The Heinkel He 119 is an extremely weird experimental aircraft made by Germany in the 1930s to break speed records. The He 119 prioritised minimizing drag over pretty much anything else, leading to the crew being stuffed inside the nose of the aircraft with no view forward.
Indeed, the He 119 was very fast for its day, and even broke a world speed record. However the aircraft’s radical design would end up hampering its potential.
The He 119 began its life in 1935 as a record setting aircraft from Heinkel. The idea was spurred by the Reich Aviation Ministry (RLM), who wanted to have a German aircraft participate in a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) world speed record flight planned for 1937.
Heinkel, Dornier and BFW were contracted to build a record setter, with the best being chosen to compete in the FAI record attempt.
But around the same time, the RLM also issued a requirement for a fast bomber. Heinkel, already at work creating a fast aircraft, would later attempt to adapt their record-setter design into a fast bomber concept.
Development of the He 119
Heinkel quickly got to work drawing up a high-speed machine for the 1937 attempt. They planned for a novel mono-wing, single propeller aircraft and placed a major emphasis on reducing drag as much as possible.
No aircraft engines available at the time had enough power to propel the He 119 to record-breaking speeds, so, naturally, two engines were necessary. You may be expecting Heinkel to have used a conventional two engine setup, with one engine on each wing, but you would be wrong.
That arrangement is a simple way of fitting two engines, but it comes at the cost of increasing drag. As Heinkel wished to reduce drag as much as possible from the outset of the project, this wouldn’t cut it.
Instead, Heinkel used two V12 engines combined into a single unit, and placed it inside the fuselage. It would then send its power to a single propeller in the nose.
This leads to the weirdest part about the entire aircraft: its crew position.
Again, with the intention of reducing drag at all costs, the He 119’s crew were not placed inside a typical cockpit under a protruding canopy, no, they were placed inside the nose.
This positioned quite literally directly behind the spinning propeller, and in front of the engine. The engine sent its power to the propeller via a prop shaft running through the cockpit.
In addition, evaporative cooling was employed to cool the engines, rather than by using typical radiator scoops that increase drag.
The RLM expected mock-ups of Heinkel, Dornier and BFW’s proposals to be ready by March 1936, and the first flights to take place in September 1936. However the program was not of the highest priority, so progress was slow and eventually these dates were pushed back.
Meanwhile, Junkers, BFW and Henschel were working on aircraft for the fast bomber requirement we mentioned earlier. BFW submitted the Bf 162, which was adapted from the Bf 110, and Henschel submitted the Hs 127. Junkers would eventually win this competition with their Ju 88.
But before that, Heinkel joined the party late with a fast bomber design adapted from their He 119. They planned for it to be so fast that it wouldn’t need any defensive armament, as no fighters of its day could catch it.
A mock-up of the He 119 was ready in May 1935. An initial order for seven aircraft was made; five for testing, and two for the 1937 world record flights. However this would later be reduced to around five prototypes.
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As mentioned near the start, there is lots we don’t know about the He 119. Even the number built hasn’t been positively established. At least four prototypes were built – V1, V2, V3 and V4 – but, again, it isn’t exactly clear.
He 119’s Design
The He 119 was a radical design, with its long, tapered fuselage with minimal interruptions along its length, and two large, low mounted semi-elliptical wings with a slight “gull” shape when viewed from the front.
The design was all about reducing drag, and Heinkel went about this in a wild way by placing both the crew and the two engines inside the fuselage. The crew were fully enclosed by the nose of the He 119, located directly behind the propeller. Behind them was the engines.
This unique arrangement left the wings smooth and free of bulky engine nacelles across their 52 ft 6 in (16 meter) span, increasing their aerodynamic efficiency.
The engines were two supercharged DB 601 inverted V12s. The two DB 601s were coupled together via a gearbox, and produced a combined output of 2,350 hp from a displacement of 4,140 cu in (67.8 litres). This unit was designated the DB 606.
As the engines were both inverted, they required a novel exhaust pipe arrangement. The exhausts from the outer banks were routed to exit out the sides of the fuselage, as with most inline-engined aircraft, but the inner banks’ exited through the He 119’s belly.
Heinkel didn’t want to use conventional radiator scoops to cool the engines, as these induced drag. Instead, the engines were cooled with evaporative cooling.
This routed hot coolant through passageways under the skin of the wings, which would then radiate heat away into the air passing over the wings. However this system proved to be dangerous, as any leaks in the system would cause the coolant to spill inside the wings and then immediately freeze, potentially locking up the He 119’s flight surfaces.
Because of this the system was abandoned and replaced by a more conventional radiator scoop under the nose. The radiator could be raised and lowered as needed.
In the nose was the He 119’s most interesting design element: the cockpit.
The cockpit was a radically different approach, as it placed the crew quite literally inside the nose, rather than on top of the fuselage, covered by a canopy. A bulge for a canopy or crew position adds drag, and of course, for Heinkel, that wasn’t acceptable.
So the pilot and co-pilot were fully contained inside a glazed cabin behind the propeller. This eliminated a cockpit bulge, but it severely limited visibility and the crew had to heavily rely on the aircraft’s instruments.
Directly behind them was the DB 606 roaring away, and this sent its power to the propeller via a propshaft that passed through the cockpit between the crew. The crew accessed the cockpit through a hatch on top of the fuselage.
Another crew member, the radio operator, was located near the rear of the 48 ft 7 in (14.8 meter) long fuselage. It could carry camera equipment for reconnaissance missions, or up to 1,000 kg of bombs.
The first two prototypes were fitted with semi-elliptical wings, with a rounded leading edge. However the others had a slightly update wing with a straight leading edge.
All in, the He 119 had a top speed of around 370 mph and a range of 2,000 km (1,250 miles). Not bad for a medium-sized aircraft from the 1930s.
Record Setting and Cancellation
We mentioned earlier that the He 119’s service life is not clear. There are a few different schools of thought here, but we will follow Heinkel expert Dr. Volker Koos’ interpretation of events.
The first He 119 prototype, V1, first flew in June 1937 and managed to achieve a top speed of 351 mph.
Following V1 came V2, V4, and then V3. V3 was separate to the rest as it was built as an experimental high-speed seaplane with two floats slung underneath the aircraft.
On November 22 1937, the He 119 set a world speed record for moving a 1,000 kg payload across a distance of 1,000 km (620 mph), averaging at 313.8 mph. Heinkel was actually disappointed in this though as they expected a higher speed. Poor weather had forced the He 119 to travel slower than planned, affecting the result.
Heinkel’s disappointment was cemented when an Italian Breda Ba 88 twin-engine aircraft broke this record just weeks later.
Heinkel sent the He 119 on another run in December to reclaim the title, hoping it would finally be able to stretch its legs. However on the flight, which would have seen the He 119 easily reclaim the record, a faulty fuel transfer switch resulted in the He 119 running out of fuel and crashing.
Both pilots survived, despite being injured in the incident.
The crash wrote off the prototype and heavily impacted the He 119 project, with other record-setting flights with the He 119 prototypes being cancelled.
It isn’t clear exactly which prototype was involved in this incident. Many sources state it was V4, however, inspection of the record-setting aircraft shows that it actually appears to be V1, albeit slightly modified from its initial form.
This would better align with the known timeline for the construction of the prototypes.
More evaluations of the aircraft continued despite the crash, where it was proved to be fast, but handled poorly.
The seaplane version of the He 119 was found to possesses an excellent stop speed of over 350 mph with floats attached, but the floats caused stability issues. A fin was added under the tailplane to counteract this.
Meanwhile, the standard version was capable of reaching 370 mph.
But the He 119 wouldn’t enter service. Trading practicality for speed and reduced drag proved to be the He 119’s undoing.
The crew suffered from poor visibility due to having the propeller and nose cone directly in front of them, and the cockpit was uncomfortable due to the propshaft passing through the center. The He 119’s general layout made it impractical as a fighter or fast bomber too.
Japan showed some interest, and purchased two prototypes from Germany (likely V2 and V4).
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They too would not use the He 119 in service, but it did help Japan develop the Yokosuka R2Y.
No He 119s survive today, as all appear to have been destroyed or scrapped. V1 crashed in 1937, V2 was sent to Japan, V3 stayed in Germany but was likely scrapped during the 1940s, and V4 was also sent to Japan.