The War-Winning Fighter That Never Was
The Germans flew the first jet aircraft before World War II. The mystery is not that they got some capable jet fighters into battle just before the end of the war in 1945, but that none arrived before mid-1944 when that was entirely feasible. Imagine a German jet fighter during the Battle of Britain and the opening of the invasion of Russia? It was not beyond the realm of possibility. The Allied bomber offensive against Germany could have been stopped cold before it got rolling at all, and the missile project at Peenemunde would never have been bombed and forced to relocate, costing months of delay. Thousands and thousands of German, French, and other lives could have been saved in the absence of an Allied bomber offensive. Of course, we all know that none of these things happened, that the Germans never managed an effective fighter defense against the Allied bombers, and that arguably that was a decisive factor behind the German defeat.
The reason why lies with the strange fate of the Ernst Heinkel He 280.
The first jet fighter project of them all was the He 280. It was an evolution of the He 178, the experimental jet that was flying in record-breaking fashion by 1938. For some reason, the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (German, Reich Aviation Ministry, RLM) headed by Hermann Goering and his crony Ernst Udet was very slow to appreciate the huge advance in capability offered by the He 178. The Heinkel company, under head designer Robert Lusser, undertook to adapt the ground-breaking He 178 into a military form anyway. This project began under the designation He 180 and developed into the He 280.
In some respects, the design was simply too far ahead of its time. For instance, it was fitted with a cutting edge tricycle landing gear at a time when, for example, Stuka 87s were considered invincible with their fixed landing gear. Airfields at the time, especially in operational zones, were usually (not always) grass and dirt. The brass did not think that the tricycle landing gear could stand the strain of actual operation. In addition, the RLM did not order a crash program to develop a series of reliable jet engines, but instead focused on piston-engined fighters and left the jet development to the private companies. It is forgotten decisions like this that determine the fate of nations.
Heinkel pressed forward with development on its own. The first He 280 prototype appeared in summer 1940, during the Battle of Britain. There were problems with the engines, so it could not fly under its own power and the first tests were done as gliders. The first flight of the He 280 under its own power was on 30 March 1941, before Operation Barbarossa. This was a full year before the first flight of the Me 262. The design was clever and the engines did not even require high-octane jet fuel, burning simple kerosene. However, once again the RLM reviewed it (on 5 April 1941) but just kind of nodded and did nothing to push forward development. It had bigger fish to fry, and the Me 109 and brand new FW 190 were quite capable: they might not be exactly superior to Allied fighters, but they were, you know, good enough. There were so many Luftwaffe projects going on at that time that those that were not quite ready received low priority, minimal funding and less attention. Spring 1941 was the moment when decisive action could have gotten a truly effective jet fighter into the air well before the Germans actually did, at a time when one might have made a difference. It did not happen.
With low priority, it was not until late 1942 that a fully developed version of the He 280 with a workable jet engine was completed. After a demonstration flight on 22 December 1942 - as Paulus and his men were shivering in Stalingrad - the RLM placed an order for 20 initial aircraft and then 300 production machines. However the HeS 8 engine that Heinkel was using wasn't quite ready, so a replacement was found in the Junkers Jumo 004. This unfortunately required a redesign of the aircraft. Being larger, the Jumos also slowed the aircraft down and made it less agile. The plane flew with the Jumos on 16 March 1943, but by this time, with the redesign, it was no longer superior to the Me 262 airframe. Time had passed it by. RLM Chief Erhard Milch cancelled the whole project and placed the Luftwaffe's hopes on the Messerschmidt aircraft. After years of development, the world's first jet fighter wound up with only nine prototypes built, none of which saw action, a footnote in aviation history.
The bottom line is that the error was larger than just the particular decisions regarding the He 280. The RLM's critical and even fatal error was not realizing soon enough the decisive role that jet fighters would/could play before the end of the war. Early in the war, the Luftwaffe was reasonably dominant over Europe, and no reason to change was seen. When the balance of power shifted against Germany in every way by 1943, it was too late - the work to develop quality, reliable jet engines, which was the bottleneck of the whole project, simply took too long. Even after good jet engines became available, pilots had to be trained to use them with completely new tactics that had to be worked out, mechanics trained to service them, factories set up to make them - everything takes time. Only a full-priority emphasis by the RLM on jet engines to the exclusion of all else from day one of the war might have made a difference in the war's outcome, and the will to do this was completely lacking for the first three years of the war.