History chewed out and spat out some incredible aeroplanes. We drag these rotting morsels out of the compost mulch of history and drag them to our laboratory/fight-club for autopsy. To assist us in our morbid analysis is Hush-Kit’s tamed scientist and engineer Jim ‘Sonic’ Smith (a key figure in the Typhoon and UK JSF programmes among others). To further our thrills we shall pit these dead aeroplanes against each other!
A pair of particularly neat and tidy high-performance fighters which share many common facets in their development stories. Both were seeking to replace current production aircraft, whose performance they exceeded; both had interesting technical features and were beautifully engineered; and both missed out, largely for reasons of industrial policy in time of war, driven by pressure on the availability of suitable powerplants, and a desire not to disrupt the production of in-service operational aircraft.
“When matched against each other in air combat, the MB 3 pilot would have been well advised to avoid a sustained turning combat, and would instead seek to make slashing attacks, taking advantage of its high speed and heavy firepower to inflict damage without seeking to out-manoeuvre its opponent.”
Heinkel He 100
The Heinkel 100 emerged as a result of the Heinkel company’s frustration with losing out to the Messerschmitt Bf 109 in being selected as the Luftwaffe’s single-engine fighter monoplane in 1936. Heinkel’s entry in that competition had been the Heinkel 112. The Messerschmitt design had proven successful largely because it was smaller, lighter, faster, and simpler to build. It did, however, have a few less satisfactory points, with a small, cramped cockpit, narrow track undercarriage and relatively short range.
Following the fighter decision, Heinkel had been advised that they were to concentrate on bomber aircraft, while Messerschmitt concentrated on fighters. However, when the authorities began to consider possible successors to the Bf 109 towards the end of 1937, Ernst Heinkel and Heinrich Hertel did not allow this advice to stand in their way.
Instead, they considered the lessons to be learned from the Heinkel 112, and set out to design a fighter which combined exceptional aerodynamic cleanliness with the simplest and lightest possible structure, while also addressing the perceived shortcomings of the Bf 109. In designing the He 100, they also drew on the experience of the He 119 private venture high-speed reconnaissance aircraft and bomber, designed by Siegfried and Walter Gunter under the guidance of Dipl-Ing Heinrich Hertel.
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The He 119 had a number of radical features, including a cooling system which essentially used the structure of the aircraft as a radiator, enabling an exceptionally clean airframe. The cooling system was pressurised, and relied on expansion of the coolant to steam, which was then condensed and returned in liquid form to the engine. The successful application of this so-called ‘evaporative cooling’ system in the He 119 led to its adoption for the Heinkel 100.
The He 100 really was a superbly conceived aircraft, with the lower forward fuselage doubling as the mount for the Daimler-Benz DB601 engine and almost no excrescences to mar the clean lines of the aircraft, apart from a small retractable oil cooler used principally for take-off and climb. This was a result of the use of the evaporative cooling system, which enabled externally mounted radiators to be dispensed with. The aircraft featured a notably roomy cockpit, largely uncluttered by cockpit framing, a wide-track, inward-retracting undercarriage, and a massively simplified structure compared to the He 112.
To further emphasise the performance superiority of the aircraft, the specially prepared V-8 prototype was used to raise the world absolute speed record to 463.92 mph in March 1939. The developed He 100D fighter is stated to have had a maximum speed and range of 416 mph and 553 miles respectively, compared to figures for the Bf 109E (also with the DB 601 engine) of 336 mph and 410 miles.
However, the program did not succeed in winning a Service production order. The reasons for this appear to be hotly debated, but, apart from the policy that Heinkel should build bombers, appear to have revolved around the difficulties Germany was experiencing with producing sufficient DB 601 engines, and maintaining their performance in service. Although Heinkel had been offered the possibility of an order should the He 100 be redesigned to use the Jumo 211 engine, this was not a viable solution, as that engine could not use a pressurised cooling system.
Twelve production series He 100D-1 aircraft were built and eventually used to form a local air defence unit at the Heinkel factory at Marienehe. These aircraft were also used for propaganda purposes, being painted in various unit colours to suggest that significant numbers of the aircraft were in operational service.
Martin-Baker MB 3
The Martin-Baker MB 3 was intended to provide a step forward beyond the performance of the Spitfire and Hurricane, and to exploit the additional power available from the Rolls-Royce Griffon engine. However, that engine experienced a lengthy development, and was not available to the company, who were required to fit a Napier Sabre II engine instead.
The design drew on lessons from the earlier MB 1 and MB 2 aircraft, and combined aerodynamic cleanliness with heavy armament and a sturdy, yet lightweight structure that was designed to be easy to maintain and repair. The engine installation was particularly neat, and the cooling system featured low-profile oil and engine cooling radiators carried under the wings.
The structure featured a steel tube framework carrying light removeable metal panels which provided great access for maintenance while preserving smooth external lines. The wing was built around a strong tapered metal torsion box, built up around a laminated steel spar, and carrying a simple yet robust wide-track undercarriage.
Another feature of the aircraft was the carriage of six 20-mm cannon as armament, enabled to fit in the simple tapered wings by a patented ‘flat-feed’ ammunition stowage system, and designed to be easy to access for both maintenance and re-arming.
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Development of the aircraft was delayed by the difficulties in engine development, and the original Contract, signed in June 1939, was replaced in August 1940 by a new Contract specifying the use of a Napier Sabre engine. However, the ongoing, and successful, development of other types, notably the Typhoon and Tempest, and the continued development of the Spitfire, had resulted, in late 1941, in a decision that no production order would be placed for the MB 3, although the prototype would still be completed.
The MB 3 had a very short flying career, making its first flight on 31 August 1942, and being destroyed in a fatal accident on its 10th flight on 12 September 1942. In the limited testing that was completed, handling and performance had both been shown to be excellent, with a reported maximum speed of 430 mph being demonstrated. However, the loss of the prototype due to engine failure on take-off, and the death of Company co-founder Captain Valentine Baker in the accident, were heavy blows for the company.
Eventually, the fully-developed, Griffon-engined, Martin-Baker MB 5 emerged, making its first flight on May 23, 1944. Viewed by many as the finest piston-engine fighter ever flown, the aircraft was largely irrelevant, as by then, the focus for future fighter development was on jet propulsion.
Heinkel He 100D and Martin Baker MB 3 – Air Combat Comparison
Having looked at the data for these two aircraft, I was reminded of the contest between the fast, rugged, and well-armed Grumman Hellcat, and the smaller, lighter, more agile, and more fragile Mitsubishi Zero.
Heavily armed, with six cannon, and very robustly constructed, the Martin-Baker MB 3 was more than twice the weight of the Heinkel 100D. As a result, it had a higher wing loading, and, despite having a 2000 hp Napier Sabre engine, a lower power loading than the He 100D. It also had a lower aspect ratio wing, but seems likely to have been slightly faster than the Heinkel.
In favour of the MB 3, however, was its immensely well-engineered airframe, designed to be strong, yet very easy to service, maintain and repair. The other major aspect in favour of the MB 3 was its armament of six 20-mm cannon, compared to the intended one cannon, plus two 7.92 mm machine guns, of the He 100D.
The He 100D offered good speed and manoeuvrability, and might have been expected to be a real handful in turning air combat. However, the key to its performance lay in the evaporative cooling system for the engine, which, although it delivered unmatched aerodynamic cleanness, was also extremely complex and likely to be vulnerable to battle damage.
When matched against each other in air combat, the MB 3 pilot would have been well advised to avoid a sustained turning combat, and would instead seek to make slashing attacks, taking advantage of its high speed and heavy firepower to inflict damage without seeking to out-manoeuvre its opponent. Even if such an engagement could not be avoided, the firepower of the MB 3 greatly outweighed the 3 machine guns actually fitted to the few production He 100D aircraft.
In terms of sortie generation, one suspects the He 100D would have been a nightmare. The complex cooling system required 22 electrical pumps, and these appear to have had a high failure rate. In addition, the system was pressurised and used the wings and parts of the fuselage as cooling surfaces. The system was likely to be very vulnerable to battle damage, as almost any damage to the structure might also damage the engine cooling system.
In contrast, the MB 3 is reported to have had extremely rapid servicing times, due to the provision of many access panels, allowing rapid re-armament and replenishment of fuel and oil. The primary structure was of robust steel tubing, designed to be easy to replace or repair. Sortie generation would be a clear area of advantage for the MB 3.
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Heinkel He 100 and Martin-Baker MB 3 Assessment
How to compare two aircraft that were brilliant examples of the ‘state of the art’ and yet not wanted by their respective production authorities? Both aircraft had first class aerodynamics, high performance, and good handling qualities. Both aircraft suffered from having the ‘wrong’ engine, in that the DB 601 was not going to be made available for production He 100 aircraft, and the Griffon was never going to be available in time for the MB 3. Both manufacturers were not perceived by the authorities as mainstream fighter designers, and yet both aircraft had also been designed with an eye to significant improvements over the aircraft they were intended to replace.
The case for the He 100 is that it was eventually fully developed, and demonstrated the performance expected from the design. However, one of the key enablers of that performance, the evaporative cooling system, was inextricably linked to the DB601 engine, preventing re-engining with the Jumo 211, which might have won a production order. The cooling system was also very complex, and, as much of the aircraft surface effectively served as a radiator, could have been very vulnerable to battle damage.
The case for the MB 3 rests on its impressive performance and handling, its heavy armament, and the ease of maintenance and repair of its structure. Against this must be set the small size of the Company developing the aircraft, the delays to that development, the unavailability of the Griffon engine, and the disastrous consequences of the failure on take-off of the prototype’s Napier Sabre.
Both aircraft became irrelevant, largely because their competitors came up with first class products to perform the intended role. In Germany’s case, the Focke-Wulf 190, using the BMW 801 radial engine, and in Britain’s case the Hawker Tempest, with the Napier Sabre, and later Bristol Centaurus engine.
So, which was best? Aerodynamically, the Heinkel. Mechanically, the MB 3. A developed six-cannon MB 3 would have been formidable, and the MB 5 gives an indication of where a Griffon engine would have taken the aircraft. For me, the He 100 cooling system, brilliant though it was in enhancing performance, remains an Achilles Heel, as it stifled development opportunity by its linkage to the DB 601, and would probably have been very vulnerable to battle damage. So, by a narrow margin, my choice of better loser goes to the MB 3, even though this was an aircraft which only completed nine successful flights.