The Scariest Wonder Weapon of Nazi Germany: Its Very Own Stealth Fighter
The Hortens were reassigned to draft specifications for a flying wing jet bomber with range enough to deliver an atom bomb to the east coast of the United States. Their resulting schematics for the Horten H.XVIII “Amerika Bomber” flying wing were never realized, except arguably in the film Captain America.
Was the Ho 229 a stealth fighter?
One word you haven’t seen in this history so far is “stealth”—and that’s because there isn’t any documentation from the 1940s supporting the notion that the flying wing was intended to be a stealth aircraft. And yet, the Hortens had stumbled upon the fact that a flying wing design lends itself to the sort of reduced radar cross-section ideal for a stealth plane.
Reimer Horten moved to Argentina after the war, and in 1950 wrote an article for the Revista Nacional de Aeronautica arguing that wooden aircraft would absorb radar waves. Thirty years later, as the theory behind stealth aircraft became more widely known, Reimer wrote that he had intentionally sought to make the Horten flying wing into a stealth plane, claiming that he had even constructed the airframe using a special radar absorbent mixture of carbon, sawdust and wood glue without notifying his superiors. Two tests were undertaken to determine the presence of the carbon dust, one of which supported his claim and the other that didn’t. In general, historians are skeptical that stealth was a design goal from the outset.
In 2008, Northrop Grumman teamed up with the National Geographic channel to reconstruct a mockup of the Ho 229, which they tested for radar reflection, and then pitted against a simulation of the British Chain Home radar network. Their findings were less than overwhelming—the flying wings would have been detected at a distance 80 percent that of a standard German Bf. 109 fighter.
The Northrop testers stressed that combined with the Ho 229’s much greater speed, this modest improvement would have given defending fighters too little time to react effectively.
But of course, the flying wing’s main feature was always supposed to be its speed, which could have exceeded the maximum speed of the best Allied fighters of the time by as much as 33 percent. Detection time would not have mattered greatly if it could outrun everything sent to intercept it. Furthermore, stealth would have had little usefulness in the fighter role the Ho 229 would actually have assumed, as the Allied daylight fighters ranging over Germany did not benefit from radars of their own.
The Ho 229 might have been a formidable adversary over the skies of World War II, but in truth the plane was far from ready for mass production by the war’s end. While it seems a stretch to claim that the Ho 229 was intended to be a stealth aircraft, there’s little doubt that it pioneered design features that continue to see use in low-observable aircraft today.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.
This first appeared in January and is being reprinted due to reader interest.