It’s a common misconception that the Messerschmitt 262 Schwalbe (Swallow) was the first fighter jet in history, though it certainly was the very first fighter jet to enter service. It was actually preceded by a different twin-engined turbojet-powered fighter, also of German origin. Built by Heinkel Flugzeugwerke, the He 280 was the world’s first fighter jet, though it never saw active service with any air force, and never entered mass production.
In the late 1930s, Ernst Heinkel, an aircraft designer and the founder of the aviation manufacturer which bore his name, was in the midst of developing a new aircraft unlike anything the world had ever seen before. Carefully avoiding drawing attention to his project, he combined a metal airframe with a turbojet engine, the HeS 3 Strahltriebwerke (German for “jet engine”). The result was known as the He 178, the first jet-powered aircraft in history. After flight tests were completed on the He 178, Heinkel set his sights on weaponizing jet aircraft, turning them from innocuous yet incredibly loud testbeds into fast, well-armed fighters designed to take on bombers and fighters of any class and caliber.
Heinkel’s design team for the fighter jet project was led by Robert Lusser, a German pilot and engineer who envisioned a very “traditional” approach to sculpting the future of fighter aviation. Using a conventional fuselage and wings that bore strong resemblances to those of other fighter aircraft of the period, Lusser quickly brought together the fighter on the drafting table. He added a tailplane with twin vertical stabilizers at the end of each horizontal stabilizer, making the aircraft look more like an undersized bomber or reconnaissance bird than a fighter. The two turbojet engines that would power the aircraft were to be placed close to the fuselage in pods slung underneath the wings. Now dubbed the He 280, Heinkel’s fighter jet was taking shape fast.
The project had begun in late 1939, mere days before the invasion of Poland which lit the fuse to the Second World War. By the summer of 1940, Heinkel’s factory produced one working prototype, fitted with an ejection seat – the very first of its kind. When everything seemed to be going according to plan, things started to unravel. The He 280 would be powered by a pair of HeS 8 engines, the direct derivative of the aforementioned HeS 3. But the problem with the HeS 8 was that it didn’t really work. Issues with thrust output slowed down the project, and led the program’s engineering staff to attaching weighted pods where the engines would normally go, so that the aircraft could at least conduct a series of glide tests. A second prototype was completed and finally flown using its own engines, though the problems with the HeS 8 persisted. Alternatives were explored and testing continued.
In what would perhaps be the finest demonstration of the He 280’s improvements upon conventional piston-powered fighters, a prototype was pitted in a “fly-off” against a Focke Wulf Fw 190 Wurger (German for “shrike”). German military officials were finally interested. An order was placed for 300 mass-production units of the He 280. But the powerplant woes remained. Around the same time, a design team at Willy Messerschmitt’s aircraft company toiled furiously over the development of the Me 262, which proved to be the He 280’s only rival. Military officers involved in program oversight noted the failings of the He 280 (i.e. its thrust issues) were largely absent in the Me 262. Interest in Heinkel’s jet began to diminish.
It remains to be seen whether or not the He 280 would have actually been the game-changer the Axis so desperately needed to shift the advantage of complete aerial supremacy entirely to their side of the ring. The He 280 in comparison to the Me 262 was slower, poorly armed, and considerably lacking in range. Air Marshal Ernst Udet, a celebrated former fighter pilot (and high-scoring ace) of the Luftwaffe, was largely unimpressed by Heinkel’s brainchild. As the director of the Luftwaffe’s research and development section, it was his job to sift through various proposals and projects to find what he believed would be ideal for Germany’s wartime needs. Had he endorsed the He 280, the outcome of the Second World War in Europe could potentially have been vastly different.
Adding political clout to the development of the He 280 would have given the project the funding and attention Heinkel was desperate for, so that he could keep the fighter jet alive. Had the He 280 received better engines more suited towards the airframe and an upgrade in armament, it’s very possible that the Luftwaffe might have given the next-generation aircraft a chance, presenting a very adverse scenario for Allied air forces operating in Europe. Piston-powered fighters, such as the Supermarine Spitfire, Hawker Hurricane, Curtiss P-40 Warhawk and North P-51 American Mustang could maneuver far better than the He 280 (and even the later Me 262), and were fairly well armed, but were unable to match the speed of the German fighter jet.
As the late military historian Robert F. Dorr said, in his own analysis of the He 280:
The Americans were going to change everything with their own four-engine heavy bombers and with high altitude precision daylight bombing of military and industrial targets. Yet as late as October 1943, they lost 60 bombers on one mission and had not yet fielded a true escort fighter, the P-51 Mustang. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was telling anyone who would listen that the Allied air campaign would have to succeed or plans for the invasion of Europe would have to be put on hold. If hundreds of He 280s had been in the field before the bombing campaign even began, before the first P-51 arrived or even before the first American bombers reached Berlin in March 1944, B-17s and B-24s could have been swept from the skies.
(Source: Germany’s First Jet Fighter: The He 280)
Hypothetically, He 280s could zip into ideal positions to attack large “boxes” of American and British strategic bombers en route to strike German ground positions, take them out while using their speed to their advantage, before fleeing so that the remaining bombers and escort fighters could be dealt with by other German fighter aircraft. Had the Luftwaffe been able to enter the He 280 into service, it would have also enabled Heinkel to rapidly mature and re-develop the fighter using the lessons learned in combat to make it a more potent combat platform. This would have undoubtedly had an umbrella effect on other German fighter programs at the time, advancing German fighter aviation far beyond what the Allies had to offer. This would have also necessitated a scaling-down in mass production of piston-powered fighters like the Messerschmitt Bf 109, which was, by then, already a tried-and-proven combat aircraft and well-liked by the pilots who flew them.
It’s worthy noting that the Allied side was over a year to two years behind in developing combat-capable fighter jets of their own. The British Gloster Meteor flew for the first time in 1943, becoming fully operation over a year later, months before the conclusion of the War in Europe. The American P-59 Airacomet flew first in 1942, but was deemed unsuitable for aerial combat and was only used for testing and training purposes. The next American jet contribution would be the P-80 Shooting Star, which entered service in 1945, after Allied victory in Europe.
However, the He 280 just wasn’t meant to be.
The project’s constant mechanical issues and its lack of a suitable powerplant were the final nails in its coffin. The Luftwaffe refused to press the He 280 into service, citing its gross inefficiency and constant delays in the development program as the reason for eventually canning the entire project. In late March, 1943, word was handed down to Ernst Heinkel that the He 280 was to be immediately canceled and that he was to focus more attention on building more advanced strategic bomber aircraft instead. The world’s first fighter jet was officially dead, with nine prototypes built. The pre-production models were dismantled, and the Luftwaffe focused its attention elsewhere. Heinkel was later further humiliated when the Luftwaffe made it known that it would be proceeding with the procurement of the Me 262, the progeny of Heinkel’s fierce rival, Willy Messerschmitt. He would hold onto the bitterness stemming from this particular defeat until his death in 1958.