History of Heinkel

Ernst Heinkel

Ernst Heinkel, founder of Heinkel Aircraft Works, was born in the German province of Swabia in 1888. He began his technical career as an apprentice, working for a year in a machine shop and then taking a job in a foundry. He then supplemented this hands-on experience by attending a technical institute in the city of Stuttgart. He fell in love with aviation in 1908, inspired by the flight of Count Zeppelin's earliest dirigibles. He learned what he could from his school in Stuttgart, and then set out to learn more.

An international flying exhibition was to be held in Frankfurt in 1909. To raise money for the train fare so he could attend the show, Heinkel pawned a cherished book, The Elements of Machinery. The next year, he built his own airplane, working from blueprints prepared by France's Henri Farman. In 1911, his plane crashed and left him seriously injured. Even so, he now was one of the few people in Germany who had actually built and flown an aircraft. This meant that there was demand for his talents.

Heinkel won a position as an engineer at a newly formed company, LVG. He soon became chief designer at the firm of Albatros, a leading builder of fighter planes during World War I. In 1914, he joined the Brandenburg Aircraft Works, where he soon attracted attention from a wealthy industrialist, Camillo Castiglioni. During the war, he designed some 30 aircraft that went into production, including most of the warplanes used by Austria-Hungary, Germany's principal ally.

Defeated in 1918, Germany was stripped of its aviation industry by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Heinkel set up a small factory that built electrical equipment, but he was eager to return to building airplanes. Then, in 1922, the victorious Allies began to lift their restrictions, allowing Germany to build aircraft as long as their speeds did not exceed 105 miles per hour (169 kilometers per hour). Heinkel soon established his own firm: the Ernst Heinkel Aircraft Works.

Earlier at Brandenburg, he had built a number of seaplanes. He continued designing such aircraft within his new company. To dodge ongoing Allied restrictions, he arranged to have a manufacturer in Stockholm, Sweden build them. This company, Svenska Aero AB, sold the planes to Air Forces in Sweden and other countries, paying royalties to Heinkel on each sale.

Japan was also interested in seaplanes. Such aircraft might fly from a battleship to find an enemy a long distance away, then return to land next to its ship. To do this, the seaplane needed a catapult to launch it into the air. Heinkel visited Japan and installed an experimental device aboard the battleship Nagato. He also placed a catapult on the passenger liner Bremen. This enabled that vessel to launch a mail-carrying plane while still at sea, resulting in faster delivery.

In 1933, the Nazis came to power in Berlin. He did not like that they forced him to fire Jewish designers and analysts. However, the Nazis soon sponsored a major expansion of his company. Since 1922, he had owned a single factory in Warnemunde on the Baltic coast. He now built two more, near Rostock and Berlin. Two talented designers, the brothers Siegfried and Walter Gunter, took the lead in crafting airplanes for his expanding firm.

Their first important success was the He 70. Built initially as an airliner and mail plane, the Luftwaffe—the Nazi Air Force—also used it as a bomber. Highly streamlined, it had a top speed of 233 miles per hour (375 kilometers per hour) and cruised at 190 miles per hour (306 kilometers per hour) During 1933, it set eight world speed records for aircraft of its type.

Building on this achievement, the Gunters crafted a highly important twin-engine bomber: the He 111. It became a mainstay of the Luftwaffe, and Heinkel built some 7,300 of them. The Nazis used it extensively during the Battle of Britain, striking repeatedly at London and at other targets.

The British and their U.S. allies fought back with powerful four-engine bombers, which carried large bomb loads over long distances. Luftwaffe leaders preferred dive bombers, which lacked range and carried only modest bomb loads but which could hit targets with high accuracy. Heinkel nevertheless urged the Luftwaffe to build heavy bombers and offered one to them: the He 177. It was bigger than America's B-17, and Heinkel built more than a thousand. But its engines showed an unpleasant tendency to catch fire, while production was delayed by Luftwaffe insistence that it also serve as a dive bomber. It played no major role in the war.

Even so, with sales of the He 111 and He 177 providing a steady income, Heinkel could pursue his strong personal interest in high-speed flight. He built the He 100, a prototype fighter that set a world record of 464 miles per hour (747 kilometers per hour) in 1939. This was close to the attainable limit for propeller-powered aircraft. It was already clear that faster airplanes would demand entirely new types of engines, and Heinkel by then was building the first such aircraft. They took shape as the rocket-powered He 176 and the jet-propelled He 178.

The He 176 tested two different rocket motors in flight: a liquid-fueled version built by Wernher von Braun and one that used hydrogen peroxide, constructed by Hellmuth Walter, an independent engine-builder. The Walter approach proved superior. His rocket motors powered the Messerschmitt Me 163, which reached 624 miles per hour (1,004 kilometers per hour) in 1941, twice the speed of operational warplanes.

Heinkel also designed the He-219, which has been described as the best night fighter that the Luftwaffe used in World War II. It may even have been the best night fighter of the war on either side. The He-219 was fast, maneuverable, and carried devastating firepower. It was the only piston-driven Luftwaffe night fighter that could face the speedy British De Havilland "Mosquito" as an equal. It featured remote-controlled gun turrets, a pressurized cabin, the first steerable nosewheel on an operational German aircraft, and the world's first ejection seats on an operational aircraft.

Heinkel entered the field of jet propulsion through his acquaintance with the physicist Robert Pohl of the University of Gottingen. Professor Pohl had a graduate student, Hans von Ohain, who had invented a jet engine. It didn't work very well, but Pohl recommended Ohain to Heinkel, who hired him. With support from Heinkel, Ohain built a jet that ran successfully in March 1937. Two years later, he had one with twice as much thrust. Heinkel installed it in the He 178, which flew in August 1939. It was the world's first jet plane.

Heinkel also built the world's first jet fighter: the He 280. It first flew in April 1941, and went on to achieve a top speed of 578 miles per hour (930 kilometers per hour) and altitude of 49,200 feet (14,996 meters). During that same month, Heinkel took over the Hirth engine plant in Stuttgart, which put him in a position to manufacture Ohain's jet engines. However, Heinkel lacked the factory facilities to build the He 280 in quantity while still fulfilling his existing commitments. The Luftwaffe therefore abandoned it.

Very late in the war, Heinkel made one more attempt to darken the skies with German jet fighters. He set out to build the He 162, crafting it of plywood and assembling it in an underground plant. With Allied and Soviet armies already at Germany's borders, the schedule called for development and mass production in only a few months. Heinkel built some 300 of them before the Nazis surrendered. Only a few of them had to time to enter service, while most remained on the ground for lack of fuel.

After the war, Germany again saw its aviation industry dismantled. Heinkel kept his company in business by building bicycles and motorbikes. Then in 1955, the restrictions again were eased and West Germany once more could return to building airplanes. The revived firm of Heinkel found work by assembling aircraft of foreign design under license. These included America's F-104G, a fighter that flew at twice the speed of sound.

Ernst Heinkel died in Stuttgart in 1958. His company remained alive for a few more years before it merged with a large corporate association, VFW, in 1965. This merger erased the corporate name of Heinkel, which had first entered the industry some 42 years earlier. Still, as a division of VFW, it has continued to prosper.

—T.A. Heppenheimer

Note, this text was originally found on www.centennialofflight.gov