Willy Messerschmitt


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German aircraft designer and manufacturer, responsible for many German warplanes including the Me 262, the first operational jet fighter.

The son of a wine merchant, Messerschmitt was educated at schools in Frankfurt and Bamberg and at the Technische Hochschule, Munich. An early interest in aviation, stimulated by the Wright brothers' achievements, led Messerschmitt to design, produce, and eventually sell a long line of sophisticated gliders. In 1923 he set up his own business at Bamberg and turned to the production of powered aircraft. Although Messerschmitt went bankrupt in 1931 he was able to resume business in 1933. Shortly afterwards the Luftwaffe ceased to conceal its rebuilding programme and Messerschmitt was commissioned to plan a new fighter plane. The result was the Me 109 (1935), the most successful German plane of World War II, 33 675 of which were built for the Luftwaffe. Messerschmitt's most original plane, however, was the Me 262, the first jet fighter. Work began on the twin-engined jet in 1938 and for its construction a large underground plant free from the effects of allied bombing was built at Kahla. Fortunately only 1294 models of this plane, with a top speed of 600 mph, were built. Hitler insisted that priority be given to jet bombers and in the resulting confusion insufficient numbers of both were produced.

With the collapse of Germany in 1945, Messerschmitt was taken prisoner, first by the British and then by US forces. He was held in custody by the USA for two years. On his release an Augsburg court decided that the 44 186 planes he had built between 1939 and 1945 had been produced against his will. As Germany was banned from building planes, Messerschmitt turned to the construction of low-cost houses and sewing machines. Free once more to build planes in 1958, he began to produce over the next decade a range of satellites, missiles, helicopters, and aircraft. After a series of mergers in the late 1960s, Messerschmitt's company began work in the 1970s on the airbus and the Tornado, a fighter for NATO.

Subjects: Contemporary History (Post 1945).

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