Despite the later fame of the Messerschmitt Bf 109, the early years of Wilhelm (Willi) Messerschmitt's company, Bayerische Flugzeugwerke (Bavarian Aircraft Works), were far from prosperous. Founded at Augsburg, Bavaria on July 30, 1926, the company was plagued by a series of crashes (including several fatal ones) and forced landings of their aircraft; however, their real financial troubles began on February 26, 1928. On this date, the first prototype of a design ordered by Deutsche Lufthansa, the M.20 airliner, crashed on its maiden flight and killed the pilot, Dipl Ing (Diplom Ingenieur - Diploma of Engineering) Hans Hackmack. Unfortunately, Hackmack was a test pilot from Lufthansa and his death did nothing to improve relations between Messerschmitt and Erhard Milch, the director of Lufthansa, who already disliked both Messerschmitt and his company. Bayerische Flugzeugwerke's fortunes started to go downhill rapidly after this with a series of accidents that tended to overshadow any positive gains made by the company. A U-12 Flamingo embarked on a two month demonstration tour of southern Europe in mid 1929 and crashed at Barcelona and then on October 6, 1930, a Lufthansa M.20B on a regular flight between Berlin, Dresden, Prague and Vienna crashed on approach to the Dresden airfield. The pilot, radio operator and six passengers, including the wife of Lufthansa's representative in Sofia, Bulgaria, were killed.
Eight days later, the M.22 bomber (disguised as a "mail carrier" to get around the treaty of Versailles ban on German military aircraft) crashed while on a test flight, killing the pilot. This was followed on April 14, 1931, by yet another crash at Rietschen, Germany, this time involving a chartered Lufthansa M.20. The pilot and flight mechanic were killed and several of the passengers, all Reichswehr (army) officers, sustained slight injuries. This was the final straw as far as Milch was concerned and Lufthansa refused to take any more M.20s, leaving Bayerische Flugzeugwerke facing impending bankruptcy. By June 1, 1931, bankruptcy proceedings against the company had started at the Augsburg court, however, a meeting was held with all the creditors in December of the following year and an agreement was reached allowing the company to continue trading.
Meanwhile, in the hope of gaining some exposure for his ailing company, Messerschmitt had begun work on four racing aircraft to take part in the 1932 European aircraft rally, the 3rd Challenge de Tourisme Internationale. Known simply as the M.29, they were sleek two-seat, low-wing monoplanes with the pilot and flight mechanic sitting in tandem in an enclosed cockpit, the canopy of which was hinged on the right hand side. Although they showed promise, tragedy (or the "Messerschmitt curse") was to strike yet again when on August 8, a few days before the rally, one of the aircraft (D-2308) crashed and killed the pilot. The next day saw another M.29 suffer structural failure in flight and kill the flight mechanic in the ensuing crash, the pilot having managed to bail out safely. This was enough for the Deutsche Versuchanstalt für Luftfahrt eV Berlin-Aldershof (the German Research Facility for Aviation-Aldershof, or simply, DVL) to ban the two remaining M.29s from flying, effectively ruling them out of the competition. The M.29 did spawn a design that finally met with some success, the superbly aerobatic M.35 sports aircraft that first flew in 1933. This was a two seat, low wing monoplane with a tandem open cockpit and powered by a radial engine.
Thanks in part to input from Messerschmitt's arch nemesis Milch, who by this time was the Deputy Minister for Aviation at the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (RLM - State Ministry of Aviation), no major orders for the company's aircraft or designs were forthcoming from any local operators despite the success of the M.35 so Messerschmitt turned his attention to foreign markets. An order from Romania resulted in the M.36 transport aircraft of 1933 and a future licence for the type to be built in that country as the IAR.36. With the Romanian Air Force also expressing an interest in a new version of the M.35 as a trainer, Milch could not resist criticising Messerschmitt for giving preference to foreign orders over German ones. In reply, Messerschmitt publicly pointed out that the only reason he did this was due to a lack of support in Germany. This stung the RLM so in order to save face, they awarded a contract to Messerschmitt for six aircraft to take part in the 1934 Challenge de Tourisme Internationale.
In September 1933, Messerschmitt began work on designing the new aircraft, designated the M.37. Based on a combination of the M.35 and preliminary work on the proposed Romanian trainer, the prototype made its first flight June 1934. Compared to many similarly sized aircraft of the day, especially the traditional wood and canvas British offerings, the M.37 was very advanced. Like the M.29, the M.37 was a cantilever low-wing monoplane of all metal, stressed skin construction with a two-seat, enclosed cockpit, retractable main gear and Handley-Page leading edge slats on the wings. Power was provided by a 250 hp Hirth HM 8U inverted V8 engine driving a three-blade propeller. Once again, bad luck was to plague Messerschmitt when, on July 27, 1934, the first prototype (D-IBUM) crashed near Augsburg. The aircraft's pilot, Freiherr Wolf von Dungern (an RLM official) was killed and only frantic modifications to satisfy German officialdom stopped the remaining five from being withdrawn from the event.
Four M.37s ended up competing in the rally, but their all-metal construction meant they were considerably heavier than the wood and fabric competitors favoured by the handicapping system. Consequently, the M.37s were not successful, however, their high performance and excellent handling did lead to them becoming popular for competition and record setting flights. Soon, production models of the M.37 began to roll out of the Bayerische Flugzeugwerke's Augsburg assembly line as the Bf 108A, a designation assigned to it by the RLM. In 1935, German aviatrix Elly Beinhorn established a name for herself and, quite literally, the Bf 108 when she flew a record setting endurance flight from Berlin to Constantinople and back (a distance of 2,230 miles) in one day. She christened the Bf 108A used in the flight "Taifun" (Typhoon), leading Messerschmitt to adopt the name for all subsequent production models of the aircraft.
The Bf 108A proved so popular that in 1935, the four-seat Bf 108B touring version appeared on the scene. As well as the addition of the extra two seats, the engine was changed to a 240 hp Argus As 10C inverted V8 driving a two-blade propeller and the tailskid of the A model was replaced with a tail wheel. Modifications were also made to the vertical stabiliser and rudder and the external bracing was removed from the tailplane. One aircraft (D-IELE) was experimentally fitted with a 160 hp Siemens Sh 14A radial engine but was found to be unsatisfactory and never entered production while a proposed high speed version, the 400 hp Hirth HM 512 powered Bf 108C, never made it off the drawing board.
This Bf 108B accounted for the vast majority of all Taifuns produced and, in addition to being used for the purpose it was designed, was entered in many air races in the late 1930s, winning several. Taifuns also appeared in air displays and rallies at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, an event that was better remembered as a propaganda showcase for Nazi Germany. With the aircraft's success came interest from the Luftwaffe and the Bf 108 was soon pressed into service in a number of roles such as communications and liaisons duties and as an air ambulance. It also served as the basis for a more well-known and feared Bayerische Flugzeugwerke product that was developed specifically for the military, the Bf 109 fighter. The (simplified) story goes that after much political wrangling, Messerschmitt secured a contract for a prototype of a new fighter. Design work began in 1934 that basically involved taking the plans of the Bf 108, converting it to a single-seater with the pilot positioned where the rear seat would have originally been, narrowing the fuselage, attaching a suitably powerful V12 engine to the front and arming the aircraft with a mixture of machine guns and cannon. The rest, as they say, is history.
On July 11, 1938, Bayerische Flugzeugwerke underwent a name change and became Messerschmitt Flugzeugbau GmbH (Messerschmitt aircraft construction), a name they had used briefly in 1933. This led to all subsequent Messerschmitt designs and aircraft receiving an "Me" prefix instead the Bf previously used. By this stage, production had been moved from Augsburg to a new factory in Regensburg, Bavaria and then in 1942 another move was made to the captured Societe Nationale de Constructions Aeronautiques du Nord (SNCAN) at Les Mureaux, near Paris. By the time World War Two ended, 885 Bf 108s had been produced in both Germany and France with a number of other proposed variations on the basic design. As promising as some of these were, only one of the proposals made it as far as the prototype stage, this being the Me 208. Essentially a Bf 108 with retractable tricycle landing gear, two were built in France but one was later destroyed in an air raid while the other managed to survive the war intact.
Production of the Bf 108 continued in France after the war as the Nord 1001 Pingouin I (Penguin). These were made using left over German airframes and parts and, as the Argus engines were unavailable due to the factories being destroyed, had a French built, six cylinder, 233 hp Renault 6Q-11 engine installed. Once the supply of surplus parts was exhausted, SNCAN began work on building aircraft from new as the 230 hp Renault 6Q-10 powered Nord 1002 Pingouin II. Most of these ended up being used by the French military. The surviving Me 208 (which had been redesignated the Nord 1100 Noralpha by this stage) was developed into the Renault 6Q-10 powered Nord 1101 Ramier I (Woodpigeon) and then the Renault 6Q-11 powered Nord 1102 Ramier II. Again, many of this type ended up with the French military. Two further types were to come out of SNCAN but were only used for powerplant testing; these were the N1104 Noralpha with a 240 hp Potez 6Dba engine and the N1110 Nord-Astazou with a Turboméca Astazou turboshaft engine. By the time production finally ended, SNCAN had produced a further 285 aircraft in addition to those built during the war.
At present, it is estimated there are still 27 Bf 108s in airworthy condition worldwide including a single example in New Zealand (ZK-WFI). Although registered as a Nord 1002 Pingouin, ZK-WFI was built in Germany before the manufacturing plant was moved to France and can therefore lay claim to being a genuine Messerschmitt. It was shot down on two occasions during World War Two, rebuilt and then surrendered to the allies in Belgium in June 1945. After the war the aircraft was exported to the United States and went through various owners before being rebuilt by Piper Aircraft. During the rebuild a military style paint job was applied, butane guns were installed (most Bf108's were unarmed) so the aircraft could pretend to be a Bf 109 for film work and the original Argus engine was replaced with a 300hp Lycoming. In 1989 it was sold to a new owner in South Africa and then in March 1996 the aircraft was imported to New Zealand.
Text © 2002 Stuart Russell.
Power Plant: One 179kW (240hp) Argus As.8C
Wingspan: 10.62m (34ft10in)
Length: 8.29m (27ft 3in)
Max T-O weight: 1,735kg (2,987lb)
Max speed: 300km/h (186mph)
Range: 1,000km (621miles)