Willy Messerschmitt: The Man Behind Germany’s Most Deadly Airplanes

By Stephan Wilkinson
3/9/2017 • Aviation History Magazine

Over nearly half a century, Willy Messerschmitt designed a remarkable array of aircraft.

The career of Germany’s most famous airplane designer nearly sputtered out before it took off. Willy Messerschmitt (only his mother called him Wilhelm) began as a builder of stone- simple post–World War I gliders, then moved on to powered sailplanes with what would today be considered riding-mower engines. A series of light sport planes followed, and during the late 1920s and early ’30s Messerschmitt designed several successful four- to 12-seat “airliners.” In 1935, thanks to such a modest aviation background, Third Reich officials told him to not even bother competing against Germany’s major manufacturers for the contract to build the Luftwaffe’s new air-superiority fighter.

Messerschmitt tested just how small his chances were by quietly putting out word that he was considering leaving the industry and accepting a professorship at Danzig Technical University. He was then encouraged by the Reichsluft fahrt ministerium—the RLM, the bureaucracy that controlled all aviation in Nazi Germany—to hurry up and accept the job, because his work as an airplane designer “was of no importance.” Talk about discouraging words…

But they didn’t discourage Willy Messerschmitt. On his first try at gaining a real military contract, he produced the Bf-109, the most revolutionary and effective fighter of its day. Spitfire advocates will argue that point endlessly, but nobody can deny it was an accomplishment akin to Clyde Cessna turning out the P-51 after a lifetime of lightplanes. Messerschmitt had one advantage over his competitors: Since the RLM initially didn’t consider him part of the formal competition, he could design as he wished rather than having to stay within the parameters stipulated by the aviation ministry. The result was the Bf-109—the smallest, simplest and lightest possible airframe that could be wrapped around one pilot, the requisite armament and a large and powerful V12 engine.

The Bf-109 was by no stretch of the imagination an up-engined Bf-108, though the family resemblance between the two is strong. What the 109 did take from its family-sedan precursor was Willy’s extreme emphasis on simple, modular construction with major forces concentrated at a few points on the airframe, such as the sturdy engine mount suspended from the firewall, where landing-gear loads were also localized. Bf/Me-109s could be built in 4,000 to 6,000 man-hours, depending on the year of manufacture, while it took two or three times as long to build a complex, largely hand-wrought Spitfire or Hurricane.

Willy went on to create a second game changer, and he did it while the world was collapsing around him, his factories battered by Allied bombers. American and British fighters by this time were superior to even the best of his 109 versions. Yet while the Yanks and Brits struggled to create a few lumpish proto-jets, few of which ever made it into limited combat, Messerschmitt directed the design and engineering of the Me-262, and his company produced more than 1,400 of the twin-engine jets, 300 of which saw action.

Think of that: While the U.S. and Britain were still experimenting, a nation that had already lost the war managed to produce an effective operational jet fighter 100 mph faster than the Allied fighters that opposed it, thanks to Willy Messerschmitt and the team of engineers he had gathered. (To be fair, no legendary aircraft designer ever created a complex, high-performance airplane on his own. Robert Lusser, Messerschmitt’s project office director, and Richard Bauer, chief design engineer, had a great deal to do with the design of the Bf-109; and engineers Wolfgang Degel, Karl Althoff and Rudolf Seitz were crucial to the development of the Me-262, a project directed by Waldemar Voigt because Lusser had been hired away by Willy’s archenemy Ernst Heinkel.)

And let’s not belittle Messerschmitt’s lightplanes. In 1934 he created a four-seat personal aircraft, the Bf-108 Taifun, that would only see its equal in performance and efficiency when the Beech Bonanza was introduced in 1947. There are Taifun owners today—the design stayed in production with the French Nord company into the 1960s—who wouldn’t trade their rides for any single-engine spamcan yet produced.

Willy got his own private pilot’s license in 1929, which wasn’t an occasion for universal delight. Fritz Hille, sales director of the company for which Willy worked, Bayerische Flugzeugwerk, went public with the claim that Messerschmitt’s new flying hobby was an “irresponsible distraction from his duties as developmental head” of the firm. Hille then resigned, blaming Messerschmitt for a variety of financial problems that BFW was experiencing—the company was close to bankruptcy—and immediately went to work for Heinkel, making it clear that the whole ploy was an attempt to discredit BFW.

As a pilot, Messerschmitt was no Kurt Tank, the famous Focke-Wulf designer who was as skilled a test pilot as he was an engineer (and who had worked for Willy in the early 1930s). Messerschmitt had his own Bf-108, though he only flew it with a company pilot in the right seat. On one flight, he announced that he wanted to fly the whole leg on his own, with the copilot acting solely as a silent safety pilot. Messerschmitt forgot to retract the Taifun’s landing gear after takeoff and flew the whole distance with the gear down. To Willy’s embarrassment, his copilot, per orders, never said a word.

Messerschmitt went on to direct the design of a surprisingly varied assortment of aircraft, including the Me-209, which held the world piston-engine speed record until 1969; a four-engine Me-264 “Amerika Bomber” (a planned six-engine version never flew, nor did the sweptwing version with auxiliary turbojet engines); the world’s first swing-wing jet, the P.1101 prototype, model for the U.S. Air Force’s Bell X-5; and a massive cargo glider that in its powered form was the C-5 of its day, the Me-321/323. The one “Messerschmitt” that Willy had little to do with was the Me-163 rocket plane, a product of Alexander Lippisch’s fevered brain. Messerschmitt in fact wanted to redesign it as the Me-334, with a Daimler-Benz 605 V12 and pusher prop in place of the dangerous, barely controllable bomb that Lippisch had placed in its tail (Messerschmitt engineers called it the “Flying Firecracker”).

 It all started when 15-year-old Messerschmitt apprenticed himself to German glider pioneer Friedrich Harth just before World War I. Since gliding was the only way to train a cadre of future Luftwaffe pilots without openly flouting the provisions of the Versailles Treaty, the sport became particularly important in Germany in the 1920s, by which time Messerschmitt was improving Harth’s designs and increasingly working on his own. (Germany was so glider-savvy that the Luftwaffe developed the concept of troop-carrying gliders, first used in combat in May 1940, during a stunningly successful glider assault on the “impregnable” Belgian Fort Eben-Emael. Even today, German competition sailplanes reign supreme.)

Willy had a lot to learn. His first few designs were controlled by pivoting the entire wing from a joint above the minimal fuselage— part wing-warping, part angle-of-attack shifting, a concept he’d learned from Harth, who called it “wing control.” There were no other movable control surfaces, just a trimmable tailplane. Even when Messerschmitt built his first powered airplane, in 1924—the S 15, basically a motorglider—he still resorted to wing-warping for lateral control, though at least now the wing was fixed and the airplane had an elevator.

His next design, the S 16, looked like a real airplane rather than a spindly single-seat glider, and it had normal ailerons, a rudder, an elevator, wheeled landing gear and a passenger seat. Willy was done not only with Harth’s wing-control concept but also with unpowered flight, other than the aberrant World War II Me-321 Gigant.

In 1924 Messerschmitt founded his own company. He continued his and Harth’s model numbering sequence, but the designator S (Segelflugzeug, or sailplane) became an M (Motorflugzeug, or motorplane). The S 16 was followed by the M 17. That sequence ended with the sole 1934 M 35—a six-seat, single-engine passenger carrier built for a Romanian airline. At that point Adolf Hitler’s RLM began assigning designators and model numbers to Germany’s various manufacturers, so Messerschmitt’s next design necessarily became the Bf-108—Bf because Willy Messerschmitt was now design director of Bayerische Flugzeugwerke.

This eventually became the excuse for an endlessly argued piece of Messerschmitt trivia: Is Willy’s fighter a Bf-109 or an Me-109? Reasonable historians say it’s both, depending on the variant. By 1938, Messerschmitt quietly controlled enough of BFW’s stock that the company made him its managing director and chairman of the board. The 109 and its designer had become so well known that Bayerische rode his coattails by renaming itself Messerschmitt AG. As a result, aircraft designed and developed by Bayerische are properly designated Bfs, and those birthed by successor Messerschmitt AG can be considered Mes. Which means the A through D models of the 109 are Bf-109s, and the E through Z models are Me-109s. (Yes, there was an Me-109Z—a twin-fuselage, F-82-like variant that was built but never flown.) This is also the opinion of the historical office of today’s German air force.

Others claim all 109s are Bfs and that there’s no such thing as an Me-109. Yet if you ask any air-minded U.S. WWII vet to name the airplane, to a man they’ll say, “It’s a Messerschmitt— an Me-109.” Which gave rise to that hoariest of aviation jokes—the one that comes in many varieties but always has as its punch line “Those fokkers were Messerschmitts.”

 How, exactly, did an aero nautical engineer become powerful enough to buy the company he worked for? After all, Kelly Johnson never bought Lockheed, nor did Ed Heinemann ever come close to taking over Douglas. But Willy Messerschmitt found himself a rich sponsor…and roommate. At the time when BFW was in financial trouble, he had met and fallen for the Baroness Lilly von Michel-Raulino Stromeyer, the daughter of a wealthy Bavarian family. She was smart and beautiful, but she was seven years older than Willy and already married, to financier Otto Stromeyer.

Nevertheless, Willy asked Lilly for help, and she persuaded her husband to buy an 87.5-percent share of BFW; Messerschmitt owned the remaining 12.5 percent of the stock. The more they saw of each other, the more Lilly became fascinated by the daring, dashing young engineer. He was distinguished-looking, in a dark-eyed, sharp-featured, professorial way. And above all, he was a vivid contrast to her boring, stuffy husband. Inevitably, the baroness and the engineer began an affair.

They went about it quite openly, which was shocking to the “cackling busybodies,” as one Messerschmitt biography put it, of Catholic Bavaria. To say nothing of the fact that Otto Stromeyer was the chairman of Messerschmitt’s board, of which Willy had become a member. But never mind, that was Willy’s way—the hell with convention, with the ordinary way of doing things— and the baroness was equally bold. Independently wealthy, she soon divorced her husband, took control of her own share of the Stromeyer Messerschmitt stock and moved in with Willy, though they weren’t married until 1952.

Throughout a large part of his career, Willy Messerschmitt had one implacable and powerful enemy: Erhard Milch, a bureaucrat who became head of the RLM and ultimately a Luftwaffe Generalfeldmarschall. Their bad blood extended back to the late 1920s, when Milch was managing director of the airline Luft Hansa. Messerschmitt designed and built for Luft Hansa a single-engine, 10-passenger airliner with a large but lightweight cantilever, single-spar wing—the M 20. Its payload as a percentage of gross weight was remarkable, and its huge 500-hp BMW V12 engine could be run at very low power settings in cruise, for economy.

Unfortunately, the first M 20 crashed as a result of some trailing-edge wing fabric tearing loose during a landing approach, which caused Luft Hansa’s chief test pilot, Hans Hackmack, to panic and jump out only 250 feet above the ground. His parachute never deployed, and he was killed. It was later determined that if he’d simply continued the landing, all would have ended well. Hackmack was a close friend of Erhard Milch’s, and Milch never forgave Messerschmitt for reacting coldly to the pilot’s death. As far as Willy was concerned, Hackmack had screwed up and destroyed his airplane. Milch thereafter thwarted Messerschmitt every chance he got, canceling contracts and projects, removing RLM subsidies and openly favoring other manufacturers. In Milch’s defense, Messerschmitt seemed unlovable to others as well; he and Ernst Heinkel loathed each other—Heinkel considered him a glider-builder, not a legitimate warplane designer—and Willy parted ways with pioneering designer Alexander Lippisch during development of the Me-163.

Willy wasn’t perfect as a designer. He has often been accused of building flimsy airplanes that crashed, but only by people who confuse lightness with “flimsiness.” Some of his aircraft did crash, most notably that Luft Hansa M 20, which also suffered two weather-related fatal crashes in airline service (though Milch blamed Messerschmitt’s design for the second of them, claiming the specified gross weight resulted in an overload). But Messerschmitt’s record was no worse than those of other designers of the time.

Landing-gear design, however, was a challenge that Messerschmitt never quite conquered. In 1931 he invented “single-strut landing gear”—a simple tubular strut housing the entire shock-absorbing mechanism with few moving parts, a concept that soon became common. But a number of his airplanes suffered landing-gear collapses, and the problems created by the narrow, knock-kneed, difficult-to-align main gear on the 109 have been amply discussed. The original Me-262 prototypes had conventional tailwheel gear, requiring a delicate tap on the brakes during the takeoff run to get the tail off the ground. When Messerschmitt as a result added a tricycle-gear nosewheel, it often collapsed.

Messerschmitt’s worst blunder, however, was the Me-210. The 109 is easily the most famous German airplane ever to fly, but the 210 has been called the worst single airplane Germany ever developed. Willy was asked by the RLM to quickly turn the Me-110 into a dive bomber, since the Junkers Ju-87 Stuka was growing long in the tooth and the 110 wasn’t having much success as a twin-engine fighter/bomber-destroyer. Messerschmitt, as was his wont, did as he wished and instead developed a totally new airplane that turned out to have dangerous stability problems. The Me-210 was laterally unpredictable, and since its propellers were unusually far ahead of the center of gravity, this could have been longitudinally destabilizing, particularly if power was suddenly added during a too-low landing approach.

Thanks to many accidents, including landing-gear collapses while taxiing, the Me-210 was adjudged useless as a combat aircraft and withdrawn from service; production was canceled. It was a hugely expensive mistake, and Messerschmitt’s reputation suffered a crushing blow. He was shifted to production oversight responsibilities, and design duties were largely removed from his purview.

After World War II, Willy Messerschmitt should have been a beaten man. His fall from grace, from prosperity, from a position of command and control was all but complete. His factories were in ruins, and nobody seemed to care about his accomplishments. He was briefly flown to London and interrogated after Germany’s surrender, then summarily shipped back to Germany for internment. While his counterparts Alexander Lippisch and Hans von Ohain were swept up by Operation Paperclip and sent to the U.S., where they lived happily ever after, Messerschmitt ended up forgotten in a harsh, American-run camp called Heilbronn. He nearly died of exposure and starvation during the winter of 1945-46. One guard took it upon himself to shelter Messerschmitt inside a barracks building, and perhaps because of what that soldier learned from talking with him, the Americans finally found out who they had imprisoned.

Messerschmitt was moved to slightly more comfortable quarters, but only to await the 1948 Nuremberg Trials. Meanwhile, a nephew learned where he was being held and brought him a drafting table and supplies. With them, Willy designed a watch that had only three moving parts. He sold the drawings to a Swiss company for 5,000 Swiss francs—enough that it became Messerschmitt’s postwar start-up stake.

But first, Willy was sentenced to two years in prison for knowingly using slave laborers, many of whom had come from Dachau, near his Augsburg factory. Was Messerschmitt a Nazi? Yes. He wore a swastika lapel pin constantly, and his party membership number was 342354. Some say that he was not anti-Semitic, and his membership was simply something he felt he needed to get the government contracts that Erhard Milch had been blocking.

Upon his release, forbidden from laboring in the nonexistent German aviation industry, Messerschmitt put his mind back to work. First he designed a large wind turbine that, though never built, had all the characteristics of today’s renewable-energy machines: variable-pitch blades to maintain a constant rpm, automatic overspeed protection and aircraft-quality alloy construction. He also missed the boat in 1953, when he began but never finished work on a “hydraulic turbojet engine” for forced-water marine propulsion. Today such units propel jet boats and jet skis.

His first productive project was prefab housing to renew Germany’s carpet-bombed residential areas. His units were built using the simplified alloy-frame construction techniques that Willy had designed into the 109 and other airplanes, and the individual units were stackable and expandable in multistory complexes.

 By 1951, Messerschmitt had reassembled some of his war- time crew and rented factory quarters in Munich to build home sewing machines—much needed in postwar Germany. Production of these “Messerschmitts” continued until 1959, but quality control was poor, and they barely made a mark on the market.

Messerschmitt’s best-known postwar product was his “bubble car,” the KR 175 and 200—canopied, tandem-seat three-wheelers that looked like rolling fighter cockpits. Today they are prized by enthusiasts, and one sold at this year’s Barrett-Jackson classic cars auction for $42,900. Willy was always the first to point out, however, that the KR was designed not by him but by aeronautical engineer Fritz Fend. What Willy brought to the party was his talent at rationalizing a final design for the most efficient production, just as he had with the Bf-109.

Neither the repentant Germans nor the Allies could forbid Messerschmitt from working in another country’s aviation industry, so Willy approached both Spain and South Africa to see if either fancied his designing and manufacturing airplanes for them. South Africa passed, but Spain was a natural, since Germany had always had friendly relations with dictator Francisco Franco’s government, beginning with the provision of aircraft—including some of the very first Bf-109s—for Franco’s rebels during the Spanish Civil War. The Spanish company HASA (Hispano Aviación S.A., which became CASA and eventually was absorbed by Airbus Industrie) was already license-manufacturing a version of the 109 with a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine—the unfortunately bloodhound-nosed HA-1112 Buchon—and in 1951 it had called on Willy as a Buchon adviser. In 1952 Messerschmitt put together a small team of German engineers, including some who had worked for him during the war, and he designed a trainer for the Spanish air force.

The HA-100 looked much like the T-28 Trojan—not because Willy had copied the North American design but because both were built to the same criteria: an advanced, piston-engine, tricycle gear, tandem-cockpit military trainer. Both the original T-28A and the HA-100 Triana, as it was called, used an 800-hp Wright R-1300 radial, and the Triana was slightly lighter and faster. The Spanish were happy and wanted Willy to build 40 for them, but Spain couldn’t afford the Wright engines. The two prototypes were scrapped, though their wings were used in Messerschmitt’s next project: the HA-200 Saeta jet trainer, a few of which are still being flown by American and European enthusiasts looking for a cheap way to get into jet warbirding.

Always in search of efficiency and economy, Willy recycled as much of the HA-100 design as he could. But removing the big radial from the nose and mounting the two French Turbomeca Marboré jets conventionally—in the wing roots or somewhere behind the cockpit—would create a weight shift requiring a substantial redesign. So he stuck the small turbojets right where the Wright had been, in the nose, just behind a catfish-mouth air inlet.

When HASA tried to sell the HA-100 and -200 to other air forces, its sales brochures emphasized Messerschmitt’s role, boasting that he had been “involved in every facet of the designs…both aircraft have been personally designed and worked through by Willy Messerschmitt down to the last detail.” Egypt bought 10 HA-200s and built another 90 under license. It would be the last real Messerschmitt, the final production airplane to fully embody Willy’s emphasis on light weight, modular construction, the combination of several functions into single components and attention to reducing assembly labor.

But Messerschmitt had one last jewel in his vault: the HA-300, a sweptwing fighter that at least on paper was as sleek and potent-looking as anything from Dassault or Lockheed in the early 1960s. Willy’s superjet was intended to use an afterburning Bristol (later Rolls-Royce) Olympus engine, a version of which would power the Concorde. The British demanded that Spain co-fund development of the reheat version, which the Spanish couldn’t afford any more than they could afford elderly Wright radials.

Egypt, however, ended up owning the HA-300 design when it bought the licensing rights to the HA-200, and the Egyptians were getting tired of Soviet demands as a condition of supporting Egypt’s MiG fleet. They wanted their own jet, so they built two HA-300 prototypes, one of which first flew (with a non-afterburning Olympus) in 1964. Messerschmitt enticed his friend Ferdinand Brandner to come to Egypt, for Brandner had helped develop the Junkers Jumo 222 jet engine and, after being forcibly adopted by the Soviets, designed the most powerful turboprop in the world at the time—the 12,000-hp Kuznetsov NK-12. Brandner was developing an afterburning engine for Messerschmitt’s HA-300 when the 1967 Six-Day War—a disaster for the Egyptians—and renewed Soviet ties scotched the project. Had they not, Messerschmitt and Brandner might well have created the lightest supersonic fighter in the world.

Willy Messerschmitt died in September 1978 at the age of 80—the only aircraft designer ever to give his name to such a vast and remarkable array of aircraft spanning nearly half a century.


For further reading, frequent contributor Stephan Wilkinson recommends: Willy Messerschmitt: Pioneer of Aviation De sign, by Hans J. Ebert, Johann B. Kaiser and Klaus Peters; Sharks of the Air: Willy Messerschmitt and How He Built the World’s First Operational Jet Fighter, by James Neal Harvey; and Augsburg Eagle: The Story of the Messerschmitt 109, by William Green.

Originally published in the March 2014 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.

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