The Only War We've Got

The Hortens and Their All-Wing Aircraft

The Horten Brothers and Their All-Wing Aircraft
(David Myhra)

Available at

If its fuselage, tail, and engine nacelles contribute nothing to an aircraft's lift, why not get rid of them?

Designers pursued the all-wing dream from the first decade of powered flight, notably Jack Northrop in the U.S. and the Horten brothers in Germany. Reimar and Walter Horten were a step ahead, testing an all-wing sailplane in 1933, a twin-engined pusher in 1937, and a turbojet fighter-bomber in 1944. When the war ended, Reimar was working on a six-engine Amerika bomber to carry a hypothetical atomic bomb to New York City.

Postwar, the western Allies dismissed their work, though the British toyed with a transport version of the Amerika bomber. Walter stayed in Germany and eventually rejoined the Luftwaffe; Reimar went to Argentina and worked for the Peron government. Meanwhile, Jack Northrop was still trying to build a successful all-wing turbojet bomber in the 1950s. That he never hired the Hortens, as German engineers were recruited for the US space program, may been one of history's great missed opportunities.

In the end, all that came from their work was a dozen aircraft whose beauty still astonishes. This is especially true of the Ho 229 fighter-bomber, a batlike warplane that wouldn't look out of place at a 21st-century air show--or combat airfield.

David Myhra wrote his book several years ago, while both Hortens were alive, and he approached it as their friendly ghost, rather than a dispassionate historian. The writing is sometimes clumsy and typographical errors are everywhere, including the first flight of the Ho 1 sailplane--perhaps the most important fact in the book--which is dated a year after it happened. There are 700 photos, sometimes duplicative but always fascinating. (My favorite shows the Horten dining room in Bonn, a wing entering its doorway and extending across the table, which is set for dinner.) An appendix provides three-views of 60 design variations, but without the dates and dimensions that would allow the reader to compare one with another, or with the contemporaneous designs of Jack Northrop.

All praise to David Myhra for writing this book, and to Schiffer for publishing it. What a pity they didn't hire a good editor while they were at it.

The Horten Ho 9 / Ho 229

Ho 9/229 Retrospective Ho 9/229 Technical History
These books are available from Amazon. Click on the cover image for more information.

These two books, together with David Myhra's earlier biography of the Horten Brothers, complete one of the most amazing publishing ventures in the military aircraft field. At any rate, I assume it's completed. Schiffer Books is full of surprises; based on what I know about publishing, I wouldn't have believed it would have pushed the project this far.

Basically, what we have here is the raw research for the earlier book, in the form of interviews with the Horten brothers and their associates. Despite the titles, the two books are not distinct: the interviews fill all of volume one and the first half of volume two. If one set is "retrospective" and the other "technical," I wasn't able to see the difference. However, volume two is filled out with a bunch of short chapters with very long titles (one of them is contains 70 words in 5 sentences). These are indeed technical in nature, especially toward the end, when we get a chapter on the cockpit layout, another on the landing gear, und so weiter.

Poland's Daughter

What fascinated me was the interviews. They begin, of course, with the Horten brothers. Myhra was especially close to Reimar Horten, the design genius of the family, and visited him in Argentina for what appears to have been a period of months in the 1980s. Of course he used much of this material in his earlier biography of the brothers, but it's a rare opportunity to be able to read the raw material. Necessarily, there's much repetition, and there's also conflict between the various accounts. Very little effort has been made to resolve the conflicts, though you can see the interviewer (almost always Myhra) wrestling with the problems they pose.

For example, Walter Horten was the pilot and organizer of the family. He'd flown in combat, and it was he who dealt with Hermann Göring's lads at the Reich Luftfahrt Ministerium, which handed out the contracts. In order to make the beautiful but radical all-wing turbojet more acceptable to the bureaucracy, and perhaps also because as a combat veteran he believed in the concept, Walter wanted to put a vertical tail-fin and rudder on the aircraft. Reimar of course was opposed. Myhra keeps returning to the conflict, which naturally is never resolved. Was the Ho 229 too unstable a platform for a fighter aircraft, or was Walti's notion of a vertical fin just a sop to more conventional minds? We'll never know.

Perhaps the most refreshing viewpoint in the book is that of Gerhard Hopf, who was a young pilot at the end of the war, with minimal contact with the Hortens or the all-wing concept. But he is tough-minded, opinionated, and quick to find the weak points and inconsistencies in the stories being told. (In most cases, Hopf doesn't seem to be present at the interview; he's providing commentary afterward.) Increasingly, as the pages wear on, he turns against the Hortens: "It makes me even more mad to see how our great nation's war effort was so influenced by the likes of Walter Horten and Hermann Göring and their crazy ideas.... Walter with his smart-looking uniform and talk of miracle aircraft ... would make even the disbelieving believe." (For some unfathomable reason, Myhra puts every proper name in italics.) I really wound up liking Herr Hopf.

Another refreshing voice is that of Rudolph Opitz, also a pilot, and one with experience in unconventional aircraft. "Any one of the old timers who flew Horten sailplanes ... knew that the Horten all-wing flying characeristics are horrible," he said. "Anyone who came from the outside and flew the Horten all-wing aircraft found that the aircraft flew, but that was about all. The All these aircraft required considerable changes, but the Horten brothers would never listen."

In the Schiffer tradition, the photographs are magnificent and plentiful. There must be a thousand pictures in these two volumes, though some (also in the Schiffer tradition) are duplicates. Sometimes, indeed, we get duplicates on the same page, with one a detail enlargement of the other.

At the end of the day, was the Ho 229 any good at all? I'm inclined to agree with Hopf that it was a waste of resources, whether or not it was as difficult to fly as Optiz claimed. Like Jack Northrop's XB-35 and YB-49 Flying Wing bombers, the Horten turbojet seems to have been a beautiful aircraft but a stinker of a flying machine.

And finally, are these books worth buying? Personally, I think Schiffer should have taken all of Myhra's raw material, given it to a good editor, and told him to turn the three volumes into one definitive study of Reimar, Walter, and their interesting but ultimately failed designs. But if you are an all-wing buff, or a Horten buff, or even a Luftwaffe buff, you should add these books to your collection. In that case, you can be the editor and draw your own conclusions.

Click here for 'Ho 229 Retrospective' and here for 'Ho 229 Technical History'

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