Hernst 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 kilometres 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
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 kilometres per hour) and cruised at 190 miles per hour (306
kilometres 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-fuelled
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 kilometres 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, manoeuvrable, 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
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 kilometres 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.