The First Jet Pilot: The Story of German Test Pilot Erich Warsitz

by Lutz Warsitz, trans. by Geoffrey Brooks, Pen & Sword, South Yorkshire, England, $39.99.

Test pilot Erich Warsitz is perhaps best known for his groundbreaking flight in the Heinkel He-178 prototype on August 27, 1939—the first successful jet flight in history. His son Lutz built upon transcripts of lengthy 1952 and 1979 interviews with his father, and the two worked together on the memoir until Erich’s death in 1983. Lutz fleshed out the biography with additional interviews and research. The result is a fascinating glimpse of a spectacular piloting career.

Though the first jet flight is this book’s centerpiece, the narrative reaches back to the early days of German rocketry. Warsitz, a flight instructor attached to the Luftwaffe when it was still a secret entity, was assigned to work with Wernher von Braun at Kummersdorf and Neuhardenburg. He test-flew bombers with rocket-assisted takeoff as well as a Heinkel He-112 fighter modified with a rocket engine, dubbed a “suicide chariot.” Those tests led to the first practical rocketpropelled aircraft, the Heinkel He-176, so secret that only two photos of it are known to exist, both of them reproduced in the book.

A keen observer, Warsitz has left us a captivating portrait of the exuberant von Braun in his early years, in addition to luminaries such as aircraft designer Ernst Heinkel and Ernst Udet—as the Luftwaffe’s technical development chief, a man sadly out of his depth. Especially engrossing is his account of the awe-inspiring demonstration of aeronautical technology at Rechlin in July 1939, when Warsitz demonstrated the He-176 for Adolf Hitler. The German pilot also chronicles the development stoppage order of early 1940, which saw advanced technology projects put on the back burner in anticipation of a speedy end to the war.

The First Jet Pilot doesn’t pretend to be a scholarly study of German rocketry and jet development, nor is it a fully researched biography. Yet it faithfully profiles the dawn of the rocket and jet age, from the perspective of a participant with an eagle eye for detail.


Originally published in the July 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here