The Heinkel He 280, developed by the German aircraft manufacturer Heinkel, stands as the first jet fighter to take flight globally.
This early turbojet-powered fighter drew from the advancements in gas turbine propulsion by Hans von Ohain and built upon Ernst Heinkel’s pioneering work on the He 178, the first jet-powered aircraft.
In late 1939, despite the lackluster response from the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (RLM), the German Reich Aviation Ministry, to the He 178, Heinkel prioritized high-speed flight research and jet engine development, initiating the project for a jet fighter.
The He 280 featured two turbojets for increased thrust, positioned in the mid-wing, and a then-unusual tricycle undercarriage, although the fuselage design remained largely traditional.
The Big Competitor
By the summer of 1940, the first prototype airframe was ready. However, engine development challenges with the planned HeS 8 engine led to initial tests as a glider, with powered flights delayed for six months.
These delays, partly due to limited state support, held back the He 280’s progress, although it was potentially poised to become operational earlier than its competitor, the Messerschmitt Me 262, and offered certain advantages.
On December 22, 1942, the He 280 showcased its markedly superior speed compared to the piston-engine Focke-Wulf Fw 190 in a mock dogfight for RLM officials. This led the RLM to commission 20 pre-production test aircraft, anticipating a larger order of 300 production models.
Yet, ongoing engine development issues plagued the He 280 program. In 1942, the RLM directed Heinkel to cease work on the HeS 8 and HeS 30 engines to concentrate on the HeS 011, which faced delays.
Consequently, Heinkel opted for the BMW 003 engine, but this too encountered setbacks. The second He 280 prototype was therefore fitted with Junkers Jumo 004 engines.
On March 27, 1943, Erhard Milch, Inspector-General of the Luftwaffe, ordered the discontinuation of the He 280 project in favor of other initiatives.
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The cancellation is attributed to a mix of technical and political reasons, including the overlapping role with the Me 262. Ultimately, only nine test aircraft were constructed, and the He 280 never achieved operational status or participated in active combat.
Concept of Jet Propulsion
In the late 1930s, Heinkel, a prominent aviation company, achieved a significant milestone by developing the He 178, the world’s first aircraft powered by a turbojet engine.
This groundbreaking aircraft first took to the skies on August 27, 1939. However, despite this remarkable achievement, a demonstration flight of the He 178 failed to capture the interest of officials from the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (RLM), the German Reich Aviation Ministry, in either the jet-powered aircraft or the concept of jet propulsion.
Unbeknownst to Heinkel, the Reich Air Ministry had already initiated its own secretive efforts in jet technology, separate from Heinkel’s work.
Despite this lack of state support for further development, Heinkel remained convinced of the turbojet’s potential. In late 1939, the company independently embarked on a project that would evolve into the He 280.
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Initially named He 180, this endeavor to create a jet-powered fighter aircraft was led by Robert Lusser, a noted German aeronautical designer.
This new venture benefitted significantly from the experiences and data acquired through the He 178 program, despite the He 178’s design being deemed unsuitable for further advancement, particularly due to the impracticality of its fuselage-mounted engine.
For the He 280, a more straightforward design was adopted, with a pair of turbojets installed in a mid-wing position.
The aircraft, while featuring groundbreaking propulsion, incorporated many conventional aspects, such as a typical Heinkel fighter fuselage, semi-elliptical wings, and a tailplane with dihedral angles, twin fins, and rudders. The He 280 was equipped with a tricycle undercarriage, notable for its low ground clearance.
Initially, some officials deemed this arrangement too fragile for the grass or dirt airfields common at the time. Nevertheless, the tricycle design eventually became widely accepted.
One particularly innovative aspect of the He 280 was its inclusion of an ejection seat, the first in any aircraft, powered by compressed air.
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This seat not only marked a first in aircraft design but also later proved its worth in an actual emergency situation. Compared to the Messerschmitt Me 262, another German jet fighter, the He 280 had a smaller overall size and was believed to be more maintainable.
In the summer of 1940, the initial prototype of the He 280 was completed. However, its designated HeS 8 turbojet engines were beset by significant production challenges.
On September 22, 1940, while engine development was still ongoing, the first prototype began glide testing. For these tests, it was equipped with weighted pods in lieu of its engines and was towed by a He 111.
It took another six months before the second prototype, piloted by Fritz Schäfer, took flight under its own power on March 30, 1941. Schäfer reported post-flight that the He 280, while presenting some difficulties in controlling turns, could be smoothly operated by an experienced pilot.
On April 5, 1941, Paul Bader showcased the He 280 in a flight demonstration before various Nazi officials, including Ernst Udet and other prominent figures.
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Despite this, the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (RLM) later shifted its focus to the development of the Me 262, a competing jet fighter. However, Heinkel still received support from Hirth Motoren for ongoing turbine development.
A notable advantage of the He 280 that caught the attention of German political leaders was its ability to use kerosene, a fuel less costly and simpler to refine than the high-octane fuel required by piston-engine aircraft.
Yet, crucial government funding during the initial development phase was insufficient, a situation that aviation author Robert Dorr attributes largely to Udet’s personal opposition.
Progress over the following year was hindered by persistent issues with the engines. Additionally, the HeS 30 engine was under development both as an intriguing project in its own right and as a potential alternative to the HeS 8. During this period, other power sources were considered, including the Argus As 014 pulsejet, which powered the V-1 flying bomb. The proposal suggested using up to eight of these engines.
By the end of 1942, the third prototype had been equipped with improved versions of the HeS 8 engine and was prepared for its next demonstration.
On December 22, a simulated combat engagement was organized for RLM officials, pitting the He 280 against a piston-engine Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighter.
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In this mock dogfight, the He 280 showcased its vastly superior speed, completing four laps of an oval course before the Fw 190 could finish three. Following this impressive display, the RLM finally took an interest and ordered 20 pre-production test aircraft, which would precede a planned production run of 300 aircraft.
Engine issues persisted as a major hurdle for the He 280 project.
In 1942, the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (RLM) directed Heinkel to halt development of the HeS 8 and HeS 30 engines, concentrating instead on the more complex and advanced HeS 011 engine, although this redirection came without specific citation. Meanwhile, the initial He 280 prototype was refitted with pulsejets for testing, but adverse weather led to icing before the jets could be assessed.
This situation resulted in pilot Helmut Schenk making history by being the first to use an ejection seat in an emergency, although the aircraft itself was lost and never recovered.
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With the HeS 011 engine not anticipated to be ready soon, Heinkel turned to the alternative BMW 003 engine. However, this engine also encountered its own set of problems and delays.
Consequently, the second He 280 prototype was equipped with Junkers Jumo 004 engines. The next three airframes were initially designated for the BMW engine, but it never became a reality.
The Jumo engines, significantly larger and heavier than the initially intended HeS 8, meant that while the aircraft managed to fly from March 16, 1943, it was evident that this engine was not a suitable match. The aircraft underperformed in comparison to the Me 262, being slower and less efficient.
On March 27, just a few weeks later, Erhard Milch, Inspector-General of the Luftwaffe, instructed Heinkel to cease work on the He 280 and redirect efforts towards bomber development and production.
The cancellation of the He 280 was influenced by several factors. The Me 262, equipped with Jumo 004 engines, seemed to have many of the He 280’s attributes but was more harmoniously integrated with its engines.
It was thought that the He 280 could have been operational earlier, potentially serving as an interim solution before the Me 262 was ready.
Authors Tim Heath and Robert Dorr pointed out that politics also played a role in the project’s termination. Heinkel’s waning popularity among key Nazi figures contrasted with Willy Messerschmitt’s favored status, which may have influenced the decision to halt the He 280.
Despite this setback, Heinkel remained committed to jet propulsion and continued exploring opportunities to design jet-powered aircraft, which ultimately led to the single-engine Heinkel He 162, selected as the winner of the Emergency Fighter Program in October 1944.