National Socialists from 1933, which he readily accepted, and in 1937 was appointed military economist. In addition, the Heinkel works employed many forced laborers and concentration camp prisoners during the Second World War.

After the war ended, Heinkel tried to portray himself as an opponent of the Nazi regime. Nevertheless, he was arrested by the Allies in 1948 and classified as a follower. Due to his contacts with the resistance group around Admiral Canaris, the aircraft pioneer obtained his discharge in an appeal procedure. A detailed analysis of his role during the Nazi era is still pending.

Editor's note: In an earlier version of the article we showed a picture that was supposed to show the "He 280 V1". The picture description was incorrect and the photo did not show the machine described in the article. We have removed the picture and we apologize.


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North magazine | 09.01.2018 | 19:30 o'clock