This week’s plane of the week is the Messerschmitt Bf 109.
The Messerschmitt Bf 109, commonly called the Me 109 (most often by Allied aircrew and even amongst the German aces themselves, even though this was not the official German designation), is a German World War II fighter aircraft designed by Willy Messerschmitt and Robert Lusser during the early to mid-1930s. The “Bf 109” designation was issued by the German ministry of aviation and represents the developing company Bayerische Flugzeugwerke (at which the engineer Messerschmitt led the development of the plane, who later purchased the factory) and a rather arbitrary figure. It was one of the first truly modern fighters of the era, including such features as all-metal monocoque construction, a closed canopy, and retractable landing gear. It was powered by a liquid-cooled, inverted-V12 aero engine. I didn’t know any aircraft had V-engines, but I guess they do.
In 1934, the German Ministry of Aviation (Reichsluftfahrtministerium!) issued specifications for a new fighter monoplane to replace the Heinkel He 51 and Arado 68 biplanes. It was to be equipped with at least two MG-17 7.9 millimeter machine guns, and to have the capability of utilizing the new 12-cylinder, liquid-cooled, V-engines under development by Junkers and Daimler-Benz. The request was sent to Focke-Wulf, Arado, Heinkel and BFW. Focke-Wulf submitted the Fw 159V1, Arado the Ar 80V1 and Heinkel the He 112. The Bf 109 was the winner in the trials, exceeding its nearest rival, the Heinkel He 112, by 17 mph. Only the He 112 provided any other serious competition besides the Bf 109 in the trials and ten preproduction prototypes were ordered for the Heinkel He 112 and Bf 109.
The Messerschmitt Bf 109 is one of the few fighters ever to be developed from a light-plane design. Willy Messerschmitt’s angular little fighter was built in greater numbers than any other fighter plane, the total reaching 33,000. It also shot down more Allied planes than any other aircraft in World War Two, although, that could be just because there were so many of them. Over the years, more than 100 variants of the basic design were created, including modifications introduced on Spanish and Czech production lines after the war. Larger and larger engines were installed, along with hundreds of pounds of additional equipment. Examples from the final German operational version, the Bf 109K series, had a 2,000-horsepower engine and a top speed of 450 miles per hour, which is pretty good for a design from 1934.
By the time of the Battle of Britain, the Bf 109 had one major advantage over its rivals. Its engine had a fuel injection system that allowed a constant fuel flow even in conditions of negative-g. This meant that a pilot could dive away at a much faster pace than his opponents could do and escape trouble. However, it also had one major disadvantage. The 109 had a limited range and it could not spend too much time over Britain protecting bombers that carried more fuel than they did. As such, their fighting time was limited. Whereas Spitfires and Hurricanes could land and re-fuel, such an option was not open to a 109. Also, 109 pilots who had to eject were captured and held prisoner for the rest of the war, while Spitfire and Hurricane pilots could be back in the air in a day or two. Of course, that applied to the pilots of all Axis pilots over Britain, not just pilots of the Bf 109.
Interestingly, this was one of the first Axis aircraft to have fully retractable landing gear.
Next week: the most popular airplane in the world.