Dr. Hans von Ohain is regarded as both the father of jet propulsion and joint inventor of the jet engine. His work in the 1930’s to develop a practical turbojet engine for aircraft was mirrored (completely independently) by the British RAF engineer, Frank Whittle. Despite being on opposing sides during WWII, both men met several times later in their lives and became firm friends.
Hans Joachim Pabst von Ohain was born in Dessau, Germany on December 14th, 1911. The son of a wealthy army officer, he enjoyed a happy childhood in which he was free to indulge his passion for models and all things ‘technical’. In 1930 he entered the University of Gottingen in order to study thermodynamics and aerodynamics.
The origin of Von Ohain’s idea for a turbojet engine reputedly came about when he noticed how the vibration generated by a radial piston engine affected the stability of an airplane. He began to conceive a design for a smoother means of propulsion. After receiving his doctorate in 1935 he stayed at the university, serving as an assistant to the physicist, Robert Wichard Pohl.
He also decided (with much help from a car mechanic, Max Hahn) to build a model of his fledgling engine design, which he tested at the university. In the same year, 1936, he filed a patent application for his “process and apparatus for producing airstreams for propelling airplanes” (Patent document CH-184920). Frank Whittle had been granted a British patent for his turbojet design six years before, but there were significant differences in the two mens’ designs so von Ohain’s patent was duly granted in 1937.
The tests on his model engine didn’t go particularly well but they at least proved that the principal components – compressor, combustor and turbine – actually worked and the basic theory behind the design of the model was sound.
Lacking the funds to take his work any further, von Ohain was introduced (by his principal, Pohl) to the aircraft manufacturer, Ernst Heinkel. The Heinkel Company was impressed with von Ohain AND his ideas and quickly agreed to take him on-board and provide him with key facilities and personnel. His assistant, Max Hahn, followed along.
In the Summer of 1936, work began on the first test engine, HeS 1. It was ready to bench-test in early 1937 using hydrogen gas to fuel it. The tests went well despite problems with overheating, and work got underway to put together a true prototype capable of powering an airplane and able to run on liquid-hydrocarbon fuel. Work also got underway to build an airframe to accommodate the engine.
The new engine was called HeS 3 and was first bench-tested in the Spring of 1938. Test results were disappointing, with compression insufficient and combustion poor. A quick re-design was therefore carried out that resulted in HeS 3b, a slightly larger but simpler engine. It was flight-tested underneath an existing Heinkel airplane (an He 118) and by the Summer of 1939 a second “b” was incorporated into Heinkel’s now-completed airframe.
On August 27th, 1939, the Heinkel He 178, powered by Hans von Ohain’s engine, became the world’s first turbojet-powered airplane to fly. The jet age had begun.
For the next few years, Hans von Ohain worked on an engine that was intended to power the world’s first turbojet-powered combat aircraft, the Heinkel He 280. Progress was slow and problematic but the He 280, powered by von Ohain’s HeS 8 engine, eventually flew in April 1941 in front of German Air Ministry officials who, wholly impressed, promised further funding.
However, a number of turbojet engine and airframe projects were underway in Germany by this time and Hans von Ohain’s HeS 8 engine was ultimately eclipsed by the more practical Junkers Jumo 004. Heinkel’s He 280 fighter was also eclipsed, by the Messerschmitt Me 262, which became the first turbojet-powered fighter to go into production and be used in combat. For the rest of the war, von Ohain worked on developing a privately-funded Heinkel engine, the complex, advanced and extremely powerful HeS 011.
After WWII, as part of an American operation (Paperclip) to move top German scientists and engineers across the Atlantic, Dr. Hans von Ohain soon found himself in the USA. He became a research scientist at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. By 1956 he was a team leader at the Aeronautical Research Laboratory where his work was key to propulsion-research.
He became Chief Scientist of the Aerospace Research Laboratory in 1963, and in 1975 became Chief Scientist of the Aero Propulsion Laboratory where he oversaw virtually all US Air Force engine research and development. After retiring in 1979 he became an associate professor at the University of Dayton as well as the Charles Lindbergh Professor at the National Air and Space Museum. He died, aged 86, on Friday, March 13th, 1998 at his home in Melbourne, Florida.
Dr. Hans von Ohain registered numerous patents throughout his working life and was honored many times, including being inducted into the International Aerospace Hall of Fame and the Engineering and Sciences Hall of Fame. There is no doubt that Hans von Ohain was a key player in the development of aircraft propulsion for over fifty years, both in Germany and later in the US, but he will be chiefly remembered as the man who built the engine that took mankind into the jet age.