US Marine Corps Major Al Williams, Schneider Trophy competitor with his own Kirkham-Williams aircraft, Pulitzer winner from '23 and a head of the Gulf Oil Company's
aviation department, had a chance to fly the latest aircraft in the German Luftwaffe's arsenal, Messerchmitt 109 D in summer 1938. Major Williams' view on the capability of the fighter gives an interesting view on the usual commentary about flying and the capabilities of the Bf 109 fighter.
Text by Staga.
With Udet, Williams flew to the Fieseler works at Kassel, where the Bf 109D was being licence-built.
Later Williams reported:
"After inspecting the local plant, we came upon the Me 109 that was
waiting for me. This was my first chance really to study the gadgets
and instruments in its cockpit. Each was christened with a name that
ranged anywhere from an inch to an inch and a half in length. None of
them meant anything to me, and I was compelled to identify their
location and their uses by following the instructions of the patient
chap who explained them to me.
I stalled around a little bit, until I became somewhat familiarised
with gadgets and controls, retractable landing gear, controllable-pitch
propeller switch, auxiliary hand pumps, manually controlled flaps, and
the various gauges and main and reserve gasoline cut-off valves.
Standing still, the controls were light and delicate to the touch. The
engine sounded like a dream, no rattling or vibrating as in the case of
aircooled radials. This was a 12-cylinder in-line job, and it ran like
Fixing my parachute in place and snugging down for the ride ahead, I
taxied out into the field. There's never a moment when the pilot of a
new ship is not keenly alert for the chance of learning something about
that ship's performance. Many times it's only a hint, but many times,
indeed, that hint is all-sufficient to keep him out of trouble.
The ground control was excellent. Without using the wheel brakes, on
the way out to the take-off position, I found that a propeller blast on
the rudder brought a surprisingly pleasant reaction, in spite of the
fact that the vertical fin and the rudder were both rather small.
The take-off was normal, and I estimated that the ground run was fully
one-half the distance used by the Hawker Hurricane and about one-fourth
the distance used by the Supermarine Spitfire.
I have my own little formula to be followed in flying a new ship, and I
stick to it religiously. Leaving the landing gear extended, I climbed
up to about a thousand feet, set the propeller blades at the required
high pitch, checked the engine instruments, and then slowed the engine
down. The air speed indicator, of course, was calibrated in kilometres.
I slowed the ship down to about 130 kilometres, pulled the nose up, and
let it fall away.
Repeating the motion again by pulling the nose of the ship up this time
beyond the stalling angle, I watched it sink evenly and steadily, with
no hint of crankiness.
Flying along at about 20 miles above stalling speed, the ailerons had
excellent control along with a fully effective rudder and elevator.
This was all I could ask.
A few turns to the right and to the left at reduced speed, a couple of
side slips, and I was ready to come in for my first landing. It has
always been my practice, irrespective of the new type of ship I'm
flying, to take off, go through such procedures to become adjusted to
its flight characteristics, and then go around for the first landing
within two minutes after the take-off.
This is to make sure of at least one routine approach for a landing while the engine is still good.
I was amazed when I brought the Messerschmitt around, tipped it over on
one side, and slid toward the ground. Leveling out we got away with a
three-point landing with the air-speed indicator reading about 105
kilometres per hour. The Me109 was an easy ship to fly, and with one
landing behind me, we went to work - or rather to play.
For the first take-off, I had set the flaps at about 15 degrees to
facilitate the take-off. On the way in for a landing I found that 20
degrees on the flaps was a more suitable angle of attack. The controls,
sensitive ailerons, and tail group were fully effective to the time the
wheels touched the ground. So much for that.
This, after all, was supposed to be an outstanding single-seater
fighter, and in the half hour allowed me, I was determined to find out
if the Messerschmitt was or was not what it was cracked up to be.
The supercharger boost gauge was calibrated in atmospheres instead of
inches of mercury. I recall a little difficulty in remembering what my
instructor had told me about the permissible supercharge boost at low
I said this Messerschmitt was fast. The Germans had said so, too, to
the tune of 350 to 360 mph, and their claims were demonstrated to be
accurate. It is also interesting to note, in 1940, that the British
concede the Messerschmitts to be good for 354 mph.
The most delightful features of the Messerschmitt were, first, in spite
of its remarkably sensitive reaction to the controls, the ship showed
no disposition to wander or "yaw" as we call it; neither was there any
tendency to "hunt". It was a ship where the touch of a pianist would be
right in keeping with the fineness of the response. And, likewise, I am
sure that any ham-handed pilot who handled the controls in brutal
fashion would soon be made to feel ashamed of himself.
Seldom do we find a single-seater that does not stiffen up on the controls as the ship is pushed to and beyond its top speed.
I checked the control reaction in three stages - one as I have already
mentioned, slightly above the stalling speed, and the controls worked
In the second stage, about cruising speed, a movement of the control
stick brought just exactly the reaction to be expected. And at high
speed, wide open, the control sensitivity checked most satisfactorily.
Then I wanted one more check and that was at the bottom of the dive
where the speed would be in excess of that ship's straightaway
performance. So down we went about 2,000 feet with the air speed
indicator amusing itself by adding a lot of big numbers - to a little
over 400 mph. A gentle draw back on the control effected recovery from
the dive; then up the other side of the hill.
It was at that point that I subjected the ailerons to a critical test.
I had pulled out of the dive around 400 mph and had started in a
left-hand climbing turn. The ship was banked to about 40 degrees with
the left wing low.
I touched the right rudder, pressed forward on it slowly but steadily,
moving the control stick to the right, and that Messerschmitt actually
snapped out of the left-hand climbing turn into a righthanded climbing
turn. That satisfied me. From there on, I tried every acrobatic
maneuver I had ever executed in any other single-seater fighter with
the exception of the outside loop and the inverted loop.
The guns on this ship - five of them, all hunched on the fuselage -
certainly made me feel as if I were aiming guns and not flying an
airplane. In addition, I was particularly intrigued to find the control
stick equipped with a tiny flap which was hinged to lie on top of the
stick when not in use and to be swung forward and down - parallel with
the front edge of the control stick handle. This little flap was the
electric trigger which completed the circuit, when pressed by the
forefinger, to operate all five machine guns.
I found this trigger sensitive to the touch and extremely light, later
ascertaining that a pressure of 3 milligrams was required to close the
circuit and actuate the guns.
The trigger arrangement was the final little detail which brought me
the impression that instead of actually flying an airplane upon which
guns were mounted, I was actually aiming a delicately balanced rifle.
When you see a man take off in a type of airplane he hasn't flown
before, you can tell before that chap returns to the ground whether he
likes the ship or not. If the ship is tricky and cranky or he is not
satisfied with it, he'll probably make some big figure eights and maybe
a few little dives, or a couple of loops. But if he really flies the
ship and rides the sky with it, amusing himself with all sorts of
aerobatic maneuvers, you can walk up to that chap as soon as he
completes his landing and tell him you are glad he liked the ship. And
that is exactly what Ernst Udet said to me after I had zoomed the field
a half dozen times and overstayed my specified time in the air. As I
taxied into the line, Udet, keen as a whip, and never missing a trick,
walked toward me saying, "Al, you like that ship huh?"
The longer one is at the flying business, the more firmly convinced he
becomes that he knows very little about it. I must say, however, the
Messerschmitt Me109 is the finest airplane I have ever flown. It was a
very happy day for me thus to enjoy the opportunity of flying and
studying one of Germany's first-line single-seater fighters. I was
told, of course, that the performance of the Heinkel 112 was about the
same as the Messerschmitt, and I have been assured on this point,
repeatedly. As far as I know, I'm the only pilot outside the members of
the air force who has ever flown a first-line Messerschmitt Me109.
Along with its delightful flight characteristics, the visibility in
this Messerschmitt is all that a fighter pilot could reasonably ask.
There are a great many single-seater fighters in the world that I have
not flown, but I had formed my opinion of the flight characteristics of
the Messerschmitt after studying it on the ground and before flying it.
And those estimates were confirmed in flight. I had made my own
estimates of the performance and maneuverability characteristics of a
lot of other single-seater fighters, and I'd be willing to wager that
none of them represent the general, all-around flight and fighting
characteristics possessed by the Me109.
There was only one critical question I had about the Messerschmitt that
I flew, and that concerned the retractable landing gear. The wheels
were hinged to fold outwards, toward the wing tips, retracted. This
placed additional weight in the wings several feet from the fuselage.
I asked Udet about this and he informed me that this would be changed.
According to the new plan, the wheels would fold inward, toward the
center of the wing, and in retracted position would be neatly tucked
directly under the fuselage, a desirable feature in regard to balance
and maneuverabilitv. However, photographs I saw at a much later date
did not show the change, but I still think this would be a definite
improvement. Before dismissing my flight in the Me109, it is necessary
to include a comment on that already offered concerning the
accessibility of the engine for maintenance service. I will give it to
you point blank and let you estimate its value. The engine of the
Messerschmitt can be removed, replaced with another - ready to go -
inside of 12 minutes.
You can imagine the uproar of doubt and incredulity in official circles
when I returned to the States and spread that word around. The reason
for the uproar was quite obvious, in that in very many instances,
between 24 and 36 hours were required to remove one engine and replace
it with another in many of our standard types of fighting planes.
But, when other Americans returned home from an inspection of the
German Air Force and told the same story, great impetus was given to
the development of a quick motor replacement in service ships.
The Germans had developed the technique and trained the ground crews to
effect this change of engines in the specified length of time on the
open airdrome - given, of course, decent weather conditions.
It was explained to me that, from a tactical standpoint, this
ultra-rapid change of motors was of utmost importance. For instance, a
pilot returning from an active front to his own airdrome could radio
ahead and notify the field force that ne needed a new engine. By the
time he landed, they could be ready for him.
Ordinary service to an aircraft, such as filling the gasoline tank,
checking and replenishing the oil supply, and reloading ammunition
belts, requires between ten and fifteen minutes. The new development,
therefore, enables the Germans to change an engine while the rest of
the service is going on. It's startling performance - namely, yanking
one engine and replacing it with another, and turning it over to the
pilot inside of 12 minutes.
The next American to pilot the Bf109 was no less a personality than
Charles Lindbergh, the internationally famed trans-Atlantic solo flier.
On Wednesday, iq October, 1938, Lindbergh was flown from Staaken,
Berlin to Augsburg in a Junkers Ju 52/3m. In his diary he noted: `After
inspecting the factory we walked to the flying field, where
demonstration flights of the 109 and 110 were made for us. The speed
and manoeuvrability of the 109 was, of course, most impressive. A small
plane always looks much faster than a larger one and is quicker in
manoeuvres. On the other hand it was amazing to see a two-engine plane
(the 110) do acrobatic flying almost as well as the smaller type. After
watching the demonstrations I made two flights in the Messerschmitt
108, a small, four-place, allmetal, low-wing monoplane with slots,
flaps and retracting gear. Both the 109 and 110 have slots and flaps.
It was originally planned that I fly a 109, but the Germans did not
want Detroyat [a French military pilot] to fly this plane, and did not
want to let me fly it without asking him to do so. They had no
objection to him flying the 108. Consequently, I will fly the 109 at
Rechlin after this trip. Detroyat told us - including the Germans with
us - that some of these French pilots had tested a captured 109 in
Spain. It had a 211 Junkers engine and made 465 km/h. Everyone laughed.
This incident is well known to both French and German aviators. The
French were apparently much impressed with the characteristics of the
Two days later, 21 October, Lindbergh finally had the opportunity to
fly a Bf109 at the Luftwaffe Test Centre at Rechlin (E'Stelle Rechlin).
Laconically he noted down: 'We next inspected the Messerschmitt 110,
then passed on to the 109 I was to fly.
I got in the cockpit while one of the officers described the
instruments and controls. The greatest complication lay in the
necessity of adjusting the propeller pitch for take-off, cruising, and
diving. Then there were the controls for the flaps, the retracting
gear, for flying above 2,000 metres, for locking and unlocking the tail
wheel, and for the other usual devices on a modern pursuit plane. After
studying the cockpit I got out and put on a parachute, while a mechanic
started the engine. Then, after taxying slowly down to the starting
point, I took off.
`The plane handled beautifully. I spent a quarter of an hour
familiarising myself with the instruments and controls, then spent 15
minutes more doing manoeuvres of various types - rolls, dives,
Immelmanns, etc. After half an hour I landed, took off again, circled
the field, and landed a second time. Then I taxied back to the line.
The 109 takes off and lands as easily as it flies`.
Original report by US Marine Corps Major Al Williams.
Copyright VLeLv Icebreakers / Virtuaalilentäjät r.y. / Finnish Virtual Pilots Association 2003.