World War II: Heinkel He 280

Heinkel He 280. Public Domain

The Heinkel He 280 was the world's first true jet fighter. Developed by Ernst Heinkel, the aircraft built upon his earlier successes with the civilian He 178. First flying in 1941, the He 280 proved superior to the piston-engine fighters then in use by the Luftwaffe. Despite this success, Heinkel had difficulty gaining official support for the aircraft until late 1942. Plagued by engine issues, the He 280's development was eventually halted in favor of the Messerschmitt Me 262. The He 280 represents a missed opportunity for the Luftwaffe as it could have been operational a year earlier than the more famous Messerschmitt and aided Germany in maintaining air superiority over Europe.


In 1939, Ernst Heinkel began the jet age with the first successful flight of the He 178. Flown by Erich Warsitz, the He 178 was powered by a turbojet engine designed by Hans von Ohain. Long interested in high-speed flight, Heinkel presented the He 178 to the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (Reich Air Ministry, RLM) for further evaluation. Demonstrating the aircraft for RLM leaders Ernst Udet and Erhard Milch, Heinkel was disappointed when neither showed much interest. Little support could be found from RLM's superiors as Hermann Göring preferred to endorse piston-engine fighters of proven design.

Undeterred, Heinkel began moving forward with a purpose-built fighter that would incorporate the He 178's jet technology. Beginning in late 1939, the project was designated He 180. The initial result was a traditional looking aircraft with two engines mounted in nacelles under the wings. Like many Heinkel designs the He 180 featured elliptically-shaped wings and a dihedral tailplane with twin fins and rudders. Other features of the design included a tricycle landing gear configuration and the world's first ejection seat. Designed by a team led by Robert Lusser, the He 180 prototype was complete by summer 1940.

Ernst Heinkel
Aircraft designer Ernst Heinkel. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B21019 / CC-BY-SA 3.0


While Lusser's team was making progress, engineers at Heinkel were encountering problems with the Heinkel HeS 8 engine which was intended to power the fighter. As a result, initial work with the prototype was limited to unpowered, glide tests which began on September 22, 1940. It was not until March 30, 1941, that test pilot Fritz Schäfer took the aircraft up under its own power. Re-designated the He 280, the new fighter was demonstrated for Udet on April 5, but, as with the He 178, it failed to earn his active support.

In another attempt to earn RLM's blessing, Heinkel organized a competition flight between the He 280 and a piston-engine Focke-Wulf Fw 190. Flying an oval course, the He 280 completed four laps before the Fw 190 had finished three. Again rebuffed, Heinkel redesigned the airframe making it smaller and lighter. This worked well with the lower thrust jet engines then available. Working with limited funding, Heinkel continued to refine and improve its engine technology. On January 13, 1942, test pilot Helmut Schenk became the first to successfully use the ejection seat when he was forced to abandon his aircraft.

RLM Support

As designers struggled with the HeS 8 engine, other power plants, such as the V-1's Argus As 014 pulsejet were considered for the He 280. In 1942, a third version of the HeS 8 was developed and placed in the aircraft. On December 22, another demonstration was organized for RLM which featured a mock dog fight between the He 280 and the Fw 190. During the demonstration, the He 280 defeated the Fw 190, as well as showed impressive speed and maneuverability. Finally excited about the He 280's potential, RLM ordered 20 test aircraft, with a follow-on order for 300 production aircraft.

Heinkel He 280

Specifications (He 280 V3):


  • Length: 31 ft. 1 in.
  • Wingspan: 40 ft.
  • Height: 10 ft.
  • Wing Area: 233 sq. ft.
  • Empty Weight: 7,073 lbs.
  • Loaded Weight: 9,416 lbs.
  • Crew: 1


  • Power Plant: 2 × Heinkel HeS.8 turbojet
  • Range: 230 miles
  • Max Speed: 512 mph
  • Ceiling: 32,000 ft.


  • Guns: 3 x 20 mm MG 151/20 cannon

Continuing Problems

As Heinkel moved forward, problems continued to plague the HeS 8. As a result, the decision was made to abandon the engine in favor of the more advanced HeS 011. This led to delays in the He 280 program and Heinkel was forced to accept that another companies' engines would need to be used. After assessing the BMW 003, the decision was made to use the Junkers Jumo 004 engine. Larger and heavier than the Heinkel engines, the Jumo drastically reduced the He 280's performance. The aircraft flew for the first time with the Jumo engines on March 16, 1943.

With the reduced performance caused by the use of the Jumo engines, the He 280 was at a severe disadvantage to its primary competitor, the Messerschmitt Me 262. Several days later, on March 27, Milch ordered Heinkel to cancel the He 280 program and focus on bomber design and production. Angered by RLM's treatment of the He 280, Ernst Heinkel remained bitter about the project until his death in 1958. Only nine He 280s were ever built.

A Lost Opportunity

Had Udet and Milch seized upon the He 280's potential in 1941, the aircraft would have been in frontline service more than a year earlier than the Me 262. Equipped with three 30mm cannon and capable of 512 mph, the He 280 would have provided a bridge between the Fw 190 and Me 262, as well as would have permitted the Luftwaffe to maintain air superiority over Europe at a time when the Allies would have lacked a comparable aircraft. While engine issues plagued the He 280, this was a constant issue with early jet engine design in Germany.

Messerschmitt Me 262. Photograph Courtesy of the US Air Force

In most cases, government funding was lacking at the key early stages of development. Had Udet and Milch initially backed the aircraft, the engine problems most likely could have been rectified as part of an expanded jet engine program. Fortunately for the Allies, this was not the case and a new generation of piston-engine fighters, such as the North American P-51 Mustang and later versions of the Supermarine Spitfire, allowed them to take control of the skies from the Germans. The Luftwaffe would not field an effective jet fighter until the Me 262, which appeared in the war's final stages and was unable to significantly influence its outcome.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Heinkel He 280." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, July 31). World War II: Heinkel He 280. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Heinkel He 280." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).