In considering a genius such as Willy Messerschmitt, you have to at first discount any reservations you have about the cause in which he served. It is difficult to look objectively at anyone who served in so important a way so sordid a regime as that of Adolph Hitler’s, but it is necessary to take into account the great weight of circumstance. Messerschmitt personally probably held no more vicious political opinions than did any German of his time, place, circumstance and education. Like thousands of others, he was a victim of the events of World War I and the subsequent disastrous peace for Germany. He was at heart an artist, a designer, and a businessman, and the strength he lent the Luftwaffe was a product of these factors more than being the product of an evil disposition.
With that apologetic caveat, it is fair to look at him as an artist, and judge him on his creations rather than his politics. And, as with every designer, we have to realize that his name is a metaphor for the many people who worked for him.
And at first glance, one could say that he was not much of an artist in the sense of rendering aesthetically beautiful aircraft, and that to find beauty in a Messerschmitt, one had to look at the internals. From his very first aerial experiments, which included compressed-air powered models, Messerschmitt was a man of straight lines and angles. He progressed to gliders that were very typical for the time, but which already expressed ideas that he would use repeatedly throughout his career, and to which one must look to find a real beauty. These ideas included simplicity and light weight construction which in many designs depended upon a single-spar wing.
After a series of powered gliders, Messerschmitt made his first genuine powered aircraft in 1925, the M 17, a two-seater of starkly simple construction and proportions. Messerschmitt wasted no weight or drag on such things as undercarriage struts; instead the axle carried right through at the bottom of the fuselage. Photos make this design and its subsequent developments appear to have collapsed upon a retracted undercarriage.
But he achieved his goal of a light-weight, affordable aircraft and won many competitions with it. The basic design was enlarged for commercial work, the M 18 retaining all of the M 17’s ungainly appearance while gaining two additional seats.
Messerschmitt expanded on the basic concept as he moved through a series of slightly better looking larger powered aircraft, some of which were found wanting in structural strength. He also developed a wide variety of sport aircraft, trainers and mail planes as he and his series of companies suffered the vagaries of Germany’s economic chaos of the 1930s. He moved to mixed construction in the process.
His designs retained the same qualities of light weight and inexpensive construction that he intended for them, but had not yet achieved a noteworthy aesthetic beauty—and some, in fact, were down-right ugly. He at last hit his aesthetic stride with the strikingly handsome, technically advanced Bf 108 in which he executed his monospar wing, with its torsion ally rigid leading edge, in metal. The Taifun, as it was called, set all manner of records and prepared the way for Messerschmitt’s most famous design, the Bf 109.
The Bf 109 did not sustain the aesthetic momentum of its predecessor, and its original stark and somewhat sinister looks were not improved over the years as more equipment was packed on board. Yet for the manufacturer, and also the maintenance man, the aircraft had the Messerschmitt internal beauty of design simplicity which translated into the incredibly few man-hours required for production.
The pressures of war forced a long series of not-so-handsome designs from Messerschmitt, These ranged from the utilitarian looks of the Bf 110 to the elephantine gracelessness of the Me 321 and 323. In justice, some of his aircraft were more aesthetically attractive, especially the Me 410.
But for many people, the most beautiful Messerschmitt is the Schwalbe, the Me 262 jet fighter. We do not know whose hand guided the drawing for the original aircraft design—Messerschmitt’s or Robert Lusser’s—but it can be said with certainty that it was fate and fate alone that produced the final dazzling product.
The original design was a straight wing aircraft with its twin engines mounted mid-wing ala those of the Meteor, and with a conventional oval fuselage. The intended BMW jet engines were not available, and a decision was made to go to the larger, heavier Junkers Jumo 004 that Anselm Franz had created. The new engines would not fit in the mid-wing nacelles, and so were mounted in what became the classic engine pod, slung stylishly under the wing. And because the engines were heavier, the center of gravity was now off. The solution was the same adopted by Curtiss on its biplane observation planes of the 1930s—sweep the wing back, in this case 18 degrees. The need to accommodate the retracted wheels into the fuselage added the final element of beauty, as the oval fuselage was translated into its final shark-like shape. Viola: Messerschmitt had created at long last, a strikingly beautiful aircraft—quite by chance.
But absolutely not by chance; the Me 262 flew on the quintessential Messerschmitt single spar wing, validating the long standing internal beauty of his designs.