Kit No. 8049
Decals: Two versions for experimental aircraft, dated 1941 and 1943
Comments: Engraved panel lines; resin wheels and pilot’s seat; photo etch details for cockpit (seat straps, instrument panels, rudder pedals, control levers, sidewall detail) and landing gear; includes canopy and wheel masks; optional position canopy; option for Junkers Jumo 004 or HeS 8a turbojets
History records that the Messerschmitt Me 262 was Germany’s first jet fighter, but that is not true. The first jet fighter developed by Germany was the Heinkel He 280, and it flew for the first time on March 30, 1941 — well over a year before the first jet-powered Me 262 took flight. The He 280 might have entered service first, but for multiple obstacles including the predictable technical difficulties associated with developing a reliable turbojet, politics, and ultimately the superior performance of Willy Messerschmitt’s revolutionary latecomer. Still, the He 280, being first out of the starting blocks, might have carried the day — but for the fact that the competition was wired into the Nazi leadership in a way that Heinkel was not.
In the late summer of 1939, building on the success of his He 178 experimental jet aircraft, Ernst Heinkel pressed ahead with development of a twin jet fighter, the He 280. While the He 178 flew for the first time on August 27, 1939, such was Heinkel’s enthusiasm that work on the He 280 was already underway when the He178 first lifted off. In contrast to the secrecy with which the He 178 had been developed as a private venture, Heinkel called Ernst Udet, Chief of Aircraft Procurement and Supply within the German Air Ministry (RLM) immediately after the 178’s first flight, specifically to pitch the idea of a twin turbojet fighter. For the late 1930’s, Heinkel’s concept was a quantum leap in aircraft design: a single-seat, twin turbojet, twin tail fighter armed with three 20mm cannon and equipped with tricycle landing gear and an ejection seat operated by compressed air. It would fly at speeds of over 500 mph. Initially, Udet was far from enthusiastic.
But, scarcely a month after the He 178’s maiden flight, RLM officials examined a mock-up of Heinkel’s brainchild, and were favorably impressed with the cockpit layout and weapons arrangement. Udet, by then a great proponent of the He 280 but unschooled in the manufacturing challenges required to achieve Heinkel’s vision, initially directed Heinkel to develop the new jet’s powerplant in-house.
Turbojet development posed the same problems for Heinkel as it would for Messerschmitt, Junkers and others. Heinkel worked closely on powerplant development with Dr. Hans Joachim Pabst von Ohain of the University of Gottingen from shortly after the time he was awarded a secret jet patent in 1935. With Heinkel’s backing, von Ohain built a series of experimental centrifugal flow jet engines of successively more thrust. Unknown to Heinkel, BMW were also working on a jet engine, but of a different design called axial flow. While axial flow turbojets were more complicated than their centrifugal flow counterparts, they offered more power and greater efficiencies; in time they would power the Luftwaffe’s fledging jet force. The other key difference was that BMW’s work was proceeding with the full knowledge and at least tacit support of the RLM.
In contrast, Heinkel’s relations with RLM officialdom were checkered at best. Although Heinkel was a household name in Germany and had a worldwide reputation in aviation by 1939, due to the sucess of the He 70 and the He 111 bomber, leading the Nazi regime to place multiple contracts with his firm, his passionate zeal for both rocket and jet propulsion were not well-received by the conservatively minded Nazi leadership. Hitler, Goering, Udet and others were guided by traditional aviation concepts, and regarded him as a crackpot, his research a waste of time.
The official attitude toward Heinkel changed only with the debut of the He 112 in 1937, Heinkel’s response to a new RLM requirement for an ultra-modern single seat fighter, powered by a 695ph British Rolls Royce Kestrel engine. Its main competition was the Messerschmitt Bf 109 V1, using the same powerplant. In head-to-head tests, the results were close: The Bf 109 was faster, but the He112 had a tighter turning circle — absolutely critical for a fighter — and superior overall performance. Test pilots generally felt that the He112 was the better combat airplane. So it triggered raised eyebrows and general surprise when the Bf109 was awarded the contract. For Heinkel, it marked the beginning of a different, and rocky, future relationship with RLM.
Most of the major components of the He 280 — weapons, tricycle landing gear, even the ejection seat– were tested and ready by December 1940. The hold-up was the powerplant. The difficulty was not merely developing a turobjet of sufficient thrust to give the plane the desired performance, it was also producing one sufficiently reliable for combat conditions. Skepticism grew at the RLM in the face of delay after delay — despite Udet’s sustained enthusiasm for the project. Such was the general mindset of the German leadership, that when the He 280 finally flew in March 1941, there was no official notice or appreciation of the achievement, despite the fact that it represented the birth of a state of the art combat aircraft.
The now airworthy He 280 was officially unveiled to the RLM on April 5, 1941, and to impress the Air Ministry officials, Heinkel arranged for mock combat trials between the He 280 and the new Focke Wulf 190A — a radial piston-engined fighter generally regarded as a significant improvement over the Bf 109. During mock combat the He 280 completed four tight circles before the Fw 190 could complete three; its top speed was 485 mph, 77 mph faster than the Fw 190. Impressed, the RLM ordered 13 He 280A pre-production aircraft.
Despite this success, mass production eluded the new jet fighter, as its creator confronted personal rivalries, duplication, and incompetent leadership within and without the RLM. Under Hermann Goering, cronyism played a decisive role within the RLM, affecting everything from research and development to contracts to aircraft production. Udet, a national hero and WWI fighter-ace-contemporary of Goering’s, had neither the business background nor the technical expertise to be effective in his job as Chief of Procurement and Supply. Under his leadership, aircraft production could not meet Germany’s wartime needs and virtually stalled. Udet also unfortunately lacked the ability to cut through the politics, red tape and conservative thinking within the RLM to clear the way for the He 280 to enter production, despite clear signals that such production had been approved, against all odds. In fairness, while Udet exerted pressure when and where he could, no one could bypass the technical problems of reliable turbojet development. This did not change in the wake of Udet’s tragic November 1941 suicide, or with the installation of his successor, Erhard Milch, as Chief of Procurement at the RLM.
When finally the powerplant problems were overcome with the development of the BMW 003 and Junkers Jumo 004 turbojets by late 1942, the Me 262 was well along in development. Once the He 280 V6, fitted with Jumo 004 engines, flew for the first time in January 1943, the RLM dropped its skepticism and began negotiations with Heinkel for 300 aircraft. But the Me 262 V4, flying with the same powerplant, displayed a marked performance advantage over the He 280. While the He 280 had a better rate of climb and higher service ceiling, the Me 262 was faster by an estimated 70 mph, and had one-third more range. It was the superior fighter. In a March 27, 1943 letter, Erhard Milch informed Ernst Heinkel that the He 280 project was cancelled, stating in part, “the overall war situation today no longer allows us to run two designs side by side.” With that, the world’s first jet fighter was dead before it could start rolling off Heinkel ‘s assembly lines.
Skepticism remained at high levels within the RLM about the jet in general. After the cancellation of the He 280, Milch and his colleagues within the RLM exhibited a sense of unease about the new technology, with talk focusing mostly on jet bombers — likely due to Hitler’s fixation on the use of the jet as an attack aircraft. This fixation would soon vex Willy Messerschmitt and the Luftwaffe’s fighter arm, as Hitler initially directed that the potentially game-changing Me 262 be produced only as a bomber — a decision that delayed its debut as a fighter for precious months, and frittered away what little opportunity it had to alter the strategic balance of the air war.
Eduard’s Heinkel He 280 ProfiPack kit is injection molded in grey and comes with a full assortment of resin and photo-etch details, plus paint masks for the canopy and wheels. The bulk of the kit comes on three sprues in two resealable clear plastic bags, and has 94 injection molded plastic parts, four resin parts, and 23 photo-etch parts. The multi-media components are each in their own separate packaging. There is also a metal weight for the nose to prevent the He 280 resting on its tail once complete. The cockpit is highly detailed, as the bulk of the photo-etch parts are employed here, for the seat straps, instrument panels, rudder pedals, control levers, and sidewall detail. There is also a film insert for the main instrument panel.
In Step 1, modelers will have the option of using the stock kit seat, or the more detailed resin example; the same is true for the wheels when you get to the landing gear. In Step 2, you will have to decide on which powerplant to use: the HeS 8a turbojet, fitted early in the flight testing phase, or the Junkers Jumo 004, which was fitted rather late in the He 280’s brief career, to increase its performance and pit it in a head-to-head competition against the pre-production version of the Messerschmitt Me 262 V4. Both powerplants are fairly detailed, with the HeS 8a turbojets consisting of nine parts each, and the Jumo 004’s consisting of a dozen parts each. Finally there is an option for an open or closed canopy.
This is an excellent, highly detailed kit of an aircraft representing an important benchmark in aviation, not merely of Germany but the world. While outclassed by the Messerschmitt Me 262, the aircraft that may well have been Ernst Heinkel’s masterpiece might have tipped the balance in favor of Nazi Germany, for despite the technical difficulties, with official support (and a minimum of political meddling) it might have entered service a full year ahead of its rival. And who can say what the outcome of WWII would have been had the He 280 been unleashed in European skies a year before D-Day?
- Heinkel He 280 ~ edited by Joachim Dressel, Manfred Griehl and Jochen Menke, Copyright 1991 Schiffer Publishing Ltd.
- “Who Killed the First Jet Fighter?” ~ www.aerocinema.com