This Day in Tech History

On This Day . . .

Flight of the Heinkel

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August 27, 1939: First Flight Of A Jet Aircraft

On this day in 1939 the Heinkel He 178 was the world’s first aircraft to fly under turbojet power, and the first practical jet aircraft. It was a private venture by the German Heinkel company in accordance with director Ernst Heinkel’s emphasis on developing technology for high-speed flight and first flew on 27 August 1939, piloted by Erich Warsitz.

Pilot Erich Warsitz

Pilot Erich Warsitz

Pilot Erich Warsitz

Pilot Erich Warsitz

In 1936, a young engineer named Hans von Ohain had taken out a patent on using the exhaust from a gas turbine as a means of propulsion.

Hans von Ohain

Hans von Ohain

He presented his idea to Ernst Heinkel, who agreed to help develop the concept. Von Ohain successfully demonstrated his first engine, the Heinkel HeS 1 in 1937, and plans were quickly made to test a similar engine in an aircraft. The He 178 was designed around von Ohain’s third engine design, the HeS 3, which burned diesel fuel. The result was a small aircraft with a metal fuselage of conventional configuration and construction.

Ernst Heinkel

Ernst Heinkel

The jet intake was in the nose, and the plane was fitted with tail wheel undercarriage. The main landing gear was retractable, but remained fixed in “down” position throughout the flight trials.

The aircraft made its maiden flight on 27 August 1939, only days before Germany started World War II by invading Poland. The aircraft was a success; however, speeds were limited to 598 kilometers per hour (372 mph) at the proposed service altitude, and combat endurance was only 10 minutes.

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On 1 November 1939, after the German victory in Poland, Heinkel arranged a demonstration of the jet to officials. Herman Goering, commander in chief of the German air force, didn’t even show up. Ernst Udet and Erhard Milch watched the aircraft perform, but were unimpressed.

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Heinkel was disappointed by the lack of official interest in his private-venture jet. In his autobiography, he attributes this to the failure of the leaders of the Reichsluftfahrtministerium to understand the advantages of jet propulsion and what a breakthrough the He 178 represented.

Similar claims are common in literature on Heinkel; however the reason the Reich Air Ministry was not interested was because it was developing jets itself. Nobody at Heinkel knew anything about these secret military projects.

In 1939 BMW and Junkers were working on “official” turbojet engines for the German air force. As these were axial-flow turbojets, not radial-flow turbojets like those being developed at Heinkel and by Frank Whittle in England, they promised much higher flight speeds.

British Gloster

British Gloster

In July 1944 both the German and British air forces began flying jet powered fighters operationally. The British Gloster Meteor F.I, powered by Rolls-Royce Welland radial-flow turbojets, had a maximum speed (in level flight and at optimum altitude) of 430 mph (668 km/h).This was about the same as piston engined fighters being flown in combat at that time.

German Messerschmitt

German Messerschmitt

The German Messerschmitt Me 262, powered by Junkers Jumo 004 axial-flow turbojets, had a maximum speed of 540 mph (870 km/h), 100 mph faster than the best piston engined fighters. It also had superior climb performance. On the downside the engines had a service life of about 25 hours whereas the British ones could run for 180 hours.

The He 178 was placed in the Berlin Air Museum, where it was destroyed in an air raid in 1943.

Heinkel He 178 replica at Rostock-Laage Airport

Heinkel He 178 replica at Rostock-Laage Airport

Flight of the Heinkel

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