The Messerschmitt Bf 109 (Me 109) was one of the most successful fighter aircraft designs of all time. It was a proven aircraft and a proven weapons platform. When also considering the logistical support behind the aircraft in the field, it was nothing short of a superb weapons system. In the hands of a properly trained pilot, it was an awesome machine. The fact that Germany produced Aces whose tally of aerial victories was each in the hundreds is testimony to that.
The Messerschmitt Bf 109 was a low weight, low drag monocoque monoplane. Monocoque is the term used to describe an aircraft (or car) that does not have a chassis but instead has a body whose shape is load bearing. The aircraft’s skin was stressed – it was structural; not merely a protective aerodynamic wrapping around structural members as was the case with many earlier aircraft.
All structural points (engine, wing spar and landing gear) “hung” off of a strong firewall at the front of the cockpit. This resulted in a narrow track landing gear which presented landing problems but the geometry of the Bf 109 was proven successful and landing casualties were considered to be at a manageable level.
A single “I” section main wing spar arranged close to the leading edge formed a stiff “D-shaped” torsion box which eliminated the need for a rear main spar. The result was a wing which was much stiffer and lighter than many designs that retained the common front and rear main spar concept.
Flush rivet construction was used in order to reduce drag. In its day, flush riveting was a revolutionary innovation – material as thin as that used in aircraft construction had not been joined this way before. In the years leading up to the war a lot of investment was made in sorting this technology for the sole purpose of improving laminar flow and therefore improving an aircraft’s fuel efficiency, attainable top speed and stability whilst in flight.
The rear section of the fuselage (the section immediately behind the pilot’ seat and extending to the front of the tail) was also unique. To explain, first visualise a stack of cups. The rear section or in German, the “Rumpf” is made up of parts that nestle together like a stack of cups. Each section including what would normally be the former or main structural part forming the shape is made of a single sheet of aluminium. Each section was formed on a stretch press with the former being created out of some clever folds to provide strength. To be precise every second section was formed on a stretch press. So, to visualise, keep every second cup and replace every alternate one with a sheet wrapped around the bottom of each cup – that is what the back end of the Bf 109 is like. It was innovative, strong and it greatly simplified production by removing a lot of fiddly framework.
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Initially there was no armament in the main wings. This was in order to keep the wing thin and light. The main planes (wings) were purposely small and “highly loaded”. A very high wing loading provided high speed at the expense of manoeuverability. Not a problem given the “stalk and ambush” air combat tactics of the day – particularly those mastered by the highest scoring ace of all time Oberst Erich Hartmann (352 victories).
To counter high wing loading and a small wing, several high lift devices were installed to aid low speed performance (landing for example). The main wing leading edge featured automatically opening slats which changed the wing’s aerodynamics to a “high lift” shape. There were also large flaps on the trailing edge which were deployed to change the wing’s camber. This was all in order to slow the thing down (again for the purpose of landing it but the lift devices were also deployed when manoeuvering in flight).
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