The most impressive record

by Dr. Marshall Michel
86th Airlift Wing historian

***image1***The post World War I German Luftwaffe was founded in 1935 and, for the next few years, Hitler and Luftwaffe Chief Goering were anxious to impress and intimidate the world with the capability of German fighter aircraft.

On March 30, 1939, a German test pilot flew a specially modified fighter, the Heinkel He 100 V8, to a speed of 463.92 mph to break the current absolute speed record. But the He 100 was not Germany’s front line fighter; it had lost out in a competition to the Messerschmitt Bf 109.

Fortunately, Willy Messerschmitt had also modified a Bf-109 for high speed runs,
designated the ME 209 V1. The aircraft had tiny wing and tail surfaces, and was the smallest and cleanest airframe that could be wrapped around the pilot and a
specially-built, 1800 hp Daimler-Benz DB 601 engine that could be boosted to 2,300 hp for very short periods.

However, little attention was paid to the ME 209’s flying characteristics. The cockpit was located far back along the fuselage, providing terrible visibility, just in front of an unusual, cross-shaped tail section. The aircraft featured a broad-track undercarriage mounted in the wing section instead of the fuselage, but surprisingly proved extremely hard to control on the ground.

To avoid drag-producing radiators, cooling was provided by a surface evaporation cooling system that ran though the engine and then out to the wings where it was condensed and recirculated. The system worked only for a limited time and resulted in a long contrail of condensation when the ME 209 flew (and probably left the wings very hot after the flight). The short effective time of the cooling system was not a problem since the ME 209 only carried fuel and water for a 15-minute flight.

The ME-209 V1 was completed in June 1938 and first flew Aug. 1, 1938. Luftwaffe test pilot Flugkapitän Fritz Wendel called it a “vicious little beast,” a “monstrosity” to fly, and listed 17 major areas of complaint. Nevertheless, on April 26, 1939, Wendel made the ME 209 the world’s fastest airplane by setting the absolute world speed record of 469.22 mph.

The blue ME 209 bore the German civil registration “D-INJR,” but the German
propaganda ministry stepped in and, in the details for ratification of the record, named the aircraft the “Messerschmitt Me 109R” in an attempt to convince other nations that the record had been gained by a variant of the Luftwaffe’s new fighter already in service.

When Ernst Heinkel, the designer of the previous record holder, heard of the Messerschmitt’s accomplishment, he began to tweak his aerodynamically superior
He 100 to take the record back, but was told by the Luftwaffe to drop the idea because “it would be embarrassing if another fighter was faster than our front line fighter.”

There were attempts to convert the ME 209 V1 into a real fighter by giving it longer wings, a taller vertical stabilizer, a normal radiator and fuel and weapons in the wings, but the modifications added so much weight that the fighter version ended up slower than the standard Bf 109E, while still retaining the original’s atrocious handling characteristics.

Amazingly, even though World War II pushed piston-engine fighter development to its limits, the Messerschmitt design’s piston-engine speed record stood throughout the war and well beyond, despite numerous attempts to break it by stripped down, late model World War II fighters in air races.

In fact, the record set by Wendel in the ME 209 V1 lasted for 30 years until was
broken on Aug. 16, 1969 by American Darryl G. Greenamyer in a highly modified 3,100 hp F8F-2 Bearcat “Conquest 1,” with an average speed of 483.041 mph.

The fuselage of the Me 209 V1 apparently still exists today, stored in the Polish Air Museum at Krakow.