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Messerschmitt the man

Willy Messerschmitt 1898-1978


Born in Frankfurt in 1898, Willy Emil Messerschmitt was the son of a Wine merchant. As a young boy he became obsessed with aviation after seeing a Zeppelin airship. The young Messerschmitt helped out the German gliding pioneer Friedrich Harth and it was Harth who arranged for Messerschmitt to work with him at a military flying school during the First World War. Harth and Messerschmitt together designed the S8 glider which Harth kept airborne for 21 minutes in 1921, a world record for glider flight at the time.

The first all-Messerschmitt design, a tail-less glider called the S9, made its first flight in 1921. It was followed by a series of powered gliders and small sports machines, all of which were dogged by technical failures and accidents. Even when Messerschmitt took to the air himself for the first time (in 1925) the M17 in which he was flying crashed, putting him in hospital for some time.

In the late 20s and early 30s Messerschmitt designed the M20, a simple single-engined transport aircraft, the  that was cheap to operate. These were built under the auspices of the Bavarian Aircraft Works at Augsburg, the Bayerische Flugzeugwerke, hence the term "Bf" for the aircraft originally produced there. Messerschmitt soon found himself  with an enemy in high places in the shape of Erhard Milch, head of German civil aviation and ardent Nazi. Hans Hackman, a close friend of Milch was killed testing the prototype Messerschmitt M20 transport plane. Milch was incensed by Messerschmitt's lack of remorse for the death his friend, and he made sure that Messerschmitt got no government work. It was also Milch who, as head of Lufthansa, forced bancruptcy on the Bayerische Flugzeugwerke in 1931 following further crashes of M20 aircraft. In 1933 Hitler came to power and German rearmament started. This gave Milch even greater power and it might have been expected that Messerschmitt would suffer the same humiliation as another of Milch's enemies; Hugo Junkers. However Messerschmitt had cultivated friends in high places, Rudolph Hess the deputy head of the Nazi party was one, Theo Croneiss a World War I fighter pilot and associate of Hermann Goring was another. The Bayerische Flugzeugwerke was resurrected in 1933 and set about getting government contracts.

In 1934 Messerschmitt designed the M37 to try and win the European Aircraft Rally. In this he was helped by Robert Lusser who had joined the company in 1933 after working at Klemm and Heinkel. This design turned into the Bf108 Taifun, a remarkable four-seat touring aircraft.

When the contest to find a new fighter for the Luftwaffe was announced Messerschmitt realised this was his chance. The design he and Lusser produced was outstanding; a small metal airframe built around a big engine with a thin wing for speed and Handley Page leading-edge slats to bring down the landing speed. It is hard for us today to realise just how revolutionary the Bf109 was. In the 1930's many designers were experimenting with monoplane metal construction, retracting undercarriage, enclosed cockpits and high lift devices, Messerschmitt was the first to combine all of these elements into a single fighter.

By this time Milch's power to influence the choosing of new equipment for the Luftwaffe had been greatly diminished by the appointment of Ernst Udet, a flamboyant WWI fighter ace, to be head of the air force's development section. When Udet first sat in the prototype 109 he declared it would never make a combat aircraft, but that was before he saw it fly and had flown it himself. First and foremost a man who loved to fly, and who excelled in aerobatics, Udet saw that the 109 was simply the best flying machine in the world at that time. He flew them himself in competition at the 1937 Zurich air races.

Messerschmitt gained worldwide recognition for the 109 design and it went on to be produced in greater numbers than any other single seat aircraft in aviation history. He gave the Luftwaffe exactly the weapon that was needed to secure the aerial dominance of Europe in 1939-1941. The Luftwaffe had ordered the Focke-Wulf FW190 to replace the 109 from 1941 onward, but it was never available in the numbers required, and the 109 was superior to it at high altitude. Thus the Bf109 stayed in production until the very end of the war. When one considers the number of fighter types employed by the allies, the Spitfire, Hurricane, Typhoon, Tempest, Thunderbolt, Mustang, Tomahawk and Kittyhawk, the Migs and the Yaks, not to mention the French and Dutch fighter types, and also the lesser Allied fighters such as the Gladiator and Airacobra, the achievements of the Luftwaffe with just the 109 and its later companion the FW190 are remarkable indeed. The reputation built up by Messerschmitt's designs led to the Bayerische Flugzeugwerke being restyled as the Messerschmitt aircraft company, although aircraft that had started in production before the change of name retained the "Bf" nomenclature.

Before the War started, Messerschmitt had developed the 209, perhaps the ultimate piston engined aircraft. This was the aircraft that secured the world speed record for Germany at 469 mph. He had wanted to develop the Me 209 into the next generation of Luftwaffe fighter, but stripped of its high-powered but unreliable racing engine, and with its novel evaporation cooling system changed for more orthodox radiators, the 209 showed little advantage over the 109.

Messerschmitt went on to design many other aircraft. The Bf 110 was a twin engined, two seat fighter that was used with great effect against Allied bombers. The most fantastic of Messerschmitt's war-time designs was the Me 321, a giant glider able to carry a tank that led to the Me 323, a development fitted with engines that could carry up to 130 men. Perhaps Messerschmitt's finest achievement was the beautiful Me 262 twin jet powered fighter with swept wings, a design years ahead of its time. The 262 saw combat at the end of the war but was never available in enough numbers to be anything but a nuisance to the air-forces ranged against Germany.

There is one wartime aircraft project which was a disaster for Messerschmitt. The Luftwaffe wanted to replace the Bf110, the Ju87 Stuka and some of its twin-engined bombers with a single design. Waldemar Voigt, Messerschmitt's chief designer, came up with an outstanding twin-engined two-seat aircraft with very clean lines and the advanced feature of remotely controlled guns in rearward facing barbettes. The design had the potential to be as good as the British Mosquito, with the added advantage of being at least a year ahead of the "Wooden Wonder". However Messerschmitt insisted on weight-saving measures in the new aircraft, called the Me210, which made it unstable longitudinally and caused the undercarriage to collapse. The Luftwaffe had ordered 1,000 examples of the Me210 "off the drawing board" before the prototype had flown, and the aircraft was essential for the German war effort, so the failure of the project was a terrible blow to the prestige of Messerschmitt. In the end the design had to revert to being very close to Voigt's original plans, manufactured as the Me410 the aircraft ended up being nearly two years behind the Mosquito into combat. Goring, head of the Luftwaffe, said his own epitaph should read: "He would have lived longer but for the Me210." The failure of the Me210 project and the cancellation of the production order in 1942 forced Messerschmitt to resign as head of the company, taking on the post of Technical Director instead.

Other Messerschmitt projects, such as the Me 264, a bomber with the range to strike targets in America, never progressed beyond the design or prototype stage. One revolutionary aircraft that bears the name of the Messerschmitt aircraft company was actually the work of Alexander Lippisch, a designer working for Messerschmitt. This was the Me 163 "Komet" rocket powered fighter.

One failing of the German aircraft industry was the reluctance to build long range single-engined escort fighters. The twin-engined Bf 110 was used for long range escort missions during the Battle of Britain, but suffered considerable losses at the hands of the nimble RAF fighters. When pressed by someone to design a single-engined fighter with long range Messerschmitt replied "What do you want, a fast fighter or a barn door?" Years later, forced to seek shelter together from American Thunderbolts attacking the Augsburg factory the same person announced, "Well there are your barn doors!"

Messerschmitt's reputation as an aircraft designer is somewhat open to question. His early aircraft were all prone to failure, often with tragic loss of human life. Indeed it is hard to think of any other aircraft designer with such a record of disaster! It was only after 1933 with a new team of bright young engineers working for him that he had sustained success. Perhaps he should be best remembered as an aviation visionary and organiser. There is no doubt that he was always questing after aircraft that would be better in every way. His passion for producing the fastest or biggest aircraft was exasperating to many of the Nazi and Luftwaffe bureaucrats who wanted all efforts concentrated on existing designs.

After the war Messerschmitt was arrested and tried for having allowed the use of slave labour in his factories. He was in prison for two years. When released he set to work rebuilding his business. Not allowed to make aircraft in Germany one of his products was the Messerschmitt Bubble Car. He managed to do some aircraft design for Hispano in Spain, including work on the HA 200 jet trainer. He also helped in the design of the HA-300 supersonic jet fighter for Egypt in the mid-60s. Problems with the engine meant this advanced tailed delta design never went into production.

The Messerschmitt concern shared in the post-war success of Germany and became part of MBB which manufactured parts for the European Airbus and the Tornado strike aircraft. MBB in turn has become part of the massive EADs corporation .

Willy Messerschmitt retired in 1970 and died in 1978.

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