The jet set's other pioneer

Hans Joachim Pabst von Ohain,

engineer, born December 14, 1911;

died March 13, 1998

FIVE am, Sunday, August 27, 1939, at Marienehe, a lonely airfield near the German Baltic port of Rostock. It is a brilliant dawn with clear blue sky, except for a thin haze a few hundred feet off the ground, highlighted by the rising sun. A German test pilot of almost reckless bravery, Eric Warsitz, climbs into the cockpit of a grey, shoulder-wing monoplane, the Heinkel 178. It has no propeller. This will be the world’s first jet flight preceding the British Gloster E28/39 by 20 months.

wobitg2.jpg (78195 bytes)Amongst those watching the take-off is a lean, tense young man, more than six feet tall, Hans von Ohain, who has died in Florida, aged 86. It is his jet engine that powers the plane. On test, the bearings have run hot and the undercarriage will not retract; the flight should be postponed. But the plane-maker, Ernst Heinkel, insists.

Warsitz lifts off and disappears into the haze towards the sea. A few minutes later, the new sound in the sky, a high-pitched whistling whine, is heard for the first time by the group on the ground, who prepare for a landing; but Warsitz flies over, invisible, and goes out of earshot. He has been dazzled by the sun and cannot find the airfield. He eventually brings his tiny plane into land, sideslipping and putting his wheels on the runway to roll to a halt in front of Heinkel. It had been, Warsitz announces on landing, a perfect flight.

A few weeks later, Hitler himself was coaxed to see a demonstration. He appeared unfriendly, icy cold and unwell, von Ohain recalled later. He asked an aide what was wrong. He said that the demonstration had been too early in the morning: "The fuhrer preferred not to get out of bed before 11 am." "Why," Hitler asked testily, "do we need a new engine? Why is it necessary to fly faster than the speed of sound?" He was preparing for a short war and jet flight would be a post-war luxury.

Von Ohain has sometimes been known as the German Frank Whittle, but the comparison ends pretty brutally soon afterwards. Whittle had been a poor boy of the English midlands, scrambling his way up the meritocracy; von Ohain was the son of a wealthy merchant, and, to the end of his days, appeared a refulgent, deeply charming and contented scientist. Whittle did not gain friends easily until he was sure of their honesty; von Ohain was lucky in working for Heinkel, bully though he was, because, when money was essential for the project, Heinkel was rich enough to give it. In contrast, Whittle was almost crippled by poverty and the duplicity and ignorance of the air ministry and production companies.

Whittle and von Ohain were both repelled aesthetically by the noise and stink of the reciprocating aero engine. Flying in Junkers 52 airliners while a student, von Ohain could hardly believe that so beautiful a thing as flight should be propelled by something as ugly as a piston engine and propeller. Whittle was motivated in the same, way, and his invention of the aircraft jet engine was the world’s first, patented in 1930: it was a shattering invention which changed the world, but Whittle conceived it whilst still a cadet at the Royal Air Force academy at Cranwell.

Von Ohain had his idea in the autumn of 1933, while a physics student at Gottingen University. He was using his savings to build a small model of the jet engine with the help of Max Hahn, head mechanic at the local garage, where he had his car serviced. Von Ohain’s Professor R W Pohi sent him immediately to see Heinkel, who, after a day-long hearing with his chief designers, hired von Ohain and Hahn to make a jet engine to put in an aeroplane. The outcome was the Heinkel 178 prototype; destroyed in the middle of the war by an RAF raid on Berlin. In Britain, the outcome was the Gloster E28/39 — one of which hangs in the Science Museum to this day.

Both aircraft proved the principle of the jet in the same way: centrifugal compression. But both were then superseded by the far more efficient axial flow compressor.

Von Ohain could have seen Whittle’s patents, for the Air Ministry obligingly published them in 1939, and the German magazine Flugsport reproduced the drawings. Von Ohain certainly knew of Whittle’s work before this, but, after the war, both he and Whittle accepted that they had worked entirely independently of one another and the basic designs were the outcome of an amazingly precocious example of simultaneous invention.

For the rest of ‘the war years, von Ohain worked on a complicated jet engine, the 011, for which Heinkel received a Nazi air ministry order in the autumn of 1942. Its delivery was due in May 1945 — just in time for the arrival of the US Sixth Army at Heinkel’s base in southern Germany. Prototype engines had been hidden in the ground and von Ohain and his team were occupied in digging them up and putting them together again.

After the war, von Ohain was interrogated by British and American intelligence. He clearly preferred the Americans and went off to the United States in 1947, where he was, in his way, just as valuable to the US jet effort as Wernher von Braun was to the US missile and space programmes. He became chief scientist at the US air force base at Wright Patterson Field at Dayton, Ohio, working on advanced air breathing systems, and he retired a happily fulfilled man.

Although he never lost his thick guttural accent, he was extremely popular as a lecturer in America and grateful to that country for the reception it gave him. The US also gave him his wife, Hanni, an evacuee from Germany, who was devoted to his care, to his work and to their children and grandchildren.

Whittle, too, fetched up in the US after the war and met von Ohain. They became firm friends, both accepting the originality of the other’s work. It was clear that von Ohain admired Whittle greatly and testified to me that, had he had the Englishman’s struggle to contend with he would never have completed a jet engine.

Glyn Jones

The Guardian