The Arado E.381 was an experimental jet fighter proposed by the Nazi German government in the closing chapters of the Second World War. The proposal for the fighter was first submitted in 1944 in an era when the war had turned starkly against Germany and radical but innovative solutions were in high demand.
The E.381 followed the principle of a “parasite” fighter; an aircraft which would be carried close to its target by a larger aircraft, usually a bomber, before being released and activating its rocket engine.
The E.381 relied on a simple but, what was hoped, would be an effective design that would allow its pilots to make a quick strafing run with powerful canons on Allied bombers before heading back to base.
Three variants of the same design were proposed, with each one claiming to be an update on the previous model. While the basic theory of the E.381 was interesting and quite ahead of its time, it was never executed in practice. No production or working prototype models were ordered by the Luftwaffe, and like other jets or rockets conceived in Germany, its late timing did not alter the outcome of the war.
By 1944, the German government began seriously pursuing research and development into jet fighter technology as one of several last-ditched attempts to repel advancing Allied forces and regain air superiority over Europe.
Liberation campaigns and Allied bombing missions were also severely depleting German supply chains and the manufacturing industry, and the Nazi regime was looking for an effective but quick solution.
Rocket and jet engine designs had been quite extensively researched by both German and international aerospace engineers both before and during the war, and scientists in Germany had been tasked by the Luftwaffe with pursuing rocket or fighter ideas that could help establish air superiority or enable Nazi forces to conduct bombing missions on the United States mainland.
Events such as the German invasion of the Soviet Union shifted priorities away from experimental aircraft in favour of boosting production of existing bombers or fighters. However as the war turned against the Third Reich, with the Allies making significant ground advances into Europe and rapidly depleting German superiority in the air, the focus was shifted back to quickened and emergency production of jet aircraft.
In December 1944, the Luftwaffe and the German Air Ministry put out various proposals for new jet or rocket aircraft that could theoretically be tested and put into production at short notice.
Various manufacturers ranging from Arado, BMW, Gotha, Heinkel, Henschel, and Zeppelin all responded to the proposal with their own rocket or jet-powered aircraft designs that could be used for interception, dogfighting and strike or light bombing duties.
The design proposals all followed recommendations by the German Air Ministry that the aircraft should be able to take excessive g forces, have a reduced drag and display capabilities that were above what a conventional fighter of the day could achieve.
These proposals would be theoretically achieved by switching the pilot’s position in the cockpit from a traditional sitting-up position to a prone position where the pilot would lie flat on their stomach to control the aircraft. The idea was that a pilot could take more g forces in the prone position and designing the cockpit in such a manner would allow for a smaller, more streamlined fuselage to be built around them.
Although the prone position would be more cramped and potentially dangerous for the pilot, Luftwaffe commanders believed it was the best option. The result was an exceptionally fast aircraft that was also simple to fly at a time of a pilot shortage and would be relatively cheap and straightforward to manufacture.
In aerial battle, the proposed rocket or jet fighter would also in theory fly close to an enemy bomber squadron and would shoot several down with a quick sweep before Allied fighters had a chance to engage or pursue.
In response to the specification call, Arado proposed a Kleinstjäger (meaning “smallest fighter”) design in 1944 named the E.381.
Arado already had some degree of experience in designing experimental or jet-powered aircraft such as the Ar 234 Blitz bomber and believed their concept would be ideal. The company also had a steady supply of forced labour taken from occupied countries and concentration camps in Germany and Poland which they believed would enable them to build the proposed design at a faster rate.
By this stage, the German Air Ministry had become interested in the idea of a parasite aircraft and Arado followed the proposal accordingly.
The design philosophy of a parasite fighter followed the idea that a plane could be carried by a larger bomber and then detached close to its target before the jet or rocket motor would kick in and propel the plane for the rest of its sortie until the fuel ran low.
The Luftwaffe believed that at this stage of the war, the parasite concept would be the best way to produce a cheap but effective rocket fighter that could be transported to a target rather than necessitate the construction of new rocket launching sites.
Arado’s first version of the E.381 was the Mark I and it closely followed the parasite concept. Arado stated that the rocket would also be flown by an airman in the prone position to satisfy the proposal demands.
The company also proposed that the E.381 would be carried into the sky by one of their Arado Ar 234 bombers that would act as the mother craft.
The bomber would carry the E.381 within a reasonable range of its target before launching it from a bay beneath. The fighter would then have activated the rocket engine which would have propelled it to perform an attack run against American and British bombers.
Power to the E.381 would be provided by a single Walter HWK 109-509A rocket unit that was fitted in the aft of the fuselage. The cockpit space was small, measuring an estimated 4.8 square feet, but it would be protected by a small bulletproof glass screen.
The E.381 was designed as a reusable rocket, with retractable landing gear and a parachute for landing once the pilot had completed his mission. However, flying the rocket would be a risky task, not just because of its speed and experimental nature, but because once the pilot was sealed into the cockpit there was no way out while it was being ferried by the mother plane into battle. If the mother bomber was shot down or found itself in an emergency, there was no exit for the pilot.
Initially, the Luftwaffe high command approved of the E.381’s design but asked for modifications to be made to the fuselage to make production targets more realistic. Arado responded by designing the Mark 2 and 3 models.
The Mark 2 followed the same basic design format, albeit with power provided by an updated HWK 109-509A unit which could produce up to 3,700 pounds worth of thrust. The fuselage itself was lengthened while the fins were shortened. Armament for the Mark 2 would consist of a 30mm MK 108 cannon fitted above the cockpit that could carry up to 30 rounds.
Despite the improvements, Arado returned to the drawing board and proposed the updated Mark 3 design. The Mark 3 essentially contained the same design elements of the first two proposals but with an added pilot’s hatch on the side of the fuselage which would enable a quicker entrance and exit in the event of a crash. Armament was to be provided by additional explosive rockets mounted with the main cannon.
For all three models, it was estimated that the E.381 would only be able to make one or possibly two passes at enemy bombers before the fuel would start to run out. Simplicity and speed would be the rocket’s main defining features in the hope of turning the war back in Germany’s favour.
To keep production costs down, power and amenities such as heating and cooling would be provided by the mother aircraft before launch.
Although the Luftwaffe high command initially approved of the idea, the E.381 did not ultimately progress into the working prototype or mass production stage.
Four mockup airframes built out of wood were submitted for trial testing, with one air-towed variant being used for a few test runs.
Lack of government funds and official support from the Nazi chain of command prevented the project from going any further. While the concept itself was considered an innovative solution to the problems facing the Nazi military, serious doubts were raised about whether it could work in practice. Especially as other experiments in Germany with jet or rocket-powered aircraft had either ended in disaster or had not produced the desired results.
Arado terminated the project and shifted their focus away from parasite aircraft to pure jet aircraft that would function by themselves, such as revisiting the Ar 234 or drawing up designs for the proposed Projekt II jet fighter.
However, these projects were either cancelled or not put into military service fast enough to make any real difference to Germany’s prospects in the latter stages of the war before the Nazis were officially defeated in 1945.
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Arado themselves went out of business in 1945, although some of their designs were built under licence after the war by other aircraft manufacturers in Germany and Europe.
- Crew: 1
- Length: 4.69 m (15 ft 5 in)
- Wingspan: 4.43 m (14 ft 6 in)
- Height: 1.29 m (4 ft 3 in)
- Empty weight: 830 kg (1,830 lb)
- Gross weight: 1,200 kg (2,646 lb)
- Powerplant: 1 × Walter HWK 109-509A liquid-fuelled rocket
- Maximum speed: 900 km/h (560 mph, 490 kn)
- Guns: 1 × 30 mm MK 108 cannon