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The Horten HO 229 is Not an Early Stealth Plane

Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his many interests and his favorite topic.

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As the Second World War progressed, the Nazi Germany came up with numbers of inventive ways to bludgeon its enemies. Much to the delight of the Fuhrer Adolf Hitler, the Wunderwaffe (Miracle Weapon) program, known to the west as the Wonder Weapons churned out some of the most ingenious hardware of World War II. To the eyes of the modern observers, futuristic is one way to describe it. The machines meant to dominate the air, land and sea were years ahead of its time. This included the notorious V-weapons program, where ballistic missiles and unmanned flying bombs devastated London and Antwerp, and a collection of exotic vehicles. And as the tide of war turned against the Nazi Germany, the program proved to be an important propaganda tool for convincing the public that a new game changing weapon is on the way.

One might wonder if the Nazi Germany could have won, if the Wunderwaffe program was implemented earlier. The answer is no. Though impressive, the technology used was still in its early days. They were unreliable and expensive. Development ate a lot of precious time, with the Reich wasting a lot of money in testing and evaluation. Hitler should just focus on making more conventional weapons of war, not draining the limited resources in amazing, but unproven projects. In fact, a friend joked that the people who benefitted the most from the Wonder Weapons program were the Allies. With captured technology and scientists, they now had the means to spearhead their own program, which was still evident today with some modern weapons resembling the World War II Nazi Wonder Weapons (not to mention the space exploration).

And among Hitler’s many toy collections was a strange aircraft design that tickled the minds of curious modern-day observers.

The Horten HO 229

The Horten Brothers.

The Horten Brothers.

Even by today’s standards, the Horten HO-229 looks unconventional. In fact, to the uninitiated, they might mistake the aircraft for a top-secret futuristic fighter. People’s impressions of World War II planes are mostly piston powered propeller aircrafts. But like many of Hitler’s Wonder Weapons, the Horten HO 229 made a different approach when it comes to design.

It began in 1943, when Hermann Goring made a call for a light fighter/bomber design that will meet a 3x1000 requirements. It must be capable of carrying a thousand kilograms of bombs at one thousand kilometers range. Plus, the said plane must also fly at great speed, at a thousand kilometers per hour.

The Horten brothers responded with a flying wing type aircraft. Now, their interest in the flying wing design stretches back in the 1930s, when they made the glider Horten H.IV. In the case of a powered flight, they concluded that what worked best for gliders could work well for Goring’s requested warplane. Flying wings have low drag, and with the drag reduced, the power required to keep the aircraft going goes down as well, hence increasing the range. And propelling the aircraft at a thousand kilometers per hour was only possible with the use of jet engine. But jet engines required a lot of fuels, but then this won’t be a problem if they were applied on a low drag flying wing.

The design was approved, but with 30 mm cannons added as an armament. With such a speed, the plane had a potential as a fighter.

And the project to construct the unconventional plane began.

How it Went

the H.IV, a glider that the Hortens built.

the H.IV, a glider that the Hortens built.

A series of prototypes known as the H.IX was made, and it ranges from unpowered glider to fully powered planes. The H.IX was constructed out of a mix of metal and wood. It utilized tricycle landing gear and a primitive ejection seat. But flying an exotic and unproven aircraft never came without danger. When the first prototype flew (H.IX V1), an accident happened during a landing attempt. Nevertheless, other flight evaluations showed favorable results, when a powered prototype (H.IX V3) was taken for a mock dogfight. The adversary aircraft was a Messerschmitt Me 262, a plane it managed to out-perform. There were areas to improve though, like the need of the targeting systems to be adapted for high speed aircrafts. Then there was the fact that the slow turning Me 262 was not even ideal as a fighter to begin with. And on February 18, 1945, disaster struck again when a prototype crashed, killing its test pilot Erwin Ziller. And by the end of the war, a Horten 229 nearing the end of its assembly and a glider fell into the hands of the Americans.

Overall, the Horten HO 229 never saw any combat actions. In fact, no battle worthy planes were even built, and so far, the program was what the Wonder Weapon was in a nutshell. A lot of testing and few results.

But Is It Stealthy?

Nonflying model built by Northrop Grumman.

Nonflying model built by Northrop Grumman.

For some people, the outside appearance of the Horten HO 229 looks so familiar. In fact, there is a similar multibillion-dollar aircraft flying undetected in the sky that proved itself in various conflicts. There is a good reason to fear the B-2 Spirit bomber. Its ability to deliver nuclear and conventional bombs undetected means a squad loitering above could bring total devastation to a territory. Just look what happened to the Kosovo War, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. The B-2 bomber uses the same flying wing design as the Horten HO 229, which gave it a low radar cross section without sacrificing aerodynamics.

And if that’s the case with the B-2 bomber, people wonder if the World War II Horten HO-229 was as stealthy.

Now, radar technology was just being introduced back then in the Second World War, and it became instrumental to the victory of the Allies against the Nazi Germany. And it intrigues the imagination that the Nazi already has their own stealth planes to beat the radars. Furthermore, developing a stealth aircraft is no easy task, and it took years of top-secret research just to unleash the F-117 Nighthawk.

And to add to the intrigue, Reimar Horten even claimed that he intended to add charcoal to the wood glue of the production model to absorb the electromagnetic waves. In this way, the Horten HO 229 will be undetected by radar, the same way as how modern stealth paint shield Fifth Generation Aircrafts.

Now, Horten’s statement and the very shape of the aircraft might inspire dystopian fantasies of a parallel universe where Hitler won. But experts weren’t quick to buy such claim.

Two tests were conducted to the surviving prototype for presence of charcoal, and their results vary. One made by Northrop Grumman indicated the presence of charcoal, while the Smithsonian Institute tested negative. Then, Northrop Grumman teamed up with documentary producer Michael Jorgensen and the National Geographic. A full sized non-flying model of the HO 229 was exposed to electromagnetic energy from various angles.

The result was not impressive.

At 80% distance of a BF 109, a Horten HO 229 flying at 885 kilometers per hour will be visible to radar.

Overall

A surviving Horten HO 229.

A surviving Horten HO 229.

Historians doubted Horten’s claim that he was building a stealthy aircraft, as the Horten HO 229 wasn’t intended as a stealth fighter-bomber from the start. Goring wanted an aircraft with high payload, extended range, and high speed, and he never stated any stealth capabilities. This was evident on the overall appearance of the aircraft. When the B-2 bomber came out, considerations where made on areas that might return a radar echo. This includes the air intake or any portions that could break its smooth profile. The B-2 bomber is stealthy from the start. The HO 229 was not. Its gaping air intake, the nose, the canopy, and other areas all increased its radar signature, hence making it detectable.

And lastly is the very nature of World War II air combat.

Stealth mattered less when you are dogfighting in close range, and in broad daylight. But despite being non stealthy, the Horten HO 229 was still an amazing piece of technology that was years ahead of its day. Though like many of the Wonder Weapons, it was doubtful if it could even turn the tide of war for the Nazis.

References

1. Giangreco, Leigh (March 2020). "Why the Experimental Nazi Aircraft Known as the Horten Never Took Off." Smithsonian Magazine.

2. Roblin, Sebastien (9, September 2018). "Nazi Germany's 'Stealth' Fighter: The Story of the Ho 229." The National Interest.

3. National Geographic HD : Stealth Fighter - Hitler's Secret Weapons Recreated| Around 40 minutes in


This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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