Ludwig Bölkow

Pioneer of German aviation and promoter of solar technology
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The Independent Online

Ludwig Bölkow, aeronautical engineer: born Schwerin, Germany 30 June 1912; died Munich 25 July 2003.

Ludwig Bolkow was the key figure in the design of the world's first jet fighter, Nazi Germany's Me262, in the Second World War, an experimental model of which first flew in 1941. It was propelled by two turbojet engines and had a maximum speed of 540 miles per hour and a range of over 650 miles. Faster than any Allied plane opposing it, it was heavily armed with both cannon and machine-guns and 24 50mm rocket missiles.

The Me262 first saw action against the Allies in 1944 and was something of a shock. However, Allied pilots gradually learned it was vulnerable on takeoff and landing. Luckily for them, Hitler was sceptical about using it as a fighter, wanting instead a fighter-bomber version. This delayed the project, as did the shortage of trained pilots. The air ace General Adolf Galland was given his own squadron of Me262s - by which time the Luftwaffe had all but been destroyed.

After the war, Bölkow was a leading figure in the rebuilding of the German aviation industry and was regarded as one of the fathers of Airbus. More recently, he extended his interests to hydrogen fuel and solar power.

Born in Schwerin, in north-eastern Germany, in 1912, Bölkow was the son of a foreman employed by Fokker, one of the leading aircraft constructors of that time. He took a job with Heinkel, the aircraft company, before studying aero-engineering at the Technical University in Berlin. On graduation, in 1939, he joined the project office of Messerschmitt AG in Augsburg. There he served initially as a clerk, later as a group leader for high-speed aerodynamics, especially for the Me262 jet and its successors. In January 1943, he was appointed head of the Me109 development office in Vienna. A year later, Bölkow returned to the Messerschmitt project office, which had meanwhile moved to Oberammergau. There he set up a program for the development of the MeP1101 sweptback-wing jet fighter.

After the German surrender, in 1945, he rejected offers to follow his colleagues to the United States and remained in Germany founding, in 1948, his own engineering company in Stuttgart. The firm manufactured building construction equipment.

When the new West German armed forces were established, in 1955, he was once again drawn into military aviation. As early as 1957 he began what was to become wide-ranging and successful collaboration between his company and the French partner Nord Aviation, which later became Aerospatiale. Other ventures with British, Italian, American, Spanish, Dutch and Japanese companies followed, which led to Euromissile, Panavia, Eurofighter, Eurocopter and Arianespace.

Bölkow was one of the principal figures in the creation of Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm GmbH (MBB), in 1969, serving as its president. MBB was for many years the leading German aviation and space company. His firm was responsible for advances in helicopter design with the Bölkow Bo105 regarded as breaking new ground. At 65, Bölkow was, however, elbowed out of the firm following criticism of his financial management. After various changes, the firm became part of the European Aeronautic Defence & Space Co (EADS), set up in 2002, which owns 80 per cent of Airbus Industrie.

Meanwhile Bölkow set up his own office near the firm's Munich headquarters, in Ottobrun, turning his attention to studies into the development of solar and hydrogen technology, traffic systems and other environmentally friendly technologies. He established Ludwig-Bölkow-Stiftung, a charitable foundation, to further these interests.

Based on one of his foundation's ideas, Solux solar lanterns are being produced as a means of supplying lighting for the peoples of developing countries. The Solux programme relies on co-operation with partners in national and international charitable and church organisations: currently 23 workshops are manufacturing Solux lanterns in Africa, Asia and South America. To date, more than 8,000 lanterns have been produced.

Although not interested in party politics, Bölkow was interested in welfare politics and sought to give his employees decent working conditions. He introduced company pensions, training and education schemes and, relatively new in the 1960s, flexible working hours.

Ludwig Bölkow was the recipient of many awards, including the Gold Medal of the Royal Aeronautical Society.

David Childs