Bf 109 “Rival”; The Focke-Wulf Fw 159

October 11, 2023

The Second World War provides aviation history with many great fighter partnerships; aircraft that formed the mainstays of their nation’s air forces together and complemented one another.

The P-51 and the P-47. The Spitfire and the Hurricane. The Bf 109 and the Fw 190.

Indeed, they are almost like cliches, often eclipsing other, perfectly successful fighters and their contributions to the respective war efforts.

But of the previous cited examples the last, between the Messerschmitt and the Focke Wulf, was often less about complimenting each other and more about bitter rivalry. Considering the standard policy in Nazi Germany, of engendering competition between factions, often to a disruptive degree, this probably shouldn’t be too surprising.

And in fact the rivalry between Focke Wulf and Messerschmitt dates back to the well before the outbreak of war, when both companies were bidding in 1934 for the contract to supply the newly established Luftwaffe with a thoroughly modern fighter aircraft.

Messerschmitt’s entry was the Bf 109, which would go onto to be the most produced fighter in history.

Focke Wulf, with a design team led by the legendary Kurt Tank, entered this – The Focke Wulf Fw 159.

OK, let’s be honest about this, the Luftwaffe definitely chose correctly.

The Fw 159 was a parasol single winged aircraft that, in contrast to the rival Messerschmitt, Heinkel and Arado designs, fitted its wing above the fuselage supported with struts, a design choice that certainly makes the aircraft a rather odd one when compared to how fighter design developed over the next few years.

But in fact, the decision wasn’t completely without merit. This was, after all, 1934 and new biplane fighters were still being fielded by many nations, which makes the Fw 159 far from being anachronistic and in reality, a good deal more advanced than many others in the field.

Plus, Focke Wulf based the design on their existing Fw 56 advanced fighter trainer, which was being assessed by the Luftwaffe at the time and would ultimately be selected.

So maybe Focke Wulf’s apparently odd design choices make some sense, as it would be much simpler for new pilots to transition to a fighter that they had a sense of familiarity with from their training.

And the Fw 159 was a much more advanced aircraft than the Fw 56. In contrast to its predecessor it had a fully retractable undercarriage, again an advanced concept that many contemporary fighters did not have.

The main undercarriage is arguably the most interesting thing about the Fw 159 as it was double-jointed and compressed tightly when retracting, allowing the whole leg to fold into an aperture essentially the size of the wheel. Construction was also advanced, with the aircraft being built entirely of metal, having a semi-monocoque construction and skinned in aluminium alloy.

Armament was twin MG17 7.92mm machine guns, while provision was also made for fitting of an MG FF 20mm cannon in a moteur cannon arrangement with the gun nestled within the inverted V-12 engine and firing through the propeller hub.

Powerplant in the prototype, the Fw 159 V1 was a Junkers Jumo 210A that produced 610hp, and it was with this that the aircraft first took to the skies in the summer of 1935.

And here that interesting undercarriage got REALLY interesting, unfortunately. The system had undergone extensive trials in static ground testing prior to the flight, and appeared to function fine, but on this first flight it developed a problem.

The test flight proceeded well until it came to lowering the gear, which refused to fully extend. The pilot flew around trying various things, along with getting helpful suggestions from the observers on the ground who signalled him with written messages, but nothing seemed to work and, with his fuel exhausted he was forced to make an emergency landing. The V1’s landing gear promptly collapsed, spinning the aircraft over several times, writing off the airframe but remarkably not hurting the pilot.

Focke Wulf set about preparing a second aircraft, the V2, which featured a much hardier undercarriage, though retaining the same powerplant. This began flight testing and the aircraft proved to have good flying characteristics, though was notably inferior to the rival Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Heinkel He 112.

Seeking to improve performance Focke Wulf built a third prototype, the V3, which was fitted with a more powerful Jumo 210G engine that was rated at 730hp, and with this the aircraft recorded its maximum speed of 252 mph (405 km/h) in mid-1937. This actually met the original specification that had been issued but was substantially slower than the rival designs and all in all the Fw 159 was considered decidedly inferior to both the Messerschmitt and Heinkel aircraft.

The Bf 109 had already been selected to be the new German fighter in March 1936, but despite this it was thought prudent to keep testing the Fw 159 in case of failure in service of either the Messerschmitt or the He 112. After all, these were cutting edge designs and hitting unforeseen issues was a distinct possibility.

The two Fw 159s therefore carried on flying until 1938, though they suffered repeated issues with their undercarriage, with the novel system proving unreliable and prone to collapse despite the amount of work put into it.

By this point the Luftwaffe had got over it’s reservations with the BF 109, and in fact were thoroughly enamoured with it, and so the Fw 159 disappeared from the scene.

But the experience was not wasted, and even as the Fw-159 was headed for the scrapyard Kurt Tank was already hard at work building a far more formidable fighter, his legendary Fw 190, for which he was able to draw on the lessons from both the -159 and the Bf 109 and thus create a truly superlative fighter.

But you know, I can’t help but imagine what it would have looked like had the Fw 159 proven a little better. Imagine, say, the Battle of Britain with Spitfires and Hurricane’s going toe to toe with…this.

It certainly seems a rather odd picture, doesn’t it?


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