Jet aircraft long before the Jet Age? A turbojet? There's no mistake: the Heinkel 178 was successfully flown on the eve of the World War II.
This aircraft is assured a distinguished place in aviation history: on 27 August 1939, piloted by Flugkapitän Erich Warsitz, it made the world's first flight by a turbojet-powered aircraft. To put this record in its true context of achievement, it should be noted that the first flight of a turbojet-powered aircraft in Britain was that of the Gloster E.28/39 on 15 May 1941.
The engine to power the He 178 derived from the pioneering research work of Dr Hans Pabst von Ohain who (together with his assistant Max Hahn) had been employed by Ernst Heinkel in March 1936 and provided with the necessary facilities to continue the development of his work. By September 1937 a hydrogen-fuelled demonstration engine was being run on the bench, and in March 1938 his HeW 3 engine, using petrol as fuel, was developing about 4.89kW. In Britain the world's first turbojet aircraft engine had been bench-run on 12 April 1937. Of particular interest is the fact that the work of von Ohain and Whittle was entirely independent.
The He 178 was designed to utilise von Ohain's power plant. It was a shoulder-wing monoplane of composite construction. The engine was mounted in the fuselage, with a nose air-intake duct passing beneath the pilot's seat and a long tailpipe discharging from the fuselage tailcone. Retractable tailwheel-type landing gear was installed.
Erich Warsitz: "On August 27, 1939 we were ready. The machine was towed to the apron. Ernst Heinkel and his colleagues stared at the circuit I was to fly. By now it was recognized that by virtue of its longer flight endurance and greater operational reliability, it was the jet, and not the rocket aircraft, which belonged to the future."
Hans Pabst von Ohain - April 14, 1988: "This was the first flight in history by a jet propelled aircraft. Once again, enormously capable as an aviator and courageous, Erich Warsitz flew a new concept. In later years I have often reflected on him. I admire him still and am firmly convinced that his brave preparedness to sacrifice himself, tied to his technical and aeronautical skill, contributed significantly to the rapid development of the jet turbine and rockets for manned flight. His image in the National Air and Space Museum at Washington DC flying the first He 178 will for ever bear witness to that."