The Horten brothers? Perhaps you’ve heard of them. But don’t confuse their name with that of the founder of the Canadian coffee chain. Any WWII aircraft enthusiast could easily rattle off their names: Walter and Reimar were Luftwaffe pilots during WWII, but more importantly, aircraft designers.
Although life was difficult in a post WWI Germany, both young men benefited from a solid education. Their love for aeronautics and admiration of Alexander Lippisch, a German innovator in aircraft design, opened a new world to the Hortens. Under Lippisch’s influence, they began to experiment with gliders as early as the mid 1920s, eventually leading them to investigate alternative airframes. Their enthusiasm led to building all sorts of sailplane models, with a number of them occupying their parent’s house.
With the declaration of WWII, Reimar and Walter (like many young and idealistic men) ended up joining the Luftwaffe as pilots. Although they both flew active missions, it was their design talents that garnered praise and interest from senior officers in Germany’s aircraft development program, the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (RLM), spanning from 1933-1945.
Eventually their work caught the eye of Kurt Diesing, the chief of staff to none other than Hermann Göring, the head of the Luftwaffe. Diesing recognized the potential of their designs and recommended their preliminary drawings be shown to Göring.
Göring’s initial reaction had been to dismiss the idea, based on the fact that he had never even heard of the Horten brothers and the notion crossed his mind that Diesing was paying him lip service. But when Diesing had shown him some of their preliminary designs and advised him of their earlier work with gliders, Göring quickly reined in his skepticism.
What followed were interviews and discussions that led to the Horten brothers being awarded the princely sum of 500,000 Reichsmarks and a contract to develop and build a working prototype. Pleased with their work, Göring gave provisional approval for the construction of 20 turbo jet aircraft, which, when completed, would form part of a new fighter wing.
All of this is truly remarkable when you consider that neither Reimar nor Walter were established aeronautical engineers. Yet they had the desire and fortitude to branch out into a relatively unknown area of aircraft design, while being snubbed by established firms like Messerschmitt and Heinkel.
Eventually their prototype was built and flown by test pilot Erwin Ziller in the waning months of WWII. Unfortunately, Ziller was killed in a crash while flying the HO-229 prototype. Several other Horten aircraft were in various stages of assembly but never saw completion as the various assembly sites were overrun by Allied ground forces.
Reimar and Walter Horten were captured by the Allies in April 1945. As was the case with prominent scientists, engineers and physicists, the Hortens were housed in temporary military detention camps while awaiting interviews. Once they were cleared and not implicated in war crimes, they were free to resume their careers. Reimar immigrated to Argentina, where he continued his design work. Walter remained behind in Germany, and was instrumental in rebuilding the German military aviation program, eventually retiring with the rank of general.
Perhaps what many don’t realize is that the American government had seized one of their prototypes, along with their design work. Jack Northrop appropriated much of their material and based his work on their designs, leading to the design and implementation of the B2 supersonic bomber.
All of this, courtesy of an innovative design by two unknown brothers who believed in themselves when no one else did.