I’ve lost half the week reading The First Jet Pilot, a historical biography about a pilot I’d never heard of before: Captain Erich Warsitz. Erich Warsitz was a German test-pilot in the 1930s and 40s.

He lived the most amazing life and when I say test-pilot, I don’t mean “check out this probably-stable plane and just make sure it flies as expected.” Erich Warsitz flew both the first liquid-fuel rocket aircraft and the world’s first jet aircraft.

Born in 1906, he learned to fly with a flying club near Bonn. He had the chance to fly many planes (including seaplanes) as he collected ratings / certifications and the equivalent of a commercial licence.

In 1932, Wernher von Braun, the famous German rocket scientist, first went to work for the German military. Von Braun had been obsessed with the idea of rocket flight since he was a child:

Recollections of Childhood/Early Experiences in Rocketry

When I was 12 years of age, I had become fascinated by the incredible speed records established by Max Valier and Fritz von Opel. So I tried my first practical rocket experiment. It resembled one tried in 1500 by a Chinese named Wan Hoo. This visionary Oriental foresaw the use of rocketry in going to the moon. And he wanted to be the first to do it.

Using the technology then available, Wan Hoo fastened a huge kite to a sedan chair on which he had strapped 47 solid propellant rockets. Bravely he sat in the sedan chair while coolies held torches to the rocket fuses. Wan Hoo disappeared in a burst of flame and smoke.

Although I had not heard of Wan Hoo’s fateful experiment, my approach was similar. I chose a coaster wagon instead of a sedan chair. Selecting half a dozen of the biggest skyrockets I could find, I strapped them to the wagon. Since there were no coolies to apply the torch, and lacking Wan Hoo’s courage and determination, my wagon was unmanned, and I lighted the rockets myself.

It performed beyond my wildest dreams. The wagon careened crazily about, trailing a tail of fire like a comet. When the rockets burned out, ending their sparkling performance with a magnificent thunderclap, the wagon rolled majestically to a halt.

The police who arrived late for the beginning of my experiment, but in time for the grand finale, were unappreciative. They quickly took me into custody. Fortunately, no one was injured and I was released to the Minister of Agriculture (my father).

Werner von Braun focused on liquid rocket propulsion, joining the German Army Ordnance Corps to fund his research. He designed a liquid-fuel rocket in 1932 and in 1934 he fired the A2, the predecessor to the A-4 ballistic missile.

At the same time, Erich Warsitz was working a flight instructor when he was recruited to Rechlin, the test centre for the Luftwaffe. There, he had the chance to fly every aircraft that the fast-moving German industry supplied. He built up a good name for himself and in 1936, Wernher von Braun and Ernst Heinkel asked him to join von Braun’s rocketry team. Heinkel was frustrated that traditional aircraft had reached a speed ceiling and could not be improved upon. Heinkel offered “an He 112 fuselage shell less wings” to von Braun for his tests. It was this, with a rocket attached, that they wanted Erich Warsitz to fly.

The question was how an aircraft might behave if it used a rocket motor as its propulsion system. The Luftwaffe referred to the idea as pure fantasy and didn’t support the team in their endeavours. The common belief was that any aircraft propelled by tail thrust would experience a change in the centre of gravity and flip over.

Wernher von Braun – Wikipedia

After von Braun familiarized Warsitz with a test-stand run, showing him the corresponding apparatus in the aircraft, he asked:

Are you with us and will you test the rocket in the air? Then, Warsitz, you will be a famous man. And later we will fly to the moon – with you at the helm!

In June 1937, Erich Warsitz flew the first rocket-propelled aircraft: an He 112 with a piston engine which they fitted out with a supplementary liquid-fuel rocket engine.

The First Jet Pilot

Flying an He 112 with von Braun’s rocket technology, I made the first flight from the airfield at Neuhardenberg in 1937. Despite the wheels-up landing and having my fuselage on fire, I had proved that an aircraft could be flown successfully using the rear-thrust principle and would not flip over as many influential gentlemen of the time asserted.

Even Werher von Braun called the second test crazy:
The First Jet Pilot

The same rocket engine, and another type developed by the firm of Walter at Kiel, was later installed into a small aircraft, the He 176, which in contrast to the He 112 had no piston engine and propellor, but was driven by the rocket alone. Even by today’s standards this aircraft was a crazy idea, so crazy in fact that even the famous aviator Ernst Udet, then a Luftwaffe general, promptly forbade Erich Warsitz to fly it again after seeing a demonstration circuit: Udet said it was not an aircraft but “a thing with almost no wings”. It was, he believed, something which could not be flown, and it was some time before Erich finally persuaded him to permit further flights.

Finally, on the 27th of August in 1939, test-pilot Erich Warsitz took up the very first jet aircraft, the Heinkel He 178. Designed by Hans von Ohain and Ernst Heinkel, it was a small one-man aircraft with a jet intake in the nose and a retractable undercarriage. By now, the men agreed that the future of aircraft was the jet engine, with longer flight endurance and operational reliability than the rocket aircrafts.

Erich Warsitz’s description of the flight is amazing. His son has overlaid it (along with English subtitles) against the video of the flight:

Sadly, all research and development was halted at this time, with a focus on production. The aircraft was sent to the German Technical Museum in Berlin, which was destroyed in an air raid in 1943.

Erich Warsitz continued as a test pilot at Peenemünde-West and returned to instruction, training bomber squadrons in Nantes and Eindhoven.

The Messerschmitt 262 became the first “true operational jet plane” in 1942 and was deployed as a combat aircraft in 1944.

July 18, 1942: World’s First Operational Jet Fighter Takes Wing

Engine problems, other teething difficulties and political bungling delayed its debut as a combat aircraft until 1944, but when it arrived, the twin-jet Me 262 showed that with an experienced pilot at the controls, it was more than a match for the best Allied fighters, including Britain’s own jet, the Gloster Meteor.

In truth, the Me 262 should have been ready for front-line service much earlier. The original design, which, in the end, looked a lot like the finished product, existed as early as April 1939. But high costs and the belief of many high-ranking Luftwaffe officers that conventional aircraft could win the war prevented Germany from making the Me 262 a priority.

After the war, when you think his life would have had a chance to become boring, Erich Warsizt found real trouble. He was kidnapped from his home in the American sector of Berlin by Russian soldiers. When he refused to coorperate with the Russian jet and rocket research, Erich Warsitz was sentenced to 25 years hard labour.

He spent five years in Siberia before he was able to return to Germany. At that point, he founded his own company, Maschinenfabrik Hilden, which he ran until his retirement in 1965. He died after a stroke at the age of 76 in 1983.

The story of Erich Warsitz is an amazing one and I heavily recommend the biography written by his son Lutz Warsitz and translated by Geoffrey Brooks.

From the Amazon description:

This book is written by Erich’s son who has used his father’s copious notes and log books that explain vividly the then halcyon days of German aviation history. Warsitz was feted by the Reich’s senior military figures such as Milch, Udet and Lucht and even Hitler keenly followed his experimental flying. Little is known of this pioneer period because of the strict secrecy which shrouded the whole project – it is a fascinating story that tells of the birth of the jet age and flight as we know it today. The book includes many unseen photographs and diagrams.

If you read one aviation book this year, make it this one.