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Sharks of the Air: The Story of Willy Messerschmitt and the Development of History’s First Operational Jet Fighter

by James Neal Harvey, Casemate Publishers, Haverstown, Pa., 2011, $32.95

Sharks of the Air chronicles Wilhelm Emil “Willy” Messerschmitt’s many innovative aircraft designs, from a record-setting sailplane to the history-making Bf-109 and the Me-262, the world’s first production jet fighter. James Neal Harvey also analyzes other German fighter developments, Luftwaffe strategy and tactics and traces the effects of Adolf Hitler’s political decisions on the Nazi air war effort. Along the way, he touches on Messerschmitt’s intense rivalries with other aircraft designers before and during World War II.

Though the twin-jet Me-262’s advent shocked the Allies, Messerschmitt was unable to persuade Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring that it should be produced in large numbers. The author gives an impressive overview of the use and misuse of Me-262s as the Luftwaffe attempted to counter the ever-increasing Allied bombing campaign against Germany. He includes firsthand recollections by American and German pilots of their aerial encounters, also offering a behind-the-scenes look at the Nazi political infighting that had an adverse impact on Me-262 production.

One disturbing chapter—with unconvincing sources—mentions that American pilots were ordered to machine-gun German airmen who bailed out. According to Harvey, most, but not all, U.S. fliers refused to obey that decree.

Before Willy Messerschmitt was captured and imprisoned at war’s end, he had been working to develop the P.1101, a sweptwing jet calculated to represent the next generation of fighters. Bell Aircraft Corporation obtained the P.1101 prototype and incorporated some of its technology into the X-5 test plane—evidence that, even in the last days of the war, Messerschmitt still had a few tricks up his sleeve.


Originally published in the March 2012 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.