It’s a testament to the odd alliances and unlikely partnerships of the early Cold War that the final aircraft designed by the legendary Willy Messerschmitt — indeed his only supersonic design — was manufactured not in Europe but in the industrial city of Helwan, just outside Cairo.
Quite remarkably, in the 1960s Egypt was on the cusp of self-sufficiency in fighter aircraft, about to ride the wave of rapid development in an era where it was still possible for light-weight interceptors to be competitive.
While promising, however, the project never progressed beyond the prototype stage before being cancelled. A victim of changing economic and geopolitical circumstances on the one hand, and pure bad luck on the other, it offers an intriguing ‘what if’ question as to what might have been, had Egypt’s leaders been more prudent.
The story of the HA-300 began not in Egypt, but in Spain, where Willy Messerschmitt had relocated after the end of the Second World War. Fresh from prison for his use of slave labour during the war and, like other German designers banned from engaging in any defence work in West Germany, Messerschmitt was invited by General Franco in the early 1950s to work on projects at Hispano Aviación. There he began work on a basic trainer and an ultralight jet fighter aircraft, which would become the HA-200 and HA-300 respectively. While development of the HA-200 was eventually successful, via the abortive HA-100, the HA-300 project suffered from a lack of funding and aerodynamic problems with a glider mock-up meant to test the aircraft’s basic design. Faced with unknown development costs and a long timeframe, Spain cancelled the project in 1960.
Egypt, meanwhile, had begun an industrialisation phase under Nasser and was looking for opportunities to build its indigenous defence industry. As part of that process it had acquired the rights to build 90 HA-200s at a new aircraft manufacturing facility in the city of Helwan, near Cairo, to be run by the Egyptian General Aero Organisation (EGAO). While at Hispano, the Egyptians had been interested in the HA-300 programme and sought to join it as a development partner. Once it became clear that Spain would no longer back the project, Egypt bought the entire thing and shipped the whole design team, including Messerschmitt, to Helwan.
The initial plans were to equip the HA-300 with a single Bristol-Siddeley Orpheus Mk 703-S-10 turbojet engine, as used in the Folland Gnat and Fiat G.91, but it was clear that a more potent power plant would be required to meet the performance figures that the Egyptian Air Force desired. So Egypt recruited Ferdinand Brandner, the engine designer for Junkers during WWII, to design a brand-new turbojet engine under Project ‘135’. The engine would later come to be known as the E-300.
It must be said that the sheer ambition of Egypt’s plans at this point were impressive and bold, but ultimately naive and so contributed to its undoing in later years. Not only was it attempting to build a new combat jet aircraft virtually from scratch, but it was working on an engine to go with it alongside a host of other projects including civilian airliners. As Egypt lacked the required domestic skill sets and experience, the HA-300 and E-300 projects alone involved the recruiting of hundreds of designers, scientists, and engineers from all over Europe at substantial cost. In addition, with resources being spread so thinly, it was effectively impossible to achieve full transfer of knowledge to Egyptians shadowing the foreign teams, even though that had been the original motivation.
At the time the Egyptian Air Force had no local test pilots, though it had sent Lt-Col Zoheir Shalaby and Major Sobhy El Tawil to India to learn the trade there. So it requested a test pilot from India’s HAL and the Indian Air Force, which agreed to second Group Captain Kapil Barghava, one of India’s most distinguished test pilots, to the programme. The Germans initially refused to have anything to do with Barghava, insisting he would not get anywhere near the HA-300, but their hands were forced by circumstance and a lack of suitable alternatives.
As with any aircraft project, development of the HA-300 was far from smooth. The development of the E-300 was delayed by the need for thousands of hours of ground tests, so the first two prototypes were fitted with the lower-powered Orpheus engines. Minor issues, from nose wheel shimmy to yaw problems dogged each attempt to move forward. Worse, quality control was terrible, leading to an inflection point where Group Captain Barghava faced off against Messerschmitt and his team and steadfastly refused to take the first prototype up unless a host of major problems were fixed.
As he recalled it in his later memoirs: “I reminded Prof. Messerschmitt that the contract for the aircraft specified the design to conform to the British Air Publication-970 requirements, which laid down the design criteria for military aircraft. The nineteen points listed by me were all in serious breach of the AP. A few of them were so obvious that it was a wonder that the design team did not anticipate them. For example, the integral fuel tanks had leaked and flexible rubber tanks were inserted into them. Some of these had also leaked. Yet, the only indication for fuel contents was a totaliser gauge showing the fuel entering the engine. The pilot would know that all fuel had leaked out only after his engine cut. The fuel system had apparently been designed with a preoccupation for unlimited inverted flying. Firstly, there was no requirement for such a facility and, secondly, the Orpheus engine’s oil system would, in any case, have limited the maximum duration of inverted flight to about 10 seconds. The direct supply tank to the engine was the smallest in the system and any failure of air transfer pressure would produce a flameout within two minutes. The tail plane trim was operated by a single-pole switch on the stick carrying the entire current of the large motor, without any protection against a trim run away. Rudder flutter was forecast at 0.56 M. Yet, its damper was powered by a single hydraulic system. Other design deficiencies, too many to list here, were also dangerous and unacceptable to me as a qualified test pilot.”
The moment was crucial. Messerschmitt had not realised the extent to which quality control had slipped, and his team came to respect Barghava’s insights and skills. It delayed the project by six months, but all of those items were fixed before the first flight.
Yet it would ultimately not matter, as a variety of external events overtook the programme. The Six Day War in 1967 was the first blow, and it was absolutely disastrous for Egypt. Nearly all of the Egyptian military’s capital equipment, including much of the Air Force, was destroyed beyond repair and would need costly replacement. In return, the Soviet Union offered to re-equip the Egyptian armed forces on ‘generous’ terms, which mostly amounted to forgiving or carrying over enormous loans that Egypt owed it. Included in this package were hundreds of MiG-21s, similar in performance to the HA-300.
Moreover the popular reaction to the defeat within Egypt took the leadership by surprise, as radical youth organisations demanded a stronger punishment for those seen as having caused the humiliating defeat. In a move that alarmed the top brass, this even included a protest by workers at the Helwan Aircraft Factory that was working on the HA-300. Concerns about loyalty became paramount.
As for the E-300, it was thrown into disarray when India (which had joined the programme a few years earlier as a development partner) left abruptly, apparently upset that Egypt showed no interest in adopting HAL’s own HF-24 Marut fighter programme. In fact a specially-modified HF-24, the Mk.1 BX, had been the E-300’s primary flying testbed for some time. India’s exit robbed the engine programme of crucial momentum it its final phase of development and left Egypt carrying all the cost of taking it to production.
Given these circumstances, Egypt had little choice. The HA-300, or indeed any substantial investment in the Egyptian aerospace industry, no longer appeared to make any sense. Egypt had overspent badly, with the HA-300 costing the equivalent of a billion US dollars in today’s money. And it would have to accept becoming a Soviet client state, rather than the independent and industrialised world actor it had hoped to be at the beginning of the 1960s. The Helwan Aircraft Factory continues to exist, and is still around today, but it never reached the lofty heights of independent aircraft design and manufacturing envisaged in the 1960s.
One can’t help but wonder what might’ve been had things gone differently and Egypt succeeded in establishing a sustainable and large-scale aerospace industry in the 1960s and 1970s. What elements of history would’ve changed, what would have remained the same? What might the impact on its neighbours have been, might it have encouraged them to industrialise sooner or would they still have relied on Soviet or Western suppliers? All possible, perhaps, but impossible to know for certain.