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Length: 28 feet 6.5 inches
Wingspan: 32 feet 4.5 inches
Height: 11 feet 2 inches
Empty weight: 3,872 pounds
Loaded weight: 5,340 pounds
Power plant: Junkers Jumo 210D (640 hp)
Max speed: 360 mph
Service ceiling: 32,800 feet
Armament: Four 7.92mm MG 17 machine guns

German fighter pilots of the Condor Legion, flying Heinkel He 51s in support of Nationalist forces during the Spanish Civil War, were initially shocked to encounter Soviet pilots on the Republican side flying two superior Soviet designs—the Polikarpov I-15 biplane and the I-16, the world’s first low-wing monoplane fighter with retractable landing gear. Help soon arrived, however, in the form of the Messerschmitt Bf 109B.

In September 1935 Wilhelm Emil “Willy” Messerschmitt, chief designer and co-director of Bayerische Flugzeugwerke (BFW), rolled out the prototype of a monoplane fighter with a narrow monocoque fuselage, hydraulically retractable undercarriage, enclosed cockpit, leading-edge slats and trailing-edge slotted flaps in the wings. Despite its high wing loading—which handicapped maneuverability at low speeds—the Bf 109V1’s outstanding performance earned it a production contract, an urgent decision prompted by the concurrent appearance of Britain’s Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire and the July 1936 outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. In March 1937 the first production Bf 109Bs entered service in Spain, and on April 6 1st Lt. Günther Lützow shot down an I-15, scoring the 109’s first victory.

The Bf 109Bs became a Condor Legion mainstay, their pilots developing tactics that would become standard during World War II. The aircraft also saw continual improvement with rollout of the Bf 109C and Bf 109D. By 1939 Messerschmitt had acquired a controlling share of BFW, and he replaced the Bf 109D’s Junkers Jumo 210D engine with the fuel-injected Daimler-Benz DB 601A to produce the Me 109E—a change of power plant that turned a good fighter into a truly great one. MH