Pioneers, WWII

Messerschmitt P.1101- German Forefather of the Swing Wing

The Messerschmitt P.1101 was the experimental fighter jet constructed as a response to a desperate Luftwaffe decree that ordered aeronautical companies to invent a craft that could outmatch the latest generation of Allied fighter planes, which were threatening German air supremacy. 

Although largely unremarkable and terminated without a single flying hour to its name, the P.1101’s saving grace was its variable geometry wings added almost as an afterthought, which turned an obscure Nazi failure into the originator of a feature now frequently found on some of the most advanced aircraft of the modern era.


The Emergency Fighter Program

In mid-1944 the Germans were becoming increasingly worried they were losing the air war and were particularly troubled by the introduction of the B-29 Superfortress by the Allies, a state-of-the-art fighter that could fly above 11,000 meters.

As a result, the Emergency Fighter program was commenced and specifications were released. The new fighter had to be propelled by the HeS 011 engine, armed with four 30 mm MK 108 cannons, and possess a top speed of 1,000 kilometres per hour at 7,000 meters as well as an altitude ceiling of 14,000 meters.

Design plans of a Messerschmitt P.1101.
The design for the P.1101 was something from the future in comparison to the fighter aircraft of the time.

By February 1945 the committee had received several submissions from German aircraft manufacturers Focke-Wulf, Blohm & Voss, Heinkel, and Junkers. Messerschmitt also put their hat in the ring, putting forward three planes, the first of which was the Messerschmitt P.1101.


Even before the call for an Emergency Fighter, Messerschmitt had been diligently working on a successor to its Me 262 jet, which at the time of the announcement was the only jet aircraft in service anywhere in the world.

The P.1092 had been initiated as far back as January 1943 and had been envisioned as a multi-role fighter with a Jumo 004 engine located inside the fuselage. Abandoned in July 1943 because of the failure to come up with a suitable aerodynamic shape to complement the odd placement of the engine, the next effort was the P.1092 which shifted the powerplant so that it was underneath the fuselage.

This was cancelled towards the end of 1943 as the company reorientated its focus on developing the preexisting Me 262. Thus Messerschmitt was already heavily involved in the creation of a new fighter jet when the German air authorities issued their proclamation.

The P.1092 later evolved to the P.1101.
The P.1092 was the predecessor and very similar to the later Russian Yak-15.


On January 5th 1944 Willy Messerschmitt released an internal memo unveiling his plans for an unusual new fighter whose engines were again to be located in the fuselage, and which would become the basis of the P.1101.

In addition to having an enlarged fuselage to make space for engines that were either to be installed side by side or one above the other, the new craft would be furnished with wings with a sweptback angle of 35 degrees which could be pivoted up to 45 degrees if necessary.

Following the announcement, the P.1101 program was begun and directed by three individuals, namely the chief of the Preliminary Projects Department Hans Hornung, the head of the Projektbüro Woldemar Voight, and lastly Riclef Schomerus, the director of the aerodynamics department.

The first set of blueprints known as the P.1101 XVIII/113 were released on August 30th 1944, presenting a craft that resembled many of the features of the Me 262, including a similar nose shape and outer wing section.

The P.1101 parked in a disassembled state in a hangar.
Some of the design elements were borrowed from the Me 262.

It also possessed its fair share of unique elements; for example, the air intakes that were to assist the running of the HeS 011 engine were to be fashioned into the wing roots of the sharply swept-back wings, and at the rear a butterfly tail was to be installed.

Moreover, the engine itself was to be housed in the large fuselage, with limits placed on armament and fuel load to counterbalance the extra weight.

Finally, many of the other components, such as the wing assembly, undercarriage, and controls were to be sourced where possible from pre-existing planes in order save time.

A follow-up sketch drawn by Willy Messerschmitt himself on October 15th would alter these instructions slightly, illustrating the need for a simpler nose intake and a redesigned exhaust duct.

P.1101 head on parked outside of a hangar.
The nose was changed from the original plans.

Evaluations carried out in November 1944, using an early model of the Me 262A-1a fitted with various experimental engine intakes, would conclude that the planned 3 meter engine duct of the P.1101 reduced thrust by a significant 135 kilograms, informing a further revision in December 1944 that would end up as the final design.

The P.1101

The P.1101 Version 1 was 8.92 meters long, 3.72 meters high, and had an empty weight of 2,567 kilograms, a loaded weight of 3,863 kilograms, and a maximum weight of 4,453 kilograms.

It was powered by a single Heinekel HeS 011 turbojet with 2,865 pounds of thrust placed in the lower rear of the forward fuselage, where a steel plate lined the area around the exhaust to safeguard the propulsion system against the jets of flame emitted by the engine. Fuel was provided by three large tanks fitted behind the cockpit which had a max volume of 1,565 liters.

The P.1101 was projected to fly at a top speed of 652 kilometers per hour and to soar to a service ceiling of 13,500 meters, 10,000 meters of which were to be reached after 10 minutes at a climb rate of 25 meters per second.

The Heinkel HeS 011 engine on display.
The Heinkel HeS 011 engine on display.

In appearance, the P.1101 had a short forward fuselage with an oval cross-section accompanied by a slender tail boom extending above and beyond the tail pipe. Its cockpit was pressurized and situated close to the nose where the single pilot enjoyed all-round vision.

Communicating with a Fu16 radio set, the operator was also protected by cockpit armour plating that could withstand 12.7 mm ammunition from ahead and 20 mm rounds shot from behind.

On the whole, the P.1101 was carefully designed so that it had optimum aerodynamic qualities, with the design team assiduously ensuring there were no protrusions that could potentially compromise streamlining. Furthermore, for the same ends, they purposefully employed a low-drag canopy which also kept the cockpit screen free of mist via the circulation of warm air drawn from the engine.

The most trailblazing additions were the shoulder-mounted wings, the sweptback angle of which could be adjusted on the ground before take-off between 35 to 45 degrees, with higher angles making high-speed flight smoother and vice versa.

Disassembled on the runway.
The performance would have outclassed any Allied fighters if it was introduced.

Elsewhere, the wings were structured with steel spars and wooden ribbing covered by skinning, with control imposed by the operation of ailerons, elevators, the rudder, wing leading edge slots, and camber-changing flaps.

The classic tricycle landing gear was composed of a nose-wheel attached to a single strut and an angled fork that retracted with a 90-degree turn, while the rest of the components, including the mainwheels and the shock absorbers, were salvaged from a BF 109.

In a concerted effort to get it up and flying in a short time, many of the P.1101’s features were taken directly from the Me 262, including the upper and lower cylindrical segments of the fuselage, the wing layout, and the aileron and leading edge slats.

Some of the same materials of the Me 262 were also transferred over, such as the duralumin of the fuselage and the plywood-lined wing.

Finally, the P.1101 was decked out with four 30 mm MK 108 cannons and a single SC 500 bomb, with provision for 55 mm R4M air-to-air rockets or X4 guide rockets launched from under the wings once they became available.

These types of air to air missiles were very basic.
It was planned for the P.1101 to use the R4M air-to-air missile. Photo credit – Juergen Schiffmann CC BY-SA 4.0.

Seized by the Americans

With the deadline for submissions of the Emergency Fighter Program looming, by January 1945 the P.1101 was nearly complete as Messerschmitt worked on two further entries, the P.1110 and the tailless P. 1111, which were attempts to decrease the cross-section and surface area even further.

Despite overshadowing the P.1101, which was put on the back burner, all three designs were presented to a panel of judges in late February.

However, with the prototype 80% complete, the languishing P.1101 would never have a chance to be fully fleshed out by its creators after Messerschmitt’s operations were abruptly halted with the storming of their facility at Oberammergau at the end of April 1945 by the Americans.

The P.1101
The P.1101 was taken from Germany to the US.

On the other hand, this was not the end, for after piquing the interest of Robert Woods, Chief Designer at Bell Aircraft, the P.1101 was transferred to the US where it was fully completed with the assistance of one of its original designers, Woldemar Voight.

The P.1101 would go on to provide the foundations for the world’s first variable geometry aircraft, the Bell X-5, first flown on June 20th 1951. Incorporating the customizable angle sweep, the wings could be positioned at either 20, 40, or 60 degrees which changed depending on the altitude level. The ‘swing wing’ as it is often called, can now be found on an array of modern planes like the F-14 Tomcat, F-111, and Tornado.

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  • Crew: 1
  • Length: 9.18 m (30 ft 1 in)
  • Wingspan: 8.25 m (27 ft 1 in)
  • Height: 3.71 m (12 ft 2 in)
  • Empty weight: 2,594 kg (5,719 lb)
  • Gross weight: 4,065 kg (8,962 lb)
  • Max takeoff weight: 4,500 kg (9,921 lb)
  • Powerplant: 1 × Heinkel HeS 011A turbojet engine, 12.01 kN (2,700 lbf) thrust
  • Maximum speed: 980 km/h (610 mph, 530 kn) at 7,000 m (22,966 ft) (estimated)
  • Range: 1,500 km (930 mi, 810 nmi)
  • Service ceiling: 14,000 m (46,000 ft)
  • Rate of climb: 22.2 m/s (4,370 ft/min) at sea level