The Heinkel He 162 Volksjäger, a German single-engine, jet-powered fighter, played a role in World War II.
Developed during the Emergency Fighter Program, it boasted a rapid design and construction, primarily utilizing wood due to metal shortages.
The Reich Air Ministry dubbed the aircraft “Volksjäger” following its victory in a government design program competition.
Furthermore, it earned names like “Salamander” from its wing-construction program, and Heinkel called it “Spatz” or Sparrow.
Despite its nearly identical length to the Bf 109, the He 162 flaunted a notably shorter wing, measuring only 7.2 meters. Its distinctively top-mounted engine and low-slung landing gear facilitated easy maintenance access.
However, the engine placement complicated safe bailouts, prompting it to become the first single-engine aircraft with an operational ejection seat.
The aircraft’s small stature limited fuel capacity and, coupled with an inefficient engine, resulted in a mere 20-minute endurance. Moreover, its armament was restricted to two autocannons, deeming it relatively underpowered for its time.
A series of fatal accidents during testing delayed the He 162 program, requiring various refinements. Nevertheless, the aircraft emerged in January 1945 as an impressive light fighter.
Although production lines were established and deliveries began, Germany’s state at the time rendered the effort futile.
Out of nearly 1,000 examples on the assembly lines, only about 120 reached the airfields, and most did not fly due to shortages of parts, fuel, and pilots.
Development squadrons utilized small numbers, occasionally engaging in combat in April 1945. However, the He 162 proved dangerous to its pilots since its minimal fuel load led to numerous off-field crashes, while structural failures caused additional losses.
Production continued until the war concluded in May 1945. The Allied forces captured numerous aircraft and a substantial supply of parts.
Eric Brown, flying one post-war, deemed it a superb aircraft with minimal drawbacks. Today, several He 162s reside in various global museum collections.
Design of the Heinkel He 162
In 1943, the U.S. 8th Air Force and the German Luftwaffe engaged in a rapid evolution, seeking superiority. The Germans, having lost many fighters to bomber defensive guns, invested in heavy weapons to attack from a safer distance.
They added heavy cannons, such as the 30mm MK 108 and Bordkanone autoloaders in 37mm and 50mm, to their Zerstörer heavy fighters.
Furthermore, they adopted the Werfer-Granate 21 unguided rockets in spring 1943, providing their defensive fighters unprecedented firepower.
Single-engine aircraft, like certain Fw 190As, incorporated additional armor to shield pilots from Allied defensive fire.
This allowed them to get close enough to utilize their potent weaponry with a realistic chance of striking bombers. However, the added weight significantly impacted the performance of both single and twin-engine fighters.
In early 1944, the 8th Air Force resumed bombing with the Big Week offensive, supported by P-51 Mustang escorts. Unlike Luftwaffe fighters, these Mustangs, not burdened with heavy bomber-downing weapons, easily repelled the Luftwaffe.
In retaliation, the Luftwaffe adapted, forming ahead of bombers, executing a single, swift pass through their formations, minimizing defensive reaction time.
Consequently, Major General Jimmy Doolittle commanded U.S. fighters to roam freely, engaging Luftwaffe fighters preemptively over Germany.
This strategic shift rapidly escalated Luftwaffe losses, as their burdened aircraft were ambushed well before reaching the bombers.
Within weeks, numerous aces and hundreds of pilots perished, while the training program lagged in replacing them.
By summer 1944, a weakened Luftwaffe scarcely contested the Allied French landings. With sparse aerial opposition, Allied fighters targeted German airbases, railways, and truck traffic, disrupting Luftwaffe logistics.
Ensuing maintenance challenges and a dire fuel shortage, exacerbated by Allied strikes on German petroleum targets, further crippled the Luftwaffe.
The Luftwaffe faced a dilemma, split into two camps, both advocating for the swift deployment of numerous jet fighters.
One faction, headed by General Adolf Galland, believed superior technology could counteract numerical superiority. They urged for escalating production of the Messerschmitt Me 262 A-1a fighter variant, even if it reduced the output of other aircraft.
Conversely, the second faction highlighted the Me 262’s infamous unreliability in powerplants and landing gear, and prevailing logistical issues.
They anticipated additional grounded planes, languishing while awaiting inaccessible parts or unavailable fuel.
This group proposed constructing a new, cost-effective design, which could be easily discarded and replaced upon damage or wear. Consequently, the “throwaway fighter” concept emerged.
Galland and several top Luftwaffe officers vehemently resisted the light fighter idea. Nonetheless, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring and Armaments Minister Albert Speer, strong proponents of the concept, prevailed.
A contract was thus established for a single-engine jet fighter, designed for economical, swift mass production, under the name Volksjäger, translating to “People’s Fighter.”
He 162 Volksjäger – People’s Fighter
The RLM Volksjäger competition outlined specifications for a single-seat fighter, utilizing a single BMW 003 engine.
Unlike the engines for the Me 262 or Ar 234, this engine offered slightly lower thrust. Competing Volksjäger designs mandated the use of inexpensive, simple parts, such as wood and other non-critical materials.
Importantly, assembly needed to be possible by semi-skilled and non-skilled workers, even including slave labor.
Various performance requirements were explicitly defined in the competition’s specification. These included a maximum weight of 2,000 kg and a top speed of 466 mph ( 750 km) at sea level.
Additionally, the aircraft needed to maintain operational endurance for at least half an hour, and takeoff could not exceed 500 m.
The specs also required armor plating around vital areas like fuel tanks and the pilot.
However, manufacturers needed to detail the plane’s performance, both with and without the armor. Lastly, armament was designated as either two 20 mm MG 151/20 cannons or two 30 mm MK 108 cannons.
Ease of flight was imperative for the Volksjäger. Officials like Artur Axmann and Karl Saur believed even student pilots should manage effective combat flying.
He 162 & the Crazy Idea of Hilter Youth Pilots
If the Volksjäger had seen widespread use, this scenario might have occurred. Post-war, Ernst Heinkel critiqued the unrealistic idea that Hitler Youth could defend Germany after brief training with DFS Stummel-Habicht gliders.
These clipped-wing DFS Habicht models, with spans of either 8 m or 6 m, prepped experienced Luftwaffe pilots for the perilous Me 163B Komet rocket fighter.
Meanwhile, on 8 September 1944, the industry received the requirement: submit basic designs within ten days and begin mass production by 1 January 1945.
Since the winning lightweight fighter design would be mass-produced, almost all German aircraft manufacturers, including Blohm & Voss and Focke-Wulf, showed interest.
Focke-Wulf’s Volksjäger 1 design, intended for BMW 003 power, resembled their subsequent Ta 183 Huckebein design.
Yet Heinkel, with previous design work under the P.1073 designation and extensive testing done by Professor Benz, was notably advanced in the competition.
Heinkel’s early design start led some officials to assume a predictable outcome. However, numerous companies, desiring a win, presented their designs.
Several of these entries boasted technical superiority, especially against Blohm & Voss’s P 211 proposal. Messerschmitt abstained from submitting a design, as its founder, Willy Messerschmitt, deemed the Volksjäger concept a doomed failure.
In October 1944, merely three weeks after issuing the requirements, the competition declared Heinkel’s design the winner. To obfuscate Allied intelligence, the RLM repurposed the 8-162 airframe designation, previously a Messerschmitt fast bomber label, despite Heinkel’s preference for the He 500 designation for the aircraft.
Interesting Engine Configuration
Heinkel initially designed a twin-engine fighter, placing one engine atop the aircraft and another underneath its nose.
Subsequently, the single-engine development eliminated the lower engine and relocated the upper engine behind the cockpit, directly above the wing’s center.
This configuration not only balanced the aircraft but also facilitated engine removal with a small crane from above. However, the mandatory crane at every airfield became a contention point among Heinkel’s competitors.
The jet exhaust streaming over the upper rear fuselage and tail area dictated unique tail construction. Hence, two small vertical stabilizers flanked the exhaust path, with a 14º dihedral horizontal elevator positioned below, aligning the stabilizers with the wing.
The aircraft boasted a compact wing, mounted high on the fuselage and secured with four bolts. While the leading edge was straight, the trailing edge featured a notable forward sweep.
Unfortunately, engineers couldn’t remove the wing without first removing the engine, complicating routine maintenance.
Furthermore, placing the engine directly above the pilot and wings at the sides made conventional bailouts risky. Consequently, designers equipped the aircraft with an ejection seat similar to the Heinkel He 219 night fighter from the outset.
The main landing gear, adopting a tricycle layout, retracted into the fuselage beneath the wing. Heinkel, having experience with this layout from designs like the Heinkel He 280, used it intentionally from the start for this aircraft.
A tiny window between the pilot’s rudder pedals enabled visual gear-checks. Due to its development during the late-war period, the He 162 utilized “recycled” components to expedite development.
Specifically, it borrowed the Messerschmitt Bf 109K’s main landing gear’s oleo struts, wheel/brake units, and the double-acting hydraulic cylinders utilized for raising and lowering each main gear leg.
First Combat Flight
In January 1945, the Luftwaffe established Erprobungskommando 162, a testing group, receiving the initial 46 aircraft.
This group operated from the main test center, Erprobungsstelle, at Rechlin.
The following month, He 162 deliveries began for its first operational unit, I./JG 1, previously utilizing the Focke-Wulf Fw 190A.
Consequently, I./JG 1 relocated to Parchim, approximately 80 km from the Heinkel factory at Marienehe, facilitating easy pilot access for new jets and intensive training from March 1945.
Concurrently, persistent Allied air attacks targeted transportation, production facilities, and Luftwaffe bases, significantly impeding German efforts.
On April 6, USAAF severely damaged Parchim’s field, deploying 134 B-17 Flying Fortresses and inflicting substantial losses. I./JG 1 consequently moved to Ludwigslust, and shortly thereafter, to Leck, near the Danish border.
Meanwhile, on April 8, II./JG 1 transferred to Heinkel’s Rostock airfield, transitioning from Fw 190As to He 162s. Although III./JG 1 intended to also convert to He 162s, it disbanded on April 24, repurposing its personnel to supplement other units.
The He 162 entered combat in mid-April 1945. On April 19, Feldwebel Günther Kirchner downed a Royal Air Force fighter.
Despite the victory being credited to a flak unit, the British pilot acknowledged being downed by an He 162 during interrogation.
Unfortunately, Kirchner and his Heinkel were also lost that day, downed over Husum by Flying Officer Geoffrey Walkington, piloting an RAF Hawker Tempest.
While still training, I./JG 1 started scoring kills by mid-April but lost 13 He 162s and 10 pilots.
A total of ten aircraft were lost to operational issues, such as flameouts and occasional structural failures, while enemy forces shot down only two of the 13.
Additionally, the He 162’s 30-minute fuel capacity caused issues, leading to the deaths of at least two JG 1 pilots during emergency deadstick landings due to fuel exhaustion.
In its notably short operational service, the He 162’s ejector seat saw combat use by JG 1 pilots at least four times.
Fw. Günther Kirchner was the first to attempt ejection on April 19 but died due to his low altitude preventing parachute deployment.
Lt Rudolf Schmidt used the ejection seat next on April 20, followed by Fw. Erwin Steeb on April 21. Lastly, Hptm. Paul-Heinrich Dähne attempted an ejection on April 24 but perished when the cockpit canopy failed to release.
To Little to Late?
In late April, with Soviet forces nearing, II./JG 1 left Marienehe and joined I./JG 1 at Leck on 2 May. Consequently, on 3 May, all surviving He 162s from JG 1 reorganized into two groups: I. Einsatz and II. Sammel.
On 5 May, all JG 1’s aircraft were grounded after General Admiral Hans-Georg von Friedeburg surrendered German forces in several regions.
The British reached their airfields on 6 May, prompting JG 1 to surrender their He 162s to the Allies. Subsequently, numerous aircraft went to the U.S., Britain, France, and the Soviet Union for further evaluation.
Meanwhile, Erprobungskommando 162 fighters, previously handed to JV 44, were intentionally destroyed by their crews to prevent Allied capture.
Contrarily, Heinkel provided the Americans with detailed He 162 designs. By Germany’s unconditional surrender on 8 May 1945, 120 He 162s were delivered, another 200 completed and pending dispatch or testing, with approximately 600 more in production.
The He 162 faced difficulties largely attributed to its hasty production rather than design flaws. One experienced Luftwaffe pilot praised it as a “first-class combat aircraft.”
Moreover, test pilot Eric Brown highlighted its “effective aerodynamically balanced controls.” However, Brown was cautioned about the rudder due to several in-flight failures.
He passed this warning to RAF pilot Flt Lt R A Marks, who seemingly ignored it. Consequently, on 9 November 1945, during a demonstration flight, a fin and rudder assembly broke, causing a deadly crash.
Several museums around the world display the Heinkel He 162, showcasing this unique piece of aviation history.
However, note that the availability of these aircraft might change due to various reasons like restoration, loan to other museums, or relocation within an exhibit. As of my last training data in September 2021, here are some locations where He 162s were known to be displayed:
- Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (United States): The museum has an He 162 in its collection, though it may not always be on public display.
- Royal Air Force Museum (United Kingdom): Located in Cosford, this museum has an He 162 on display, offering insights into late-WWII German aviation technology.
- Planes of Fame Air Museum (United States): Located in Chino, California, this museum also has an He 162.
- Museum of Flight (United States): In Seattle, Washington, this museum has an He 162 Volksjäger.
- National Museum of the United States Air Force (United States): Located in Dayton, Ohio, this museum has an He 162 in its collection.
- Canadian Aviation and Space Museum (Canada): In Ottawa, this museum has an He 162A-1 (believed to be the last surviving example of its type).
- Deutsches Technikmuseum (Germany): This museum in Berlin has an He 162 on display.
Again, it is prudent to check with the museums directly or visit their websites for the most current information on their exhibits before planning a visit, as the displayed items could change. This happened to me once after a long trip – was closed for maintenance!