Born in Dessau, Germany, Ohain graduated Ph.D. in Physics and Aerodynamics from the University of Göttingen, then one of the major centers for aeronautical research, having attended lectures by Ludwig Prandtl In 1933, while still a student, he conceived what he called "an engine that did not require a propeller."
After receiving his degree in 1935, Ohain became the junior assistant of Robert Wichard Pohl, then director of the Physical Institute of the University. In 1936, while working for Pohl, Ohain registered a patent on his version of a jet engine, Process and Apparatus for Producing Airstreams for Propelling Airplanes. Unlike Frank Whittle's Power Jets WU design, Ohain's used a centrifugal compressor and turbine placed very close together, back to back, with the flame cans wrapped around the outside of the assembly.He was a pioneer in development of jet planes free from propelllers.
In 1947 Hans von Ohain was brought to the United States by Operation Paperclip and went to work for the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. In 1956 he was made the Director of the Air Force Aeronautical Research Laboratory and by 1975 he was the Chief Scientist of the Aero Propulsion Laboratory there.
During his work at Wright-Patterson, Ohain continued his own personal work on various topics. In the early 1960s he did a fair amount of work on the design of gas core reactor rockets which would retain the nuclear fuel while allowing the working mass to be used as exhaust. The engineering needed for this role was also used for a variety of other "down to earth" purposes, including centrifuges and pumps. Ohain would later use the basic mass-flow techniques of these designs to create a fascinating jet engine with no moving parts, in which the airflow through the engine created a stable vortex that acted as the compressor and turbine.
This interest in mass-flow led Ohain to research magnetohydrodynamics (MHD) for power generation, noting that the hot gases from a coal-fired plant could be used to extract power from their speed when exiting the combustion chamber, remaining hot enough to then power a conventional steam turbine. Thus an MHD generator could extract further power from the coal, and lead to greater efficiencies. Unfortunately this design has proven difficult to build due to a lack of proper materials, namely high-temperature non-magnetic materials that are also able to withstand the chemically active exhaust. Ohain also investigated other power related concepts.
He also invented ] the idea of the "jet wing", in which air from the compressor of a jet engine is bled off to large "augmented" vents in the wings to provide lift for VTOL aircraft. A small amount of high-pressure air is blown into a venturi, which in turn sucks a much larger volume of air along with it, thus leading to "thrust augmentation". The concept was used in the Rockwell XFV-12 experimental aircraft, although the market interest in VTOL aircraft was short-lived. He participated in several other patents.
Ohain was the influence in shifting the mind of Paul Bevilaqua, one of his students at WP-AFB, from math to engineering, ]which later enabled Bevilaqua to invent the Rolls-Royce LiftSystem for the JSF F35B STOVL: "in school I learned how to move the pieces, and Hans taught me how to play chess". ] Ohain also showed Bevilaqua "what those TS-diagrams actually mean" ]
During his career, Hans von Ohain won many engineering and management awards, including (among others) the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Goddard Astronautics Award, the United States Air Force Exceptional Civilian Service Award, Systems Command Award for Exceptional Civilian Service, the Eugene M. Zuckert Management Award, the Air Force Special Achievement Award, and just before he retired, the Citation of Honor. In 1984–85, Ohain served as the Charles A. Lindbergh Chair in Aerospace History, a competitive senior fellowship at the National Air and Space Museum. ]In 1991 Ohain and Whittle were jointly awarded the Charles Stark Draper Prize for their work on turbojet engines. Ohain was elected a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering (NAE).
He retired from Wright-Patterson in 1979 and took up an associate professor position at the nearby University of Dayton. Ohain was awarded the Ludwig-Prandtl-Ring from the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Luft- und Raumfahrt (German Society for Aeronautics and Astronautics) for "outstanding contribution in the field of aerospace engineering" in 1992. He later moved to Melbourne, Florida, with his wife Hanny, where he died in 1998, aged 86. He was survived by four children.