Simanaitis Says

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EVEN TODAY, FLYING the Alps can be an exhilarating experience. Imagine what it must have been like in the early days of aviation. Here today and tomorrow in Parts 1 and 2 are tidbits about a Messerschmitt, indeed, one of Willy’s first powered aircraft, that flew the central Alps in 1926. The tale has elements of geography, politics, aviation technology, and, for me, a recent GMax project for use in Microsoft Flight Simulator.

Small monoplane? Powered glider? Below, my GMax rendering of the Messerschmitt M-17.

Mountains to Conquer. The Alps are the highest mountain range entirely in Europe. The Caucasus Range straddling Europe and Asia is higher: Mt. Elbrus’s 18,519 ft. has higher elevation than the Alp’s highest, 15,778-ft. Mt. Blanc. However, as noted in Live Science, “Mount Elbrus isn’t technically a mountain—it is an inactive volcano….”

The Alps have 128 peaks exceeding 13,000 ft. And, note, early aircraft were pushed to reach 10,000 ft. 

The First Alpine Assaults. SWI notes that, even before the Wright Brothers’ first powered flight, in 1903 “Eduard Spelterini was the first to cross the Alps by air.” He did so several times by gas balloon.  

As described in, on September 23, 1910, Peruvian-French pilot Jorge Chávez-Dartnell perished in flying the Alps’ Simplon Pass at 6600 ft. in his Blériot XI. Chávez-Dartnell’s intended trip from Brig, Switzerland, to Milan, Italy, had excellent weather until he encountered turbulence near a refueling stop in Domodossola, Italy. Adverse conditions led to his fatal crash there. Domodossola, in the foothills of the Alps, is about 50 miles north of Milan.

The Blériot XI was popular among early aviators. Image of my GMax model.

On July 13, 1913, Swiss pioneer Oskar Bider and his Blériot XI flew from Bern, Switzerland, to Milan, with a fuel stop in Domodossola. He waited in Milan for 13 days until weather conditions allowed a return trip, thus making Bider the first aviator to cross the Alps in both directions.

German Aviation and the Versailles Treaty. As part of the Versailles Treaty ending World War I, Germany was prohibited from activities that might be construed as having military implications. As one example, in 1922 the Inter-Allied Commission had the 1920 Zeppelin-Staaken E-4/20 destroyed. This revolutionary all-metal passenger aircraft was deemed to have bomber potential. 

The 1920 Zepplin-Staaken E.4/20 was ahead of its time—and of Versailles Treaty restrictions. Image of my GMax model.

At first, other German aircraft designers turned to gliders permitted by the treaty. But, before long, they started adding power. Treaty-cheating ploys were employed: One was by establishing joint ventures in Soviet Russia. Others were just flagrant disregard of the no-power limitation. Wikipedia lists 17 subcategories of German aircraft during the 1920s. 

Tomorrow in Part 2, we’ll see Willy Messerschmitt follow the practice of transforming gliders into powered aircraft. One of them even takes on the mighty Alps. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021 

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