Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
Two days ago while watching the local Berlin evening news I heard that a new wonder had been put on display at the über-fantastic Technical Museum in Trebbiner Straße 9, Berlin Kreuzberg. That is the building you cannot miss when travelling with U1 in the direction Uhlandstraße: when you see the huge aircraft (the famous Rosinenbomber) hanging from the facade, you will know why. And the aforementioned wonder is small, damn fast and quite exceptional in every respect.
The new pride and joy of the museum is called Heinkel. Heinkel He 162 (A-2 to be precise), one of the last fighter jets built in Germany during WW2, also known as Volksjäger. The “people´s fighter aircraft” was supposed to be flown by “the people” (the nation) just like the primitive and thus easy to produce Volkspistole and Volksgewehr were to be shot by “the people”. And those “people” had hardly any idea about aviation as such. In short, it was a jet for amateurs, for the lay of the land. But today it is 66 years old and this time it comes in peace. As one of the only seven such machines still existing worldwide.
Heinkel He 162 has a rather unique design. Not only because it was one of the last desperate attempts of the NS regime to improve their aircraft combat score (failed on that account, as I am sure we are glad to hear), but also because it is a jet fighter produce of rather unusual material. It is made of wood.
Not all of it, of course – the crucial parts, such as the BMW003 jet engine and other “internal organs” are made of good, probably Norwegian steel (that´s where the Nazis usually went shopping for it). However, almost a half of the body of the aircraft could have just as well been used to keep Hitler´s fireplace burning. Which didn´t prevent the machine from being one of the fastest and in many respects potentially one of the best airborne pieces of warfare.
The father of the Volksjäger, Ernst Heinkel, needed mere 10 weeks to have the prototype flying. His order to develop a new aircraft came on the 20th of September 1944. Already on December, 6th 1944 Santa saw it flying past him in the sky above Vienna. Considering that the necessary workforce was more than in abundance since virtually every single part of the airplane was manufactured by the Nazi slave workers and concentration camp prisoners, this astounding pace comes as no surprise. At the same time, it is worth remembering that by the time Heinkel latest design was ready, the 3rd Reich had almost shot all of its guns empty and was finally heading for a fall.
The obvious lack of building materials made the engineers go back to the roots of aviation and had them implement the above mentioned wood. Despite the shockingly short period of development and the doubtful quality of the machine – it´s technical faults were the main reason why it had practically zero military significance for the WW2 combats, for which we are grateful – it was capable of flying at an astounding speed of over 800 km/h whilst requiring only 800 metres of a runway to start! The jet engine built my BMW (whom else?) might have looked bizarre, placed in a fanciful way on the top of the plane´s body like a rucksack, but it was certainly powerful.
The first machines, all of them equipped with an ejection seat were ready for action in January 1945. The baptism of fire took place in March of the same year. Heinkel He 162 might have been faster than anything the RAF (Royal Air Force) and the USAAF (USA Air Force) had in store but it did not fare well. How could it when there was practically no-one left to fly it?
The experienced pilots, whose hand would have been necessary to reveal the full scope of the Volksjäger´s talents, were either dead or busy fighting the lost fight for the Führer on other fronts. Luckily, the idea to have the machines manned by Hitlerjugend boys who knew how to fly gliders (aircrafts without engine, flying by floating on air currents) did not take off. Not because someone decided it was mad and cruel and absolutely futile but because the war ended. And so after only a couple of months up in the air the short and not so beautiful career of Heinkel He 162 was over.
There seems to exist an unwritten rule for those wishing to achieve immortality: “To be famous, be the loudest, the richest or the best. To become a legend, die young and leave an attractive corpse.” That is what Volksjäger, James Dean and Marylin Monroe might have in common. When the war was over and Germany surrended, on May 8th 1945 the remaining Volksjäger stationed on a military airfield in North Friesland in the Netherlands were impounded by the British forces. They had the machines transported to the UK in order to do the last check-up on the dying patient. The RAF pilots performed several flights and were quietly impressed with what the little disposable jet had to offer. The single machine which crashed did so not due to its faulty construction but because of the pilot´s mistake: he tried to flap it or turn it upside-down while flying. Allegedly not something that anyone conversant with the plane´s technical construction and with a bit of common sense should have tried. As for the aircraft itself being disposable: it was truly and literally throwaway, almost like paper cups and disposable ballpoint-pens today. Its technical description contained the word Wegwerfflugzeug, “a disposable plane”, just like the famous V1 missiles the Nazis were hoping to present to the world straight from Pennemünde.
The machine on display at the Technical Museum in Kreuzberg came a long way. After being tested in Great Britain in the summer of 1946, Fate had it loaded onto a ship to cross the Atlantic on the way to Canada. In 1964 the military presented it as a gift to the National Aeronautical Collection in Ottawa. 42 years later, in 2006, a British aircraft fan and collector, Guy Black of the Historic Aircraft Collection, obtained it from them in exchange for other treasures of historic aviation. The museum did not suffer any great loss since they were in possession of two such machines.
Already in 2005, when the then new exhibition called “From Ballooning to The Berlin Airlift” was opened, the Berlin museum was not only hoping to obtain one Volksjäger for their collection but they actually included it in their planning. The advertisement for the sale of one Heinkel He 162 A-2 published in 2010 in the UK came as a true blessing and allowed for both the wish and the plan to be fulfilled.
The machine returned to its mother land in June 2011. And since the 27th of September is waiting for you to come and see it in the fourth floor of the Luftfahrt exhibition in Trebbiner Strasse: the tiny flying Wunderwaffe that was supposed to save the 3rd Reich.