Case Study of a Late-War Program

Most of the German aircraft produced during the late war period covered in this research were designed long before that. Even the jet aircraft had their roots in the early 1940s. In this regard the He 162 jet fighter—also widely known as the Volksjäger (“People’s Fighter”)—was an exception. It was conceived, designed, produced and entered operational service within the last seven months of World War II. It was the only completely new design to enter high-rate production in the newly organized industry. Its history therefore represents well the way aircraft were produced in Germany towards the end of World War II. From the way its production was managed to the way it was manufactured, the production story of this aircraft reflects the conditions and mentality prevailing in the German aviation industry at that time. The He 162 epitomized the reorganization and changes of the German aviation industry up to late 1944. Its story also demonstrates the relations between the new bosses, the old bosses, the customer and the contractors in Nazi Germany’s last major aviation project.

Idea and Conception

The beginnings of the lightweight “popular” jet fighter came with the realization by the Luftwaffe and the RLM that the Me 262 was too expensive and too late to have a meaningful impact on the air war. Although on paper it looked like an extremely formidable warplane, its combat performance proved to be quite disappointing. Some people in the RLM and Luftwaffe leadership thought that one of the reasons for this failure was that it entered service in relatively small numbers and piecemeal, therefore never reaching the “critical mass” required in order to effectively engage the massive air armadas of the Allies. The first Me 262 fighter unit became operational only in late September 1944 and the Luftwaffe’s high command withdrew it from combat after only six weeks, during which it suffered heavy losses and achieved little. From this disappointing experience it became clear that training to fly this sophisticated aircraft was a long and difficult process even for experienced pilots. Introducing this revolutionary fighter into operational service was indeed painfully slow, and at the end of December 1944 only 112 Me 262s were in service with the Luftwaffe.

These were the main problems that motivated Lieutenant-Colonel Siegfried Knemayer, up to August 1944 head of the Aircraft Development Department in the RLM, now subordinated to TLR, to order his experts on 5 September 1944 to study the notion of developing a small and inexpensive jet fighter. Despite the nominal subordination of TLR to the Luftwaffe’s high command, two days later the RLM submitted the required specifications to several leading firms and asked them to bid their proposals as soon as possible. The tender specified a light fighter propelled by a single BMW 003 jet engine, enabling a top speed of 750 km/h and an endurance of 20 minutes. Pre-production series of this engine started coming of the production lines in August 1944 after a long and painful development process that started in 1940. It was expected to be available in increasing numbers in the following months. The RLM also demanded a short take-off and landing run (less than 600 m) in order to enable the new fighter to operate from small dispersal airfields. The most interesting parts of the specification, however, were related to manufacture and production of the aircraft. The basic demands were not to interrupt production of other fighters and to come up with a simple easy-to-manufacture design. The specifications and restrictions dictated a compact and light aircraft (weight of no more than 2 tons), constructed partially of wood.3 The idea behind the light jet-fighter project was simple: it was supposed to be manufactured in large numbers, destroy one or two much more expensive enemy aircraft, and be scrapped after several missions if it survived them. This concept, together with an extremely tight schedule, made this project extraordinary from the start. Usually aircraft were produced and introduced into service after several consecutive phases of development: conception, design, scale-model testing, prototype manufacture, flight testing, pre-production run, testing of these early aircraft, operational testing, and finally series production. Here it was clear that most of these phases must run in parallel in order to initiate mass production of the aircraft at the beginning of 1945. It was an “all or nothing” project typical of the German military, political and industrial thinking of that time. The whole concept was far removed from the military reality of that time and such a makeshift fighter had little chance to survive encounters with overwhelmingly superior Allied air power. It made sense from the economic-industrial point of view, but the decision-makers largely ignored the extremely short endurance of the aircraft (only 30 minutes) and the inability of the Luftwaffe to train enough pilots to fly the projected numbers of the aircraft. Five firms submitted proposals to the tender. Blohm & Voss and Heinkel, two former producers of large aircraft, that were left at this stage without much work and therefore with free design and production capacity, submitted the most serious proposals. Ernst Heinkel was first informed about the contract on 8 September by Gerhard Giese, a designer working in his technical department. Giese pointed out immediately that the firm’s P 1073 light fighter study seemed to fit almost perfectly the RLM’s specifications.4 From this point Heinkel picked up the project most energetically. Earlier the RLM had pushed this pioneer of jet flight out of jet aircraft development, and his firm had produced mainly bombers during the war. Since bomber production was terminated, it was clear that Heinkel possessed a large amount of free capacity. It was also clear to Heinkel that if he could not come with a design of his own, he would be ordered to produce someone else’s design under license. Perhaps more importantly, this tender was his chance to reenter the fast-aircraft arena, as he suggested earlier in letters to Göring and Knemeyer in July 1944, in which he listed his previous achievements in high-speed plane development. At that time his He 177 was already terminated and the jet-propelled He 343 bomber had hung in the balance since late May, pending cancellation (as finally happened in November).5 Therefore, the new fighter was Heinkel’s only chance to upkeep his status as a leading aircraft designer and producer. Like so many other German late-war aviation projects, Heinkel’s proposal was based on earlier development work. The termination of all the firm’s planes by early summer 1944 made Heinkel initiate studies of new fighters. Heinkel’s designers studied in summer 1944 different light jet-fighter designs, and on 10 July they proposed a design titled P 1073. The P 1073 was another “fantasy” project initiated independently by an aviation firm, and was loosely based on an aerodynamic concept study code named P 1063, which DFS started in its main testing facility at Ainring. Its design included two engines mounted above and below the fuselage, a swept-back wing and a V-tail—all highly modern and largely untried design features.6 In contrast to its eventual development, the P 1073 was to be a cheap metal plane. On 12 July, two days after receiving the blueprints from his designers, Ernst Heinkel gave his go-ahead and ordered the commencement of initial wind tunnel tests and further studies.7 On the same day Knemeyer also expressed his interest in the project and authorized Heinkel to continue research and development of the design.8 Some progress was made in the following months, but the project stayed largely in the study phase. Chief designer Siegfried Günter’s proposal for the RLM’s specification was a simplified version of the P 1073 with a single engine mounted on its back, straight wing and a conventional double-fin tailplane. In a meeting on 11 September, Heinkel decided to go ahead with the construction of three P 1073 prototypes without waiting for an official approval. Development and production were to take place at the firm’s Vienna complex,with Rostock playing only a supervisory role. The timetable set for the project was extremely tight in order to fit the RLM’s schedule: completion of initial design by 15 September, handing over of detailed blueprints to factories on 1 November, first flight on 10 December and initial series production in January 1945. Amazingly, Heinkel’s highly skilled and experienced experts expected to deliver 2,000 to 4,000 planes by the end of April 1945.9 On the following day Heinkel’s Technical Director Carl Francke presented to Knemeyer the initial blueprints. Knemeyer was generally satisfied, but demanded some design changes, like increasing endurance from 20 minutes to 30 minutes and the inclusion of a steerable nosewheel in order to enable the plane to have better taxi performance on small airfields. In the afternoon Francke briefed Major-General Ulrich Diesing, chief of the TLR, who was also happy with the design and criticized only the limited rear view from the cockpit due to the dorsal mounted engine.10 Now the discussion moved to the next level. On 13 September, Diesing and Francke briefed the Main Development Committee under Roluf Lucht. Diesing emphasized in his opening remarks the importance of an inexpensive fighter that could operate from small airfields. After hearing Francke’s briefing, the committee focused their discussion on the capacity of the cabinetmaking industry and on the timetable. Hayn warned not to give any specific promises regarding production figures for April 1945. Colonel Geist, Saur’s representative, informed the participants that his boss was already briefed about the project and that he would fully support it if it were approved. Heinkel was allowed to continue working on his project while the decision-making process was still in progress.11 Saur’s early support was of key value to the future of the project and signaled the approval of the industrial technocrats. After the meeting Francke informed Heinkel that Saur also gave an initial approval to the P 1073 project and asked all the relevant Reich’s authorities in Vienna to support it.12 A key Main Development Committee meeting took place on 14 September, when Lucht and his coworkers reviewed the proposals submitted by the different firms. Arado sent no representative but submitted a blueprint similar to Heinkel’s under the designation E 580; Messerschmitt presented an old light fighter project taken hurriedly out of the files, and only Blohm & Voss came forward with a serious contender, designated P 211.13 In the meantime Heinkel’s engineers constructed a mock-up of the proposed plane. By basing its design on an existing project, Heinkel was able to submit a preliminary design within days. In order to fulfill the weight restriction and the ease of manufacture demands, Günter’s design was made largely out of wood and used several parts and components from existing aircraft, like main landing gear and wheels from the Me 109. Heinkel estimated that one P 1073 would use only half of the raw materials required to manufacture a single Me 262.14 As Günter responded to critical remarks by Messerschmitt, his plane was better suited to the prevailing war situation of an ever-worsening raw materials and fuel shortage.