When the sun set on this airfield in Marienehe, Germany, on August 27, 1939 turbojet power had propelled an aircraft aloft for the first time, literally days before the start of World War Two. The aircraft that Flugkapitän Erich Warsitz climbed into was diminutive to the point that it could be said that he strapped the aircraft on. But far from diminutive was the effect this small airplane had on aviation.
Assembled by a small cadre of engineers and technicians at the Heinkel Aircraft Co. (and reporting to Ernst Heinkel himself), the small testbed was designated the Heinkel He 178. Two airframes were built each with a monocoque fuselage and shoulder-mounted wings. The wings were made of wood, the rest of the aircraft of metals, mainly duralumin. The nose intake fed air to an engine that was buried in the fuselage, just behind the wing. Although equipped with retractable gear, the gear on the first airplane was locked down and the wheel wells faired over for the duration of taxi testing and remained that way for the first flight.
The power to vault this small craft (length 24-feet, wingspan 23-feet) skyward was a Heinkel HeS 3b turbojet with about 1,000 ponds of static thrust. The patent for this innovative engine was awarded to a young post-doctorate scholar named Hans Joachim Pabst von Ohain.
Working closely with engineer/machinist Max Hahn, von Ohain built his first engine. Evidently the promise and pitfalls of the powerplant convinced von Ohain that he could no longer fund his own work. So, with a letter of introduction from his mentor at the University of Göttingen, von Ohain presented his ideas to Heinkel and gained sponsorship — Heinkel purchased the jet patent, and employed the inventor. Hans von Ohain together with Max Hahn joined Heinkel in April of 1936.
Heinkel’s firm built and flew the first turbojet fighter, the twin-engined He 280, but this design was soon surpassed by a competing design — the Messerschmitt Me 262. The Heinkel He 178 was consigned to the German Air Museum in Berlin, and was lost in an Allied air raid in 1943.
Author’s note: Today, Hans von Ohain and Frank Whittle in England are recognized as the co-inventors of the turbojet engine. (Whittle’s engine powered the Gloster E.28/39 aloft on May 15, 1941.)