Although failing to reach production status after losing out to the more aerodynamically advanced Me 262, the Heinkel He 280 did set several firsts. It was the world’s first jet aircraft to have two engines, the world’s first jet fighter designed as such from scratch, the first of this category to fly…
While World War II raged, aviation pioneers like Frank Whittle and Hans von Ohain were busy developing the world’s first jet engines. But the radical new technology needed jet-powered research aircraft to test and prove its viability.
Germany, Italy and Britain all engaged in top-secret jet programmes as they raced to develop the air power of the future. These included the German Heinkel He 178 research aircraft and Heinkel He 280 jet fighter prototype, the British E.28/39 research aircraft built by Gloster, and the remarkable Italian Caproni-Campini C.2.
As told by Tony Buttler in his book Jet Prototypes of World War II, the Heinkel He 280 jet fighter is the only aircraft among those mentioned above to have been designed from the beginning for a production run and frontline service. Consequently, more than two examples were built and flown. However, another of Germany’s leading aircraft designers, Messerschmitt with its Me 262, also produced a jet fighter that in some respects proved superior to the He 280. As a result, Heinkel’s product never reached a squadron and was never involved in any action.
However it is interesting to quote some wartime Allied Intelligence reports that show how, in British eyes, the He 280 programme had been progressing. The first reports of work by Heinkel on jet-propelled aircraft types date back to April 1940, when the development of designs and wind-tunnel models was reported to be taking place at Rostock-Marienehe. In May 1942 an aircraft that was believed to be the He 280, although no power units could be seen, was identified at Rostock. Then on Apr. 14, 1943, a similar aircraft, possibly with a modified tail and now with two `objects’ clearly apparent on its wing, was seen at Schwechat airfield.
At the end of August 1943 it was reported that the first prototype He 280 built at Schwechat had crashed. Then the latest photographic coverage of the Austrian airfield, taken on Nov. 2, 1943, showed four He 280s — the first time that more than one example had been seen together. By July 1944 Allied Intelligence had learnt that the development of the He 280 appeared to be considerably less advanced that that of the Messerschmitt Me 163 rocket-powered interceptor and the Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter. Finally, between February and Jun. 13, 1944, some five or six He 280s were visible, with certain examples in a non-operational condition through a lack of engines or otherwise. There was no available evidence that the Heinkel fighter had been seen on airfields other than at Schwechat.
Although failing to reach production status after losing out to the more aerodynamically advanced Me 262, the He 280 did set several firsts. It was the world’s first jet aircraft to have two engines, the world’s first jet fighter designed as such from scratch, the first of this category to fly, the first jet aircraft to operate fitted with a tricycle undercarriage and the first jet aircraft fitted with an ejection seat, which of course was used on one occasion. Far worse designs than the He 280 have entered service in many countries. With the demise of the programme, Heinkel moved on to further jet aircraft designs such as the He 343 bomber (which never flew) and the He 162 fighter, first flown in December 1944.
Had Heinkel succeeded in convincing the Luftwaffe to commit to series production of the He 280, the aircraft would have been more than a handful for P-38J Lightning, P-47D Thunderbolt and P-51 B/C Mustang pilots charged with escorting the four-engined ‘heavies’ on raids against German targets.
Jet Prototypes of World War II is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force