Heinkel He 162 Salamander (also called Spatz – “Sparrow”) was the first a single-engine, jet-powered fighter aircraft fielded by the Luftwaffe in World War II. Given a generally low reliability of the first jet engines, designing and mass-producing (around 320 He-162s have been built) a single-engine jet fighter was no small feat.
He-162 was the winner of the Emergency Fighter Program design competition that had the objective of developing a fast interceptor that could be produced in large numbers and successfully used even by novice pilots with little training to successfully destroy Allied heavy bombers (and thus hopefully stop the incessant and crippling aerial bombing campaign).
Nicknamed the Volksjäger (“Peoples’ Fighter”) the aircraft to be designed was to use a single BMW 003 turbojet engine as the German economy simply could not afford producing two engines for one fighter. Volksjäger was intended (obviously) for rapid mass-production while using absolutely minimal resources.
The requirement was issued September 10th, 1944, with basic designs to be returned within 10 days (I) and to start large-scale production by January 1st, 1945.
After a hurried design competition involving almost all of Germany’s aircraft companies Heinkel’s He 162 Salamander/Spatz proposal was selected as the winning Volksjäger airframe design. The first prototype flew in December 1944 – weeks earlier than the specified deadline.
The key reason for this victory of Heinkel was that he had a significant head start over his competition – had already been working on a series of “paper projects” for light single-engine fighters over the last year under the designation P.1073, with most design work being completed by Professor Benz, and had gone so far as to build and test several models and even conduct some wind tunnel testing.
The He 162 was originally built with the intention of being flown by the Hitler Youth, as the Luftwaffe was fast running out of pilots. However, the aircraft’s complexity required more experienced pilots so this idea was promptly scrapped.
The He 162 first saw combat in mid-April 1945. On 19 April, Feldwebel Günther Kirchner shot down a Royal Air Force fighter, and although the victory was initially credited to a flak unit, the British pilot confirmed during interrogation that he had been downed by He 162. The Spatz and its pilot were lost as well, shot down by an RAF Hawker Tempest while on approach to land, a point at which Allied pilots routinely targeted German jets.
During its exceedingly brief operational service career, the 162’s cartridge-type ejector seat (He 162 was the first jet to be equipped with one) was employed under combat conditions by JG1 pilots at least three times.
The first recorded use was by Leutenant Rudolf Schmidt on April 20, with Feldwebel Erwin Steeb ejecting from his 162 the following day. Finally, Hauptmann Paul-Heinrich Dahne attempted an ejection on April 24, but was killed when the aircraft’s cockpit canopy failed to detach.
It sounds unbelievable given the circumstances of its design and production, but He 162 was actually one of the finest fighters of WW2. One experienced Luftwaffe pilot who flew it called it a “first-class combat aircraft.”
Eric “Winkle” Brown – the test pilot of the Fleet Air Arm, who flew a record 486 different types of aircraft, said the He 162 had “the lightest and most effective aerodynamically balanced controls” he had experienced.
The only weak point of He 162 was its armament which consisted of either two 20 mm MG 151/20 autocannons with 120 rpg (rounds-per-gun) or two 30 mm MK 108 cannons with 50 rpg.
The first option was not powerful enough to down huge Allied bombers and the second one had the same deficiencies (short barrel, low muzzle velocity and low rate of fire) that forced Me 262 to switch to unguided rockets.
In addition, He 162 had 100 rounds of 30mm ammunition versus 360 in Me 262 and no rockets capacity. Consequently, even produced in significant quantities, the Salamander would have still been an inefficient weapon against Allied strategic bombers.