On This Day: Luftwaffe pilot makes history by escaping in ejector seat (13th January 1942)
Whilst at the controls of a Heinkel He-280 (pictured above) jet fighter being towed by another aircraft, Luftwaffe pilot Helmut Schenck realised he was unable to start his engines due to cold interference. Jettisoning his canopy, he activated his ejector seat and made history as the first person to use an ejector seat to successfully exit an aircraft in an emergency.
Schenck wasn’t the first to use this method of exiting his aircraft as such. Another Heinkel pilot had previously ejected successfully but under test conditions.
From the time of Schenck’s successful escape to the end of World War II three years later, approximately 60 Luftwaffe airmen ejected from their planes in combat situations.
The aircraft and the seat were developed by the Heinkel Aircraft Works as Nazi Germany continued to experiment with jet propulsion systems and the ejection seat mechanisms necessary for a pilot to escape a cockpit unharmed whilst travelling at these new speeds. “Bailing out” of an aircraft, as was the usual method in contemporary aircraft, became more problematic as pressure and speed issues became apparant with the introduction of jet propelled technology.
The Heinkel airplane factory in Oranienburg near Berlin was one of more than 100 sub-camps attached to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. In 1944 alone, between 6,000 and 8,000 prisoners worked on the He-177 bomber and the He-111. Despite it being officially reported that the prisoners were “working without fault”, some of these aircraft crashed unexpectedly, notably during the Stalingrad campaign. It is suspected that prisoners may have sabotaged them, leading the Luftwaffe to dub the He-177 bombers ‘flying lighters’, or ‘flaming coffins’.
The Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp was built in the summer of 1936 just north of Berlin and was one of the most notorious camps of the Nazi empire. It was also the administrative centre for all of the Nazi concentration camps as well as being a training centre for SS officers, who were often sent to oversee other facilities afterwards, and slave labour complex.
Sachsenhausen was also the site of one of the war’s largest currency counterfeiting operations. Inmates were forced to produce forged British and eventually American bank notes, as the Nazis aimed to undermine the economies of those countries.
You can still visit Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, the site of a well-maintained memorial, just outside of Berlin.
If you are interested in arranging a private guided tour, visit our Sachsenhausen tour page.