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On August 27th the German aircraft firm Heinkel tested the first jet powered aircraft. The plane, which was named Heinkel HE 178 proved the feasibility of jet aircraft.
Punching Out: Evolution of the Ejection Seat
Nick of time: A British pilot exits his crash-landing Harrier jump jet at Kandahar, Afghanistan, in May 2009.
The faster airplanes go, the faster we need to get out of them.
If necessity is the mother of invention, combat is its father. Little more than a month after Pearl Harbor, when the United States was belatedly gearing up for war, Germany was already testing jet fighters.
In January 1942, Heinkel company test pilot Helmut Schenk flew an He-280 prototype with four pulse-jet engines. They didn’t provide enough power for takeoff, so the Heinkel was tethered to an He-111 tow plane. Unfortunately, that kicked up so much snow that when Schenk reached 7,900 feet and the bomber crew dropped the heavy towline, it remained frozen to his jet. Flying, let alone landing, was impossible, but luckily Heinkel was also working on another innovation. “I jettisoned the canopy and then pulled the release lever for the seat,” Schenk recalled, “and was thrown clear of the aircraft without coming in contact with it.” A blast of compressed air fired him, seat and all, out of the cockpit. He landed unharmed via parachute, the first man to escape an aircraft using an ejection seat.
Almost since airplanes started flying, people have been figuring the quickest way to get out when they fail. Bungee-cord and compressed-air escape systems date back to the 1910s. By September 1941, the Germans were test-firing dummies from the back seat of a Junkers Ju-87. Early ejection seats had difficulty just clearing the Stuka’s tail fin. As aircraft speed and required ejection power increased, air bottles became impractically heavy instead the He-162 jet’s seat used a gunpowder cartridge. It’s thought some 60 Luftwaffe pilots ejected during the war, but how many actually survived is unknown.
The first test of an ejection seat was from the rear gunner’s position in a Junkers Ju-87 in 1941. (HistoryNet Archives)
In Britain, during an emergency landing in a fighter prototype he co-designed with Irish engineer James Martin, test pilot Captain Valentine Baker was unable to bail out in time. Martin took his partner’s death so hard that he repurposed their company toward aircrew escape. In July 1946, Martin-Baker employee Bernard Lynch ejected from the rear cockpit of a Gloster Meteor 3 at 320 mph, and eventually made 30 more successful ejections. “From an engineering point of view,” company spokesman Brian Miller said decades later, “the ejection seat was developed quite quickly, and we were able to soon come up with the velocities and accelerations that we needed to clear an aircraft fin. The problem was that nobody knew what those accelerations would do to a man.”
Early Martin-Baker seats might save your life, but could also end your flight career, as reflected by aviator slogans “Meet Your Maker in a Martin-Baker” and “Martin-Baker Back Breaker.” Within a year, however, the ejection seats were standard equipment in British jets. That saved the life of test pilot Jo Lancaster, who on May 20, 1949, punched out of an Armstrong Whitworth A.W.52 flying wing, the first British emergency ejection.
On August 17, 1946, Sergeant Larry Lambert earned the Distinguished Flying Cross by ejecting from a modified Northrop P-61 over Wright Field, Ohio, at 302 mph. American aviation manufacturers all hurried to design ejection seats. Within 10 years, however, aircraft were capable of such speeds that seats could barely keep up. In February 1955, North American Aviation test pilot George F. Smith took a factory-fresh F-100A Super Sabre on a check flight and suffered total hydraulic failure at 37,000 feet. By the time he was down to 6,500 feet, out of control, the “Hun” was doing Mach 1.05. On ejection the wind forces amounted to a 40-G deceleration, knocking Smith unconscious. Though a third of his chute was torn away, it deployed automatically. Smith spent seven months in the hospital, but survived to fly F-100s again.
A Gloster Meteor T.7 test-fires a Martin-Baker ejection seat. One of two Meteors employed by the company for the purpose, WA638 has made more than 500 ejection seat test flights over five decades. (Martin-Baker)
Counterintuitively, it’s at zero airspeed and altitude that seats require the highest power, because the aircraft is not moving away and parachutes need enough height to open. Rather than relying on gunpowder charges, “zero-zero” seats began using rockets to extend the acceleration and reduce spinal injuries. The first zero-zero test subject was Doddy Hay, whose Martin-Baker seat fired him 300 feet from the ground in 1961. In late 1965, American manufacturer Weber Aircraft produced a zero-zero seat with a rocket motor, gun-deployed parachute and survival kit, including an inflatable raft. U.S. Air Force Reserve Major Jim Hall volunteered as guinea pig, and on firing was subjected to a sustained 14 Gs. Hall landed in a nearby lake, emerging to shrug, “I’ve been kicked in the ass harder than that.”
Pilots have even ejected below zero altitude. In June 1969, on his first night landing during carrier qualifications off Southern California, Lieutenant Russ Pearson brought his Vought A-7 Corsair II aboard USS Constellation off centerline. He caught the no. 3 wire, but on rollout the plane went off the edge of the deck, slipped the wire and plunged into the Pacific. “In the history of Naval Aviation, only a handful of pilots had ever attempted, much less survived, an underwater ejection,” he later wrote. “…There was also the chance I might eject directly into the Connie’s passing steel hull or even worse, into one of her massive propellers.” Fortunately his turned-turtle Corsair fired Pearson downward and, against dense water rather than thin air, not very deep. He surfaced and a rescue helicopter pulled him to safety.
Three days later, that same helicopter was lost at sea with its entire crew, who had no ejection seats. Overhead rotor blades obviously present an impediment to ejection. Russian Kamov attack choppers blow off their blades first, and the Mil Mi-28 has seats that fire sideways. The Soviets never lagged in ejection-seat design. After his MiG-29 ingested a bird at the 1989 Paris Air Show, pilot Anatoly Kvochur’s Zvezda K-36D seat ejected him just 2.5 seconds before impact. At the same show 10 years later, K-36s saved both crewmen of a Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighter that pancaked at the bottom of a too-low loop. In both incidents the Russians ejected almost horizontally at extremely low altitudes, yet everybody walked away. A Paris official called the K-36 seat “clearly the best in the world.”
In the U.S., female aviators presented another challenge for designers, who had to compensate for their lighter weight to avoid faster, more dangerous accelerations. But the one danger they can’t overcome is a handle pulled too late. In October 1994, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Linda Heid, coincidentally the second female naval aviator to eject, witnessed the service’s first female fighter pilot, Lieutenant Kara Hultgreen, lose airflow to her Grumman F-14’s left engine intake on final approach to the carrier Abraham Lincoln. “Horrified, I watched her aircraft lose altitude and start rolling to the left,” Heid remembered. “The landing signal officers screamed, ‘Power, power, power!’ and then yelled for the crew to eject.” Hultgreen’s backseat radar intercept officer, Lieutenant Matthew Klemish, got out, but .4 seconds later the Tomcat had rolled past 90 degrees, and Hultgreen’s seat fired her down into the sea, killing her.
When ejection seats fail, they fail big. In July 1991, on a routine hop over the Indian Ocean, Grumman KA-6D navigator/bombardier Lieutenant Keith Gallagher’s seat inadvertently misfired, launching him partially through the canopy. Only his parachute, streaming back to wrap around the aircraft tail, kept his semi-conscious body from flailing in the wind or dying by impalement on the jagged canopy during landing. Post-incident analysis revealed the seat’s 28-year-old firing mechanism had fatigued. Since then, every Navy seat goes through routine, scheduled inspection.
A Grumman KA-6D lands aboard USS Abraham Lincoln in July 1991 with navigator/bombardier Lieutenant Keith Gallagher sticking partway out the rear cockpit after his ejection seat inadvertently misfired. (U.S. Navy)
Today the American third-generation Advanced Concept Ejection Seat (ACES) II seat is battery-powered, computer controlled and so smart that it knows altitude, attitude and airspeed when fired. It can tailor drogue and main chute deployment to compensate for those factors, even when the aircraft is flying inverted at just 140 feet and when the occupant is unconscious. In May 1994, McDonnell Douglas F-15C pilot Captain John Counsell blacked out during a simulated dogfight over the Gulf of Mexico and regained consciousness to find his Eagle diving through 10,000 feet at Mach 1.14. “I had to make one decision—to pull the handle,” he said. “After that, 13 automatic functions had to work perfectly for me to live, and they did.” At that speed, windblast strikes with a force of more than 1,500 pounds per square foot. It broke Counsell’s left leg in five places, tore three ligaments in his left knee, folded his right leg over his shoulder (tearing three more ligaments), broke his left arm and both broke and dislocated his left shoulder, but the ACES dropped him in the water alive, where he was picked up two hours later.
In April 1995, Captain Brian “Noodle” Udell and back-seat weapons systems officer Captain Dennis White were flying one of four F-15E Strike Eagles in simulated night-combat training 65 miles out over the Atlantic. A malfunctioning head-up display indicated they were in a 60-degree turn, 10 degrees nose-down, passing though 24,000 feet at 400 knots. Udell found out too late that they were actually at 10,000 feet, headed straight down at nearly the speed of sound. The pair fired their ACES II seats at 3,000 feet, doing almost 800 mph. Udell was knocked unconscious, his right knee and left arm dislocated and left ankle broken. After a long night in the water, four surgeries and six steel screws in each leg, he returned to flight status 10 months after his crash. He was lucky: The windblast killed White instantly.
Supersonic planes are easier to design than supersonic ejection systems. The three-seat Mach 2 B-58 Hustler used individual, enclosed escape capsules to protect its occupants. Its replacement, the General Dynamics F-111, was to have ejected the entire cockpit, but such systems were so complicated, expensive and heavy that they were discarded.
Ejection seats have saved lives right up to the very edge of space. On April 16, 1975, Captain Jon T. Little was knocked out while ejecting from a Lockheed U-2R spyplane over the Pacific at 65,000 feet and 470 mph. Unconscious, he fell 50,000 feet before his parachute automatically deployed. “I pulled the eject handle,” he recalled, “and the next thing I remember I was in the water.”
On January 25, 1966, Lockheed test pilot Bill Weaver and backseater Jim Zwayer suffered a flameout in their SR-71’s right engine and immediately lost control. “I didn’t think the chances of surviving an ejection at Mach 3.18 and 78,800 ft. were very good,” Weaver said. “…I learned later the time from event onset to catastrophic departure from controlled flight was only 2-3 sec. Still trying to communicate with Jim, I blacked out, succumbing to extremely high g-forces. The SR-71 then literally disintegrated around us. From that point, I was just along for the ride.”
Weaver’s pressure suit inflated, preventing his blood from boiling and the wind from tearing him apart. Because of the thin atmosphere at its operating altitude, a Blackbird flying faster than 2,000 mph encounters wind force equivalent to about 460 mph down below, but the air is also too thin to prevent a parachutist from spinning or tumbling so fast as to suffer injury. With Weaver unconscious, his Lockheed RQ201 seat automatically deployed a drogue chute to prevent spin, and popped the main chute at 15,000 feet just as Weaver came around. Unfortunately, Zwayer died of a broken neck during the aircraft breakup.
Test pilot Bill Park pushed it to the very edge of height, speed and luck, as the only man to eject from the Blackbird twice. In July 1964, after a Mach 3 test flight, his controls locked up on approach to Groom Lake. Park punched out only 200 feet up in a 45-degree bank. Two years later, he and backseater Ray Torick were attempting to release a top-mounted D-21 drone at Mach 3.2 when it pitched down and broke their Blackbird in half. G-forces within the tumbling nose section pinned Park and Torick in their seats, unable even to reach their ejection handles, until it slowed in lower, thicker air, where they punched out safely and landed in the Pacific. Tragically, Torick’s pressure suit took in water and he drowned.
But that wasn’t his seat’s fault. Today Martin-Baker alone counts more than 7,500 lives saved by their ejection seats, including over 3,300 Americans. (The company’s Ejection Tie Club is limited to aviators saved by its seats members worldwide receive a distinctive tie, tiepin, cloth patch, certificate and membership card.) Yet the ejection seat, which arguably made jet combat possible, may eventually end up a footnote in aviation history. If the drone revolution does away with onboard aircrews, what they sat on will become a museum curiosity.
For further reading, frequent contributor Don Hollway recommends: Eject!, by Bill Tuttle Punching Out, edited by James Cross and ejectionsite.com.
This feature originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Aviation History. Subscribe here!
Germans Test Jet - History
Before World War II, in 1939, jet engines primarily existed in labs. The end of the war, however, illustrated that jet engines, with their great power and compactness, were at the forefront of aviation development.
A young German physicist, Hans von Ohain, worked for Ernst Heinkel, specializing in advanced engines, to develop the world's first jet plane, the experimental Heinkel He 178. It first flew on August 27, 1939.
Building on this advancement, German engine designer Anselm Franz developed an engine suitable for use in a jet fighter. This airplane, the Me 262, was built by Messerschmitt. Though the only jet fighter to fly in combat during World War II, the Me 262 spent a significant amount of time on the ground due to its high consumption of fuel. It was often described as a sitting duck for Allied attacks. Meanwhile, in England, Frank Whittle invented a jet engine completely on his own. The British thus developed a successful engine for another early jet fighterthe Gloster Meteor. Britain used it for homeland defense but, due to lack of speed, it was not used to combat over Germany.
The British shared Whittle's technology with the U.S., allowing General Electric (GE) to build jet engines for America's first jet fighter, the Bell XP-59. The British continued to develop new jet engines from Whittle's designs, with Rolls-Royce initiating work on the Nene engine during 1944. The company sold Nenes to the Sovietsa Soviet version of the engine, in fact, powered the MiG-15 jet fighter that later fought U.S. fighters and bombers during the Korean War.
The 1945 surrender of Germany revealed substantial wartime discoveries and inventions. General Electric and Pratt & Whitney, another American engine-builder, added German lessons to those of Whittle and other British designers. Early jet engines, such as those of the Me 262, gulped fuel rapidly. Thus, an initial challenge was posed: to build an engine that could provide high thrust with less fuel consumption.
Pratt & Whitney resolved this dilemma in 1948 by combining two engines into one. The engine included two compressors each rotated independently, the inner one giving high compression for good performance. Each compressor drew power from its own turbine hence there were two turbines, one behind the other. This approach led to the J-57 engine. Commercial airlinersthe Boeing 707, the Douglas DC-8flew with it. One of the prominent postwar engines, it entered service with the U.S. Air Force in 1953.
The Man Behind The Engine
Hans von Ohain of Germany was the designer of the first operational jet engine, though credit for the invention of the jet engine went to Great Britain's Frank Whittle. Whittle, who registered a patent for the turbojet engine in 1930, received that recognition but did not perform a flight test until 1941. Ohain was born December 14, 1911, in Dessau, Germany. While pursuing doctorate work at the University of Gottingen, he forumulated his theory of jet propulsion in 1933. After receiving his degree in 1935, he became a junior assistant to Robert Wichard Pohl, director of the university's Physical Institute.
Granted a patent for his turbojet engine in 1936, Ohain joined the Heinkel Company in Rostock, Germany. By 1937 he had built a factory-tested demonstration engine and, by 1939, a fully operational jet aircraft, the He 178. Soon after, Ohain directed the construction of the He S.3B, the first fully operational centrifugal-flow turbojet engine. This engine was installed in the He 178 airplane, which made the world's first jet-powered aircraft flight on August 27, 1939. Ohain developed an improved engine, the He S.8A, which was first flown on April 2, 1941. This engine design, however, was less efficient than one designed by Anselm Franz, which powered the Me 262, the first operational jet fighter aircraft.
Ohain came to the United States in 1947 and became a research scientist at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base,the Aerospace Research Laboratories, Wright's Aero Propulsion Laboratory, and the University of Dayton Research Institute.
Nazi Germany's 'Stealth' Fighter: The Story of the Ho 229
The Ho 229 might have been a formidable adversary over the skies of World War II, but in truth the plane was far from ready for mass production by the war’s end.
Flying wing designs were not an entirely new idea and had been used before in both gliders and powered aircraft. During World War II, Northrop developed its own high-performing XB-35 flying wing bomber for the U.S. military, though it failed to enter mass production. Despite the aerodynamic advantages, the lack of a tail tended to make fly wing aircraft prone to uncontrolled yaws and stalls.
Northrop Grumman revealed this year it is developing a second flying wing stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider, to succeed its B-2 Spirit. However, it was a pair of German brothers in the service of Nazi Germany that developed the first jet-powered flying wing—which has been dubbed, debatably, “Hitler’s stealth fighter.”
But maximizing speed and range, not stealth, was the primary motivation behind the bat-shaped jet plane.
(This first appeared in 2016.)
Walter Horten was an ace fighter pilot in the German Luftwaffe, having scored seven kills flying as wingman of the legendary Adolf Galland during the Battle of Britain. His brother Reimar was an airplane designer lacking a formal aeronautical education. In their youth, the pair had designed a series of innovative tail-less manned gliders.
In 1943, Luftwaffe chief Herman Goering laid out the so-called 3x1000 specification for a plane that could fly one thousand kilometers an hour carrying one thousand kilograms of bombs with fuel enough to travel one thousand kilometers and back—while still retaining a third of the fuel supply for use in combat. Such an airplane could strike targets in Britain while outrunning any fighters sent to intercept it.
Clearly, the new turbojet engines Germany had developed would be required for an airplane to attain such high speeds. But jet engines burned through their fuel very quickly, making raids on more distant targets impossible. The Horten brothers’ idea was to use a flying wing design—a tail-less plane so aerodynamically clean it generated almost no drag at all. Such an airframe would require less engine power to attain higher speeds, and therefore consume less fuel.
Flying wing designs were not an entirely new idea and had been used before in both gliders and powered aircraft. During World War II, Northrop developed its own high-performing XB-35 flying wing bomber for the U.S. military, though it failed to enter mass production. Despite the aerodynamic advantages, the lack of a tail tended to make fly wing aircraft prone to uncontrolled yaws and stalls.
The Horten brothers were given the go-ahead to pursue the concept in August 1943. They first built an unpowered glider known as the H.IX V1. The V1 had long, thin swept wings made of plywood in order to save weight. These “bell-shaped” wings compensated for yawing problem. Lacking a rudder or ailerons, the H.IX relied upon “elevons” (combinations of ailerons and elevators) and two sets of spoilers for control. The elevons could be moved differentially to induce roll, or together in the same direction to change pitch, while the spoilers were used to induce yaw.
Following successful tests of the V1 glider at Oranienberg on March 1944, the subsequent V2 prototype was mounted with two Jumo 004B turbojet engines nestled to either side of a cockpit pod made of welded steel tubing. It also featured a primitive ejection seat and a drogue chute deployed while landing, while redesigned tricycle landing gear was installed to enable the plane to carry heavier loads.
The first test flight occurred on February 2, 1945. The manta-shaped jet exhibited smooth handling and good stall resistance. The prototype even reportedly beat an Me 262 jet fighter, equipped with the same Jumo 004 engines, in a mock dogfight.
But the testing process was cut short on February 18 when one of the V2’s jet engines caught fire and stopped mid-flight. Test pilot Erwin Ziller performed a number of turns and dives in an effort to restart the engine, before apparently passing out from the fumes and spiraling his plane into the ground, mortally wounding him.
Regardless, Goering had already approved the production of forty flying wings, to be undertaken by the Gotha company, which mostly produced trainers and military gliders during World War II. The production planes were designated Ho 229s or Go 229s.
Because of the Ho 229’s great speed—it was believed the production version would be able to attain 975 kilometer per hours—it was repurposed to serve as a fighter with a planned armament of two heavy Mark 103 thirty-millimeter cannons. Construction of four new prototypes—numbered V3 throuh V6— was initiated, two of which would have been two-seat night fighters.
However, the Ho 229 never made it off the ground. When American troops of VIII Corps rolled into the factory at Friedrichroda, Germany in April 1945, they found just the cockpit sections of the prototypes in various stages of development. A single pair of corresponding wings was found 75 miles away. The most complete of the four, the V3 prototype, was shipped back to the United States for study along with the wings, and can today be seen under restoration at the Udvar-Hazy Center of the United States Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, Virginia.
The Hortens were reassigned to draft specifications for a flying wing jet bomber with range enough to deliver an atom bomb to the east coast of the United States. Their resulting schematics for the Horten H.XVIII “Amerika Bomber” flying wing were never realized, except arguably in the film Captain America.
Was the Ho 229 a stealth fighter?
One word you haven’t seen in this history so far is “stealth”—and that’s because there isn’t any documentation from the 1940s supporting the notion that the flying wing was intended to be a stealth aircraft. And yet, the Hortens had stumbled upon the fact that a flying wing design lends itself to the sort of reduced radar cross-section ideal for a stealth plane.
Reimer Horten moved to Argentina after the war, and in 1950 wrote an article for the Revista Nacional de Aeronautica arguing that wooden aircraft would absorb radar waves. Thirty years later, as the theory behind stealth aircraft became more widely known, Reimer wrote that he had intentionally sought to make the Horten flying wing into a stealth plane, claiming that he had even constructed the airframe using a special radar absorbent mixture of carbon, sawdust and wood glue without notifying his superiors. Two tests were undertaken to determine the presence of the carbon dust, one of which supported his claim and the other that didn’t. In general, historians are skeptical that stealth was a design goal from the outset.
In 2008, Northrop Grumman teamed up with the National Geographic channel to reconstruct a mockup of the Ho 229, which they tested for radar reflection, and then pitted against a simulation of the British Chain Home radar network. Their findings were less than overwhelming—the flying wings would have been detected at a distance 80 percent that of a standard German Bf. 109 fighter.
The Northrop testers stressed that combined with the Ho 229’s much greater speed, this modest improvement would have given defending fighters too little time to react effectively.
But of course, the flying wing’s main feature was always supposed to be its speed, which could have exceeded the maximum speed of the best Allied fighters of the time by as much as 33 percent. Detection time would not have mattered greatly if it could outrun everything sent to intercept it. Furthermore, stealth would have had little usefulness in the fighter role the Ho 229 would actually have assumed, as the Allied daylight fighters ranging over Germany did not benefit from radars of their own.
The Ho 229 might have been a formidable adversary over the skies of World War II, but in truth the plane was far from ready for mass production by the war’s end. While it seems a stretch to claim that the Ho 229 was intended to be a stealth aircraft, there’s little doubt that it pioneered design features that continue to see use in low-observable aircraft today.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.
First commercial jet makes test flight
On July 27, 1949, the world’s first jet-propelled airliner, the British De Havilland Comet, makes its maiden test-flight in England. The jet engine would ultimately revolutionize the airline industry, shrinking air travel time in half by enabling planes to climb faster and fly higher.
The Comet was the creation of English aircraft designer and aviation pioneer Sir Geoffrey de Havilland (1882-1965). De Havilland started out designing motorcycles and buses, but after seeing Wilbur Wright demonstrate an airplane in 1908, he decided to build one of his own. The Wright brothers had made their famous first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903. De Havilland successfully designed and piloted his first plane in 1910 and went on to work for English aircraft manufacturers before starting his own company in 1920. De Havilland Aircraft Company became a leader in the aviation industry, known for developing lighter engines and faster, more streamlined planes.
In 1939, an experimental jet-powered plane debuted in Germany. During World War II, Germany was the first country to use jet fighters. De Havilland also designed fighter planes during the war years. He was knighted for his contributions to aviation in 1944.
Following the war, De Havilland turned his focus to commercial jets, developing the Comet and the Ghost jet engine. After its July 1949 test flight, the Comet underwent three more years of testing and training flights. Then, on May 2, 1952, the British Overseas Aircraft Corporation (BOAC) began the world’s first commercial jet service with the 44-seat Comet 1A, flying paying passengers from London to Johannesburg. The Comet was capable of traveling 480 miles per hour, a record speed at the time. However, the initial commercial service was short-lived, and due to a series of fatal crashes in 1953 and 1954, the entire fleet was grounded. Investigators eventually determined that the planes had experienced metal fatigue resulting from the need to repeatedly pressurize and depressurize. Four years later, De Havilland debuted an improved and recertified Comet, but in the meantime, American airline manufacturers Boeing and Douglas had each introduced faster, more efficient jets of their own and become the dominant forces in the industry. By the early 1980s, most Comets used by commercial airlines had been taken out of service.
Jet Engine Development in Germany
Jet engine development started in Germany in the mid 30s and enjoyed generous corporate support. As a result, Germany was the first country to fly a jet-propelled aircraft. However, jet engines were a technological novelty and their technology required many refinements in order to make them ready for field deployment. One of the main problems affecting jet engine development was the exposure of large parts of the engine to high temperatures and great rotational speeds. The compressor and turbine of jet engines were particularly complicated and delicate components operating under high physical forces. German developers faced more difficulties then their colleagues abroad, because the Reich’s Air Ministry decided in 1940 to concentrate R&D on a more advance form of engine – the axial-flow engine. On paper its design was quite straightforward, but in practice its developers were sailing largely through uncharted waters.
Two big firms lead the way in German jet engine development: Jumo and BMW. In the meantime the Reich’s Air Ministry contracted Messerschmitt to develop the Luftwaffe’s next generation jet fighter – the Me 262. BMW made faster progress and on March 25, 1942, a prototype Me 262 took off for the first time powered by two BMW P3302 development engines. The aircraft was also equipped with a single piston engine as a safety measure. It was a wise move because soon after take-off both jets failed. Major flows were found in the failed engines and BMW’s engineers were forced to redesign most of the engine. The next jet powered test flight took place on July 17 of the same year with two Jumo 004 engines. This flight was successful, but it was clear that much development work was still necessary.
The test flights conducted in 1942 demonstrated not only the potential of axial-flow engine, but also the immaturity of its technology. The Germans found out the hard way over the next couple of years that revolutionary technology cannot mature overnight, even with large investments and with the availability of highly developed testing facilities. Only in mid summer 1944 the Jumo 004B engine was finally ready for series production, and even then it was imperfect. BMW’s design, the 003 engine, took even longer to develop. Besides suffering from the same problems plaguing the Jumo engine, its fuel flow control was hopelessly ineffective. It was finally ready for production in late summer 1944, and only after its designers adopted the more successful Jumo throttle mechanism.
One interesting and often overlooked advantage jet engines offered Germany was simpler fuel logistics. German jets required no special fuel like piston engines, which required high-octane fuels. The Me 262 was even flown experimentally on crude Romanian oil, experiencing no meaningful problems.
- The Germans tried to rush jet technology into service, but by concentrating their efforts from an early stage on the axial-flow design they skipped an important evolutionary stage. Huge investments in axial-flow engine R&D could not overcome all the technical difficulties involved in its development. Money could not buy, for example, the special metals required for the heat-resistant parts. The British started investing large amounts of money in Whittle’s project only in 1940. It helped them close the gap with the Germans only because their engine was less complicated. As a result, at the end of WWII British jet engines were less modern, but more reliable, while German engines were more advanced, but less reliable.
- Over-optimism regarding the quick maturing of advance technologies is a striking feature of German WWII leadership. It is especially evident in the jet story. For instance, in 1940 the Air Ministry planned to introduce a jet fighter into operational service by the end of 1942. It was a ridiculous notion as any aeronautical engineer at the time knew well it will take between two and three years to complete the development of a conventional fighter not to mention a revolutionary new type of aircraft.
- Kay, Anthony L., German Jet Engine and Gas Turbine Development 1930-1945, Shrewsbury: Airlife, 2002.
- Ethell, Jeffrey & Price, Alfred, World War II Fighting Jets, Annapolis: Naval Institute, 1996.
- Nahum, Andrew, Frank Whittle: Invention of the Jet., London: Icon Books Ltd, 2004.
- Neufeld, Michael J., ”Rocket Aircraft and the ‘Turbojet Revolution’. The Luftwaffe’s Quest for High-Speed Flight, 1935-1939”, in Launius, Roger D., Innovation and the Development of Flight, College Station: Texas A+M, 1999.
- Price, Alfred, The Last Year of the Luftwaffe, May 1944 to May 1945, London: Arms and Armour, 1991.
- Schabel, Ralf, Die Illusion der Wunderwaffen: die Rolle der Düsenflugzeuge und Flugabwehrraketen in der Rüstungspolitik des Dritten Reiches, München: Oldenbourg, 1994.
- Smith, Richard J. & Creek, Eddie J., Jet Planes of the Third Reich, Boylston: Monogram, 1982.
- Gloster E28/39 – 60th Anniversary (6 part film on Youtube) .
About the author: Dr. Daniel Uziel researches different aspects of modern German history, military history, and war and media. In recent years he is researching the history of the German aviation industry. He conducted part of this research as a fellow at the US National Air & Space Museum.
22 Stunning Pictures of the Legendary Me-262, the First Jet Aircraft!
The Messerschmitt Me-262 was the world’s first operational jet-powered fighter aircraft. and also the world’s first mass-produced jet fighter. The first successful flight of a jet Me-262 occurred on the 18th of July, 1942.
The aircraft had two nicknames: Schwalbe (“Swallow”) for the fighter version, or Sturmvogel (“Storm Bird”) for the fighter-bomber version.
Design work started before World War II began, but engine problems, metallurgical problems and top-level interference kept the aircraft from operational status with the Luftwaffe until mid-1944.
The Me-262 was faster and more heavily-armed than any Allied fighter, including the British jet-powered Gloster Meteor.
Pilots of this aircraft claimed a total of 542 allied kills, though claims for the number are often higher than what was actually shot down.
Captured Me 262s were studied and flight tested by the major powers, and ultimately influenced the designs of a number of post-war aircraft such as the North American F-86 Sabre and Boeing B-47 Stratojet.
German Scout Messerschmitt Me-262 A-Ia/U3 “Lady Jess IV”, captured by the Americans. In the background is visible a part of another Messerschmitt ME-262 [Via] Underground manufacture of Me 262s [Bundesarchiv, Bild 141-2738 / CC-BY-SA 3.0] Captured by the British, Messerschmitt Me-262 at the airfield in Lubeck. In the background, on the right – a German Junkers Ju-88 [Via] Technicians inspect a German jet fighter Messerschmitt Me-262V7, serial number 130303 at the airport in Germany after the surrender of Germany [Via] Damaged German fighter Messerschmitt Me-262, captured by US Army in Salzburg. The engine fighter is set with the German anti-tank mine Tellermine 42. Probably this machine was prepared for demolition. Rauchen Verboten means “no smoking” [Via] A pair of Messerschmitt Me-262A-1a, 1st Squadron 51th Bomber Squadron (1.KG51) on the sidelines of the route Munich – Salzburg [Via] Test pilot and an engineer, Lieutenant Colonel Andrei Kochetkov conduct test flights jet aircraft Me-262 [Via] Photo of the same Me-262 as above during the start [Via]
Me-262 is ready to fly [Via]
Jet fighter Messerschmitt Me-262A-1a (III / EJG 2) [Via] Me-262 A, circa 1944 [Bundesarchiv, Bild 141-2497 / CC-BY-SA 3.0] Me-262B-1a/U1 night fighter, Wrknr. 110306, with Neptun radar antenna on the nose and second seat for a radar operator [Via] Pilots of the 44th Fighter Division (Jagdverband 44) and jet fighters Messerschmitt Me-262A-1a [Via] Cockpit of the Me-262 [Via] German experimental fighter Messerschmitt Me-262 A-1a / U4 (serial number 170083), captured by US troops at the factory in Augsburg. This one was equipped with Rheinmetall Mauser BK5 50mm gun 940 rounds per minute, 22 projectile ammunition) [Via] German fighter jets Messerschmitt Me-262B-1a/U1. The first two visible aircraft have installed “Neptun” radar antenna FuG 218. Photo taken after the surrender of Germany [Via] This airframe, Wrknr. 111711, was the first Me-262 to come into Allied hands when its test pilot defected in March 1945. It was subsequently lost in August 1946, the US test pilot parachuting to safety [Via] US Staff Sergeant inspects a crashed German fighter Me-262A-1a bearing the number White” from the 44th Fighter Group (Jagdverband 44, JV 44). The group is a special fighter unit and manned by the best fighter pilots of the Luftwaffe during the last months of World War II [Via] A Jumo 004 engine is being investigated by Aircraft Engine Research Laboratory engineers of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in 1946 [NASA – GPN-2000-000369] Destroyed by Allied bombing, jet fighters Messerschmitt Me-262 [Via] American officers and dismantled Messerschmitt Me-262 at the airfield near Frankfurt. Note the shells of MK-108 gun next to the aircraft [Via] American bomber B-24 “Liberator” (serial number 44-50838) of the 448th Bombardment Group, shot down by R4M missiles of a Messerschmitt Me-262. Only one member of the crew survived, he landed on the enemy territory and was captured [Via] Photo of Luftwaffe Me-262 being shot down by USAF P-51 Mustang of the 8th Air Force, as seen from the P-51’s gun camera [Via]
Orthographically projected diagram of the Messerschmitt Me 262 [Via]
The only surviving Horten Ho 229 – “Hitler’s Stealth fighter”
The Horten Ho 229 is generally known by a few unique names. The plane was called the H.IX, by the Horten Brothers. The identity Ho 229 had been given to the plane by the German Ministry of Aviation. Sometimes, it was also called the Gotha Go 229, because Gothaer Waggonfabrik was the name of the German maker who manufactured the plane.
This plane has been recently called “Hitler’s Stealth fighter”, despite the fact that the plane’s stealth capacities may have been accidental. As per William Green, creator of “Warplanes of the Third Reich,” the Ho 229 was the principal “flying wing” air ship with a jet engine.
It was the primary plane with elements in its design which can be alluded to as stealth innovation, to obstruct the ability of radar to identify the plane.
The leader of the German Luftwaffe, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, awarded the German aircraft machine industry what is called X 1000” objective. Goring needed a plane that could transport 1000kg of bombs (2,200 lb), with a scope of 1000 km (620 miles) and speed of 1000 km/h (620 mph).
The Horten Brothers had been taking a shot at flying wing design lightweight gliders since the 1930’s. They thought that the low-drag of the gliders that were made previously could be the base for work that would meet Goring’s requests. The wings of the H.IX plane were produced using two carbon infused plywood boards, stuck to each other with sawdust and charcoal blend.
In 1943, 500,000 Reich Marks had been awarded to the Horten Brothers by Goring to assemble and fly a few models of the all-wing and jet-propelled Horten H IX. The Hortens flew an unpowered glider in March of 1944. The flying machine did not resemble any current plane being used in the Second World War.
It looked fundamentally the same as the cutting edge American B-2 Bomber. Goring was very much inspired with the plan and transferred it from the Hortens to the German aviation organization Gothaer Waggonfabrik.
At Gothaer, the plan experienced a few noteworthy upgrades. The outcome was a jet powered model, the H.IX V2, which was first flown on 2nd February, 1945.
Expelled from the venture, the Horten Brothers were working with the Horten H.XVIII, which was also known as the Amerika Bomber. The Horten H.XVIII was just an effort to satisfy the Germans wishes to manufacture an aircraft that could reach the United States. After a few more experimental flights, the Ho 229 was added to the German Jäger-Notprogramm, or Emergency Fighter Program, on 12th March, 1945.
Work on the next model rendition of the plane, the H.IX V3, finished when the American 3rd Army’s VII Corps came to the Gotha plant in Friederichsroda on 14th April, 1945.
In 2008, Northrop-Grumman, utilizing those designs plans which were available, fabricated a full-size generation of the H.IX V3 by using only those materials which were available in Germany in 1945. They studied the main surviving parts of a Ho 229 V3, which were accommodated at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Paul E. Garber Restoration and Storage Facility on the outskirts of Washington DC in Suitland, Maryland.
The Horten Ho 229 being restored at Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center (Credits: Cynrik de Decker)
Engineers at Northrop needed to see whether the German aircraft could really be resistant to radar. Northrop tried the non-flying reproduction at its classified radar testing office in Tejon, California. During the testing, the frequencies utilized by British radar offices toward the end of the war were directed towards the reproduction. Tom Dobrenz, a Northrop Grumman stealth master, said with regards to the H.IX, “This design gave them just about a 20% reduction in radar range detection over a conventional fighter of the day.”
When combined with the speed of the H.IX, after being picked up by British Homeland Defense radar, the Royal Air Force would have had only 8 minutes from the time of detecting the airplane before it approached England, rather than the standard 19 minutes.
While the design turned out to be stealthy, it has been contended that it was not intended to be stealthy. There is no written proof in Germany that the design was expected to be what would later be recognized as stealth innovation.
In an article composed by Reimar Horten, broadcast in the May 1950 version of the Argentine aviation magazine Revista Nacional de Aeronautica, Reimar composed, “…with the advent of radar, wood constructions, already considered antique, turned into something modern again. As the reflection of electric waves on metallic surfaces is good, such will be the image on the radar screen on the contrary, on wood surfaces, that reflection is little, these resulting barely visible on the radar.”
In the late 1970s and beginning of the 1980s, data started to break to the media that the United States was doing some important work on airplanes with stealth innovation.
In 1983, Reimar Horten wrote in Nurflugel: Die Geschichte der Horten-Flugzeuge 1933-1960 (Herbert Weishaupt, 1983) that he had wanted to join a blend of sawdust, charcoal, and paste between the layers of wood that framed vast areas of the outside surface of the HIX wing to shield, he said, the “entire plane” from radar, in light of the fact that “the charcoal ought to ingest the electrical waves.
Under this shield the tubular steel, [airframe] and the engines, [would be] “undetectable” [to radar]” (p. 136, creator interpretation).
The Horten Ho 229 being restored at Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center (Credits: Cynrik de Decker)
By 1983, the fundamental elements of American stealth innovation were at the point of being public knowledge.
After the war, the latest scientific improvements prompted the idea of planning an airframe that could sidestep radar. It was found that a jet-powered, flying wing design, just like the Horten Ho 229 will have a little radar cross-area to traditional contemporary twin-motor aircraft. This is because the wings were merged into the fuselage and there were no extensive propeller disks or vertical and horizontal tail surfaces to give a locatable radar signature.
Reimar Horten said he blended charcoal dust with the wood paste to soak up electromagnetic waves (radar), which he accepted could shield the aircraft from identification by British early warning ground-based radar that worked at 20 to 30 MHz (the top end of the HF band), which is called Chain Home radar.
Engineers of the Northrop-Grumman Corporation had a great interest on the Ho 229, and a few of them went to the Smithsonian Museum’s office in Silver Hill, Maryland in the 1980s to learn about and study the V3 airframe. A group of engineers from Northrop-Grumman did some electromagnetic experimentation the V3’s multilayer wooden middle-area nose cones.
The cones are 3/4 of an inch (19 mm) thick and made up of thin sheets of veneer. The group inferred that there was surely some type of conducting element within the paste, as the radar signal lessened extensively as it passed through the cone.
So it turns out Hitler was far along with developing a plane that was far ahead of its time!
The Horten Ho 229 being restored at Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center (Credits: Cynrik de Decker)
The Horten Ho 229 being restored at Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center (Credits: Cynrik de Decker) The Horten Ho 229 being restored at Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center (Credits: Cynrik de Decker) The Horten Ho 229 being restored at Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center (Credits: Cynrik de Decker) The Horten Ho 229 being restored at Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center (Credits: Cynrik de Decker)
This is the only surviving prototype
What If? Radical Nazi Jet Flying Wing of World War II
Illustrator Jack Fellows imagines a scenario in which a Horten Ho-229 attacks B-17G bombers in 1946.
The never-built Horten Ho-229 has been the subject of more speculation and myths than any other World War II airplane
Reimar Horten and his older brother Walter were German aircraft homebuilders. Their relatively short aircraft-building careers extended from 1933 until the end of World War II, though they did some minor work in Argentina after the war as expatriate Nazis. Had they lived 40 years later, chances are they would have been busy members of an EAA chapter in Germany, making a living selling kits for their high-performance flying-wing sailplanes.
The first of two H IILs built in Lippstadt in 1937 was flown by Reimar Horten at a glider contest. (Courtesy of Wolfgang Muehlbauer)
The Hortens weren’t Burt Rutans. Talented, yes, but not the aeronautical geniuses they’ve been called by some. They built a series of increasingly sophisticated iterations of the same basic design—graceful sweptwing, tailless gliders, though several of their wings were powered. The Hortens produced a grand total of 44 airframes of their dozen basic designs. History has portrayed them as aeronautical visionaries, for in 1940 Messerschmitt Me-109 pilot Walter Horten, who scored seven Battle of Britain victories as Adolf Galland’s wingman, proposed putting a pair of Germany’s new axial-flow jet engines into a Horten glider. The result was the Ho IX. (Brother Reimar was the aerodynamicist and designer Walter was the facilitator, eventually holding an important Luftwaffe position that allowed him to divert government supplies, staff and facilities for his brother.)
The jets were first going to be two BMW 003s, but when they underperformed the Hortens switched to Junkers Jumo 004Bs. The Ho IX V2 (Versuch 2, or Test 2—the V1 was an unpowered research glider) officially flew three times, crashing fatally at the end of the third flight when one of its two Jumos failed.
No Horten IX ever flew again, but the brothers had undeniably built and tested the world’s first turbojet flying wing. The Ho IX V2 first flew in March 1945, more than three and a half years before Northrop’s eight-jet YB-49 flying-wing bomber took off. In a number of ways, the Hortens were well ahead of Jack Northrop and his engineers, though Northrop never admitted that. After the war, it was suggested to Northrop that he hire the brothers. “Forget it, they’re just glider designers,” he said condescendingly. The success of the Ho IX was pointed out to him, but Northrop dismissed it as a Gotha design, not a Horten.
Northrop was wrong, but the source of his confusion was the fact that the Luftwaffe, knowing the tiny Horten garage operation could never mass-produce twin-engine jet fighter-bombers, turned the project over to Gotha, a large railroad car manufacturing company with aircraft-building experience. As a result, the Horten jet has come down to us with a confusing suite of names. The actual sole jet-powered wing that flew was the Ho IX V2. The German air ministry (Reichsluftfahrtministerium, or RLM) gave the project an official make and model designation—Ho-229. Because production was assigned to Gotha, some sources still refer to the airplane as a Go-229. Many Luftwaffe aircraft were built by a variety of manufacturers, but a Junkers remained a Ju, a Heinkel an He, a Dornier a Do no matter who actually manufactured it, so “Go-229” is a misnomer. The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, citing the RLM designation, calls a major artifact in its collection that is about to undergo serious conservation a Horten 229. This despite the fact that no production Horten 229 ever existed what the Smithsonian has is the never-completed Ho IX V3 built by Gotha.
It bears mentioning that neither Northrop nor the Hortens invented flying wings. Both the concept and actual flying wings have been around since the 1910s. In fact, by the late 1920s there had been enough experiments with flying wings that the configuration was considered passé, and both Jack Northrop and the Hortens were late to the party.
The Hortens have also been credited with designing and building the world’s first stealth fighter. That is a more difficult claim to support. It’s a popular fiction in the “Hitler’s wonder weapons” community, and it got a boost in a 2009 Northrop Grumman–sponsored film, Hitler’s Stealth Fighter, a National Geographic documentary. The doc tried to show that a modern replica of the National Air and Space Museum’s Ho IX V3 bombarded by microwaves revealed moderate radar-deflecting properties. Northrop Grumman’s prototyping shop built the replica for $250,000. That’s a bargain for an hour-long video broadcast on the History Channel that is still being discussed by what some call the “Napkinwaffe”—a dig at where the plans for some of the Luftwaffe’s fantasy fighters were first sketched. (Engineering drawings for the Horten jet reveal this to be not far from the truth.)
Test pilot Erwin Ziller starts the Ho IX V2’s engines at Oranienburg in February 1945. Ziller was killed when the V2 lost an engine and crashed during its third test flight. (National Air and Space Museum)
Northrop Grumman built the Horten replica entirely of wood, its plywood skins layered with radar-absorbent carbon-impregnated glue. Only the externally radar-visible instrument panel backing and first-stage compressor disks were metal. Yet the Horten brothers’ original airplane also had an 11-foot-wide center section made of welded steel tubing, and it carried two turbojet engines. Neither of these were part of the Northrop Grumman replica. It could be argued that all this metal might have reflected at least some microwave energy that penetrated the plywood. But Northrop Grumman felt that their special glue made the replica totally opaque to radar.
The replicators also left out the original Ho IX V3’s eight large aluminum fuel tanks. Nor did Northrop Grumman include the underwing bombs that would have been necessary for any attack on a radar-defended target. Externally racked ordnance destroys any semblance of stealth. The Nat Geo film ended up suggesting that an all-wood Horten might have been able to do a fly-by of Britain’s by then obsolete Chain Home low-frequency radar array, but it wouldn’t have been able to bomb anything.
Narration over the film says that it reveals “just how close Nazi engineers were to unleashing a jet that some say could have changed the course of the war.” Not bloody likely, if only because by that time, the Germans were literally out of gas.
The heart of the Horten stealth assertion is a claim by the brothers, made long after the war ended, that they indeed had intended to fasten the layers of the Ho-229’s plywood sheathing with glue mixed with radar-absorbing charcoal. Perhaps they did mean to do that, but the first mention of this plan came in a 1983 book written by Reimar, at a time when the basics of U.S. stealth technology were becoming public knowledge. There is no mention of any attempt to achieve stealthy properties for the Ho-229 by anybody involved in the actual fabrication of the prototypes.
NASM’s restoration facility ran extensive digital-microscopy, X-ray diffraction and Fourier-transfer spectroscopy tests on the wooden structure of their Horten aircraft’s wing and found no evidence of any carbon or charcoal impregnation of the glue. The black specks that Northrop Grumman had assumed were evidence of the Hortens’ attempt to create a radar blanket were found to be simply oxidized wood.
Reimar Horten originally planned to sheathe the Ho IX in aluminum, which hardly suggests that he had stealth as an objective. It was only when he discovered to his surprise that the Messerschmitt Me-163 rocket plane was covered in plywood that he realized high speed didn’t rule out using wood. He then switched to more easily obtainable plywood veneer, but for reasons that had nothing to do with its radar attenuation and everything to do with its availability.
It’s also worth noting that the Ho-229 was intended to be a day fighter, a bomber interceptor, though eventually, as was true of so many Luftwaffe fantasy fighters, it was to undertake a variety of other roles. Walter Horten had originally advocated jet power because, as a fighter pilot himself, he wanted to build a better airplane than the Focke Wulf Fw-190, which he considered to be an inferior, spin-prone design.
So why would stealth have been a criterion, if an Ho-229 would never confront radar? It wasn’t. Hitler’s “stealth fighter” was simply intended to be Hitler’s aerodynamically efficient, fast, maneuverable fighter.
How did the Hitler’s stealth fighter myth take root? Certainly there’s fertile ground upon which such legends can be sown among the model builders and war gamers who love nothing more than mysterious Luftwaffe wonder weapons that would have reversed the course of the war had it only lasted another month. But none seem to understand the years-long prototyping/testing/production process that is a necessary part of bringing a sophisticated aircraft from napkin sketch to combat. Exactly three years and a day passed between the Messerschmitt Me-262 twin-jet’s first flight and the beginning of its operational readiness. Following such a schedule, the Ho-229 would have been ready for combat in early 1948.
The Ho IX, precursor of the 229, was the work of a garage shop. The V1 and V2 versions were built in what was essentially a three-car workshop, out of largely unairworthy structural material. The center section steel tubing was much like what today suffices for building trade electrical conduit, and the Hortens were notorious for using household-grade plywood veneer for their airplanes’ external sheathing.
How professional were the Hortens? Some of their work raises questions. Walter Horten was assigned the job of calculating the V2’s center of gravity, for example, which he did using a steel measuring tape. Unfortunately, he never noticed that the first 10 centimeters of the tape had broken off, so his false measurements determined that the airplane needed substantial ballast in the nose. Since the CG was 10 centimeters off, the test pilot assigned to the first flight found that he could barely keep the airplane aloft with full back stick, and when he tried to flare for landing the airplane hit so hard that it badly damaged the gear. And the Hortens’ fabricators welded and rewelded the V2’s center section as the engine choice flip-flopped between BMW and Junkers, which created heat stresses that no experienced aircraft builder would have allowed. Skilled welders would have cut out and rebuilt entire sections of the structure.
The uncompleted Ho IX V3 at war’s end. (National Archives)
The Hortens also needed to adapt cast-off components to their Ho IX airframe, which led to its ungainly nosewheel. The airplane’s main gear is fashioned from Me-109 parts, and the enormous nosewheel, almost 5 feet in diameter, is the tailwheel, tire and retraction mechanism from a Heinkel He-177 Greif, a benighted heavy bomber. It was a fortuitous choice nonetheless. The oversize nosewheel put the Ho IX at a 7-degree angle of incidence at rest, which facilitated takeoff without requiring the forceful rotation other Horten designs had needed.
After the war, a number of Horten designs were examined by the Allies, initially the British. If any conspiracy theorists noticed the byline at the beginning of this article, they’ll by now be hyperventilating, for the “Wilkinson Report,” written by a committee of British aviation authorities headed by soaring expert Kenneth Wilkinson, was supposedly highly critical of the Hortens. (If Kenneth and I are related, it is to the same degree that Henry and Harrison Ford are.)
British aviation writer Lance Cole, apparently a serious Horten conspiracist, wrote that the Wilkinson Report was “a way of helping to shield the reality of the Horten achievement so that greater powers could seize the ideas and keep them unseen for decades…[it] dismissed their ideas and works as apparent flights of fancy stemming, it seemed, from what felt like a British attitude of the Hortens being men ‘without the proper background.'”
I can find none of this in the evenhanded, rigorous, authoritative, technical 60-page Wilkinson Report. The paper does point out that British engineers tended to trust wind-tunnel data more than they did inflight assessments, but admits the Hortens had no access to such a tunnel. It calls the Hortens’ careers “a remarkable record of progress in spite of [such] obstacles.”
One thing that did baffle Wilkinson’s committee was that so little of Reimar Horten’s work was of the slightest use to the German war effort. Reimar was far more interested in record-setting and competition gliders, and he continued to design and build them throughout the war. Some historians, in fact, think that he viewed the jet wing as a “flying résumé” that would help him get a job in the U.S. or Britain after the war. Reimar would have loved to carry on his career in the States. Despite membership in the Nazi Party and his work as a Luftwaffe assault-glider instructor, he had first tried to emigrate to America in 1938 but had been refused an exit visa since he was thought to have had access to classified information.
Why a flying wing? What’s wrong with the conventional designs that have served so well since the early 1900s? Certainly there have been some useful variations—canards, pushers, semi-tailless deltas, blended wing/body proposals, even Vincent Burnelli’s perennial lifting-fuselage concept—but the pure flying wing has always been an outlier. What is its appeal?
Theoretically, the advantages of a flying wing are substantial. A conventional design—a Boeing 777, a Cessna Skyhawk, an F-22 Raptor, you name it—has wings that contribute lift despite inevitable induced and parasitic drag…plus a fuselage, engine nacelle(s) and an empennage that contribute nothing but drag. Zero lift. Indeed a conventional horizontal stabilizer often adds negative lift—downforce—to an airplane. Yes, the fuselage can carry passengers, cargo or ordnance, but so can a flying wing.
One of the major functions of a fuselage is to support the empennage that provides pitch and yaw control for a conventional airplane. A flying wing totally eliminates the drag of an aft fuselage and empennage. In fact, every part of a flying wing is a lifting surface. An all-wing aircraft also allows for the efficiency of span-loading. Much of a conventional airplane’s weight is concentrated near its centerline, hence the videos of bendy-wing Boeing Dreamliners looking as though they’re trying to clap hands above their fuselages. The forces concentrated at the wing/fuselage juncture of a conventional airplane are enormous, while a flying wing can spread the entire load from wingtip to wingtip, thus allowing for a lighter and more efficient structure. The weight is spread out where the lift is, so a flying wing can have a large, efficient, high-aspect-ratio span without requiring a heavy framework to support it.
For a stealthy airplane, a true flying wing has a distinct advantage: It does away with all radar-reflective vertical surfaces, particularly stabilizers and rudders. This, plus its wooden construction and lack of radar-reflecting prop discs, is what gave Northrop Grumman’s Ho IX replica its comparatively small radar cross-section, not a miracle glue.
The disadvantage of a flying wing is its natural instability, with no tail to provide counterbalance in pitch and yaw. The Hortens overcame much of this with enlightened wing, airfoil and control-surface design, but their airplanes still exhibited the classic flying-wing waddle, semi-technically termed Dutch roll. The Ho IX V2’s flights had already revealed moderate lateral instability. It would have made the Ho-229 a dreadful gun platform as a fighter and a handful as a bomber. (This was the characteristic that doomed the Northrop YB-49 flying wing in its competition with what became the Convair B-36 bomb-run accuracy was impossible to achieve when yaw/roll coupling determined the meandering flight path. Nor did it help that one YB-49 went out of control and crashed fatally during stall testing in June 1948.)
By the time Gotha took over the Ho-229 project, the Horten brothers had lost interest and moved on to their planned masterpiece—a six-turbojet flying wing “Amerika Bomber.” The Ho XVIII never was built, but it filled another niche in the Napkinwaffe. Some still say the Amerika Bomber (several German airframers were racing to build one) was intended to drop an atomic bomb on New York. Fortunately, the Germans would never have been able to build such a weapon, having lost their Norwegian deuterium source, but they did have the capability to put together a dirty bomb—a large conventional bomb encased in strongly radioactive material that would have polluted a wide area with radiation.
Though Northrop wanted nothing to do with the Horten brothers, the company did acquire several of their gliders for research after WWII, leading conspiracists to claim that Northrop stole the Hortens’ secrets for its own flying wings. Actually, Northrop depicted an Ho VI glider in postwar aviation magazine ads as an example of “one of the Nazi attempts to adapt U.S. flying-wing design for eventual military use.”
The Smithsonian’s Ho IX V3 was brought to America as part of Operation Seahorse, a U.S. Navy counterpart to the better-known Operation Paperclip campaign to acquire as many interesting Luftwaffe aircraft as possible. But it was never flown and in fact was only half-completed. It was first assessed at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, in Britain—the source of the Wilkinson Report data—and was then sent to both Wright and Freeman fields for Army Air Forces scrutiny. The jet wing ended up stored outdoors in Chicago at a facility that was intended to become a national air museum. In 1952 the Smithsonian acquired the airplane, though it was by then badly beaten up by numerous moves and exposure to the weather. It was moved once more to “a secret government warehouse,” according to published reports. That warehouse was actually the Smithsonian’s quite unsecret Suitland, Md., restoration facility, where it stayed for 60-plus years, part of that time stored in an open wooden shed.
The V3’s center section is currently undergoing preservation at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center. (National Air and Space Museum)
The artifact is in sad shape today, much of its plywood sheathing delaminated and rotting, its metal frame and landing gear corroded, and parts missing. NASM has it on the short list for major work, and the V3 can currently be seen at the museum’s restoration facility in the Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport.
That work will not be restoration but conservation: stopping the rot and corrosion, cleaning up the airframe and assembling the center section and outer wings into a single unit. Those wings may or may not have been part of the V3. Only one wing came to the U.S. with the center section, and another was later found some distance from the Gotha shop.
The Hortens’ last hurrah took place without their participation. In July 1947, there was a notorious occurrence at Roswell, N.M, known forever after as the “Roswell Incident.” It allegedly involved the crash of a flying saucer and the snatching by the Army Air Forces of the bodies of three aliens aboard it. The Roswell Incident engendered decades’ worth of tabloids portraying the gourd-headed ETs perhaps still stored in freezers in a heavily guarded Area 51 hangar. The government tried to explain away the crash by saying it had been a high-altitude weather balloon it was actually a secret surveillance balloon intended to keep track of Soviet atomic bomb testing. But some observers with more specialized knowledge had an intriguing theory.
In 1937 Reimar Horten decided that the ultimate flying-wing shape would be a parabola—a wing with a near-circular leading edge planform, which would provide the minimum induced drag and maximum lift. The Hortens built just one parabola-wing glider but never flew it the airplane was torched after warping and becoming unglued during winter storage. But wait, there’s more…supposedly the AAF found out about the Horten parabola wing and decided to build a powered version to secretly test Reimar’s theory. It was this airplane, looking uncannily like two-thirds of a flying saucer, that crashed in New Mexico in 1947.
Nobody has yet explained the aliens, however.
For further reading, contributing editor Stephan Wilkinson recommends: The Horten Brothers and Their All-Wing Aircraft, by David Myhra and Horten Ho 229 Spirit of Thuringia: The Horten All-Wing Jet Fighter, by Andrei Shepelev and Huib Ottens.
This feature originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of Aviation History Magazine. Subscribe today!
With the end of hostilities in May 1945, the Allied powers scrambled to claim the remaining Me 262s. Studying the revolutionary aircraft, elements were subsequently incorporated into future fighters such as the F-86 Sabre and MiG-15. In the years after the war, Me 262s were used in high-speed testing. Though German production of the Me 262 ended with the conclusion of the war, the Czechoslovak government continued building the aircraft as the Avia S-92 and CS-92. These remained in service until 1951.