The Messerschmitt Me-163 Komet
The Me-163 Komet was conceived by Dr. Alexander Lippisch but production & later development was carried out by Messerschmitt. The aircraft was powered by one of the new generation of rocket engines. To reduce weight & drag the Me-163 had no tail or undercarriage. Taking off on a trolley that was later jettisoned & landing on a wooden skid, the first test flight took place in 1941 & after considerable development became operational in 1944. None the less the aircraft had it's dangers. The volatile fuel could dissolve the flesh of pilots & ground crew in a matter of seconds. The pilot's flight suit, boots, underwear and gloves are made of a non-organic, nylon-like material. Clothing made of organic material like cotton would burst into flames on contact with the fuel. The pilot was protected by 13mm of armour behind his head and shoulders, and 8mm of armour behind his back. A 90mm armour glass screen gave frontal protection with a 15mm armour nose cone. The constant speed propeller in front drove a generator for electric power.
The high speed of 596 mph (959 km/h) made it difficult to control & it's short endurance of just under an hour limited it's effectiveness. The Me-163's inherent dangers led to more aircraft being lost in accidents than were destroyed in combat.
The Me-163 Story
The story started in 1926 when Dr Alexander Lippisch built his first tailless glider. Over the next decade Lippisch built many tailless aircraft and also became involved with rocket propulsion, so it was no great surprise when, in 1937, he was asked by the research section of RLM to design an aircraft to test a new rocket motor intended for manned aeroplanes, the Walter I - 203.
In 1939 Lippish decided that his preliminary research aircraft, the all-wood DFS-194,could in fact be flown by the rocket and not by the intended small piston engine. The machine was taken in early 1940 to Karlshagen, the test airfield at Peenemünde, where the I-230 rocket was installed. On June 3, 1940 glider pilot Heini Dittmar made a successful first flight, reporting superb handling. Later this flimsy machine, designed for 300 km/h (186.5 mph), reached 547 km/h (340 mph) in level flight, and also demonstrated fantastic steep climbs.
On 2nd October, 1941 Dittmar was towed to over 4000 m (13,124 ft) by a Bf-110; he then cast off and started the motor. He accelerated but suddenly lost control as the nose dropped violently. It was possibly the first occasion on which a human had approached the speed of sound, compressibility trouble being experienced at about Mach 0.84 the speed of 1000.4 km/h (622mph ) was 250 km/h (155.3 mph) above the official world speed record.
By 22nd October, 1941, Messerschmitt A.G. gave Udet a detailed plan for
the construction of 70 Me-163B interceptors that could lead to an operational
fighter group by the spring of 1943. The eight 163A's already built would
serve as trainers.
In November, Dittmar severely injured his back on landing a 163 and was confined to the hospital. Test pilot Rudy Opitz assumed leadership of the project. By June 1943, the new hot engine had been delivered, but the run time was a disappointing 6 minutes.
Me-163B made first flight at Lechfeld on 26th June 1942 without propellants and towed by a Bf-110. Next year powered flights began. In early 1943 a special Me-163B test squadron was formed at Kartshagen under Hauptmann Wolfgang Späte. The Unit was named Erprobungskommando 16 and it later moved to Bad Zwischenahn. On 17th August, 1943 the factory at Regensburg was heavily hit by B-17's resulting in many pre-production batches being destroyed.
The unit I/JG400 under Oberleutnant Robert Olejnik formed from Erprobungskommando 16 at Zwischenahn in May 1944 became operational in July, at Brandis. There were several flights against USAF heavies but without success. But on 24th August Feldwebel Siegfried Schubert destroyed two American B-17 Flying Fortresses within five minutes and other Comets downed two others. Schubert was the most successful of all Komet pilots in combat.
Aerial Combat in the Me-163
The 163 was originally envisioned as an interceptor for high flying reconnaissance aircraft but it was instead used to attack large formations of bombers. Maybe two or three would take off in a cluster or singly and have five minutes to attack the bombers. Now you can imagine a fighter pilot with little experience would want to fly a standard approach from the back, maybe out of a 15-degree turn and attack a B-17 bristling with that massive defensive power. That became a pretty risky thing. And approaching bombers one aircraft at a time, using that standard school-training approach, would mean your chances of surviving many missions was low.
The highly experienced fighter pilots could fly and attack in a 45-degree climb. They were quite safe because the turrets on the bombers could not easily follow them. These were the pilots who survived.
The Komet's 600 mph (959 km/h ) speed stunned the allied bomber crews who saw it for the first time. It was a weapon of moral sapping capability when they first appeared against daylight streams of allied bombers.There was a real feeling amongst the allies that here was a weapon they couldn't intercept or contend with. With cannons or rockets firing the Komet would streak through allied bomber formations often breaking them up in the process. It would then glide down to its airstrip re-fuel & take off to attack again.
Its appearance was so unexpected it shook the confidence of the men who confronted it. The bomber crews hadn't been warned about the rocket powered plane because the allies knew almost knothing about it.
When the 163 was designed, Germany had air superiority at the lower altitudes. That was not the case anymore in 1944. There were P-51's and P-38's, and their pilots learned very fast that as the 163's came up, you left them alone, but on the way down the 163's had a short flying time, and they could be targeted. But the 163, now empty of fuel, had a low wing loading and could dive much closer to the ground before pulling out than could the Allied fighters.
Whereas the experienced 163 pilot would come down at 500 mph (805 km/h),
down to the deck and come over a friendly airfield, fly inside the defense
perimeter and stay there circling until it bled off it's speed and landed,
the Allied fighters had a long way to fly home, and were not going to
risk flying within that perimeter. But there were very few people who
could fly the 163 to its best performance because the most experienced
pilots were needed elsewhere.
Me-163 pilots had many problems and one of them is that the landing had to be perfect and that wasn't so easy to do. If a pilot made any mistake during the landing procedure it could prove fatal not only because of injuries, but also because of highly toxic fuel.
Armament:The Rheinmetall MK 108 30MM Cannon
This belt-fed, low velocity cannon with electric ignition served on the Bf-109G-10, the Me-262 & the Me-163 Komet. Although the maximum rate of fire of the MK 108 was only 450 to 650 rounds/min with a muzzle velocity of 1,600 ft./sec (488 m/s) it often took only one or two hits from this powerful weapon to bring down another aircraft.
In many ways, the Rheinmetall-Borsig MK 108 30mm cannon was considered to be a masterpiece of weapons engineering, due to it's compact size, ease of manufacture and hitting power. Although it was first designed by Rheinmetall-Borsig in 1940 as a private venture, the design was finalised in 1942. It met a later RLM requirement for a new aircraft cannon that could knock down enemy bombers with the lowest expenditure of ammunition and stay beyond the range of enemy defensive fire.
In short, the MK 108 was a blow-back operated, rear-seared, belt fed 30 mm cannon using electric ignition and was charged and triggered by simple compressed air. One drawback was that once installed, there was no method to adjust the gun's harmonisation. One distinctive physical feature was the very short gun barrel of 23 inches or 58.4 Centimeters, which gave the MK 108 a low muzzle velocity. The overall length of the gun was 45 inches or 114.3 Centimeters.
The Me-163 was later armed with 50mm projectiles with photocells which were more effective than cannons.
The Power Plant
The Me-163's powerplant. Click images for an enlargement
The Me-163 Komet was powered by a Walter HWK 509A Rocket
Engine. The HWK 509A liquid bi-propellant rocket engine was developed
by the Hellmuth Walter Werke in Kiel to power the Me-163 Komet fighter-interceptor.
A prototype version of the engine was used in the first powered flight
of the Me-163B V2 (second prototype) aircraft in August 1943. Using a
fuel mixture of 20% hydrazine hydrate in methanol (C-Stoff) and an oxidizer of 80% concentrated
hydrogen peroxide (T-Stoff) along with potassium cupro cyanide as catalyst, the HWK 509A could deliver thrust variables
from 330 to 3,750 lbs (150-1,701 kilograms). At full throttle it could
drive the Komet to a maximum speed of 596 mph (959 km/h). Maximum time of operation 15-20 minutes. Operational time at full thrust 4 min 11 seconds . However, the
Komet carried only enough fuel for 7 ½ minutes of powered flight.
Me-163S: In 1944 to help convert the dwindling supply of pilots to the Me-163, a tandem trainer variant designated Me-163S was developed, a variation of the Me-163B. The Me-163S was flown only as a glider and few were converted. At the end of the war one was captured by Russians.
Me-163C: Although fast and highly manoeuvrable, the Me-163B had its shortcomings: One was that it was an accident waiting to happen; two that it's limited fuel capacity meant only six minutes of powered flight. The summer of 1944 saw the introduction of a new rocket motor, the HWK 509C, which supplanted the 1700 kg (3,747 lbs) thrust HWK 509A fitted to the Me-163B.The new motor had a 300 g thrust cruising chamber, and powered flight endurance was greatly increased when the new unit was incorporated into the redesigned Me-163C. The Walter rocket motor increased flight time to 12 minutes. The Me-163C was slightly bigger then the B and more streamlined with bubble canopy and had a pressurised cockpit. Only three Me-163C's had been completed, of which only one flew, by the end of the war. However all were destroyed to prevent capture by the Soviets. As they were still only armed with two MG 151 or MK 108 cannons, they probably would have had the same limited success as the 163-B craft.
Me-163D/Ju-248/Me-263:The Me-163D was further refined and had retraceable tricycle landing gear. One prototype was built and since the Junkers had been tasked with development and series production of this model it was for a while known as the Ju-248 before reverting to Messerschmitt designation as the Me-263. It did not enter production, the prototype being captured by Russians who fitted it with new straight wings and modified tail surfaces, flying it in 1946 as the I-270(ZH),but it was soon abandoned.
"A New Breed of Warrior"
One day, our project officers Komet 163 was fueled up and ready to fly when three Me 109s came over the field in a single line formation. I was among 30 pilots watching from the ground. Späte took off and was immediately upon them; we all saw that he easily could have picked them off. They tried to come behind him, but with his extra power and agility, he was soon behind each of them. Everybody was terribly excited to see what you could do with the new plane.
Rudy Opitz and his peers in both the Komet and Me 262 programmes were the very first of a new breed of warrior. They were the first to ride into battle perched on a tongue of flame. Their hands were wrapped around technology so new and so leading edge we have little to compare it to in our time.
The half century that separates then from now dulls our appreciation for the enormity of their achievements. And, yes, they were enemies. Yes, their research was intended to develop ever more potent weaponry to be used against the outside world. But, first, last and always, they were technological pioneers who set the stage for an era not even visionaries like Robert H. Goddard could have foreseen. The lethal hazards they faced on a daily basis were not the bullets of Allied soldiers but the unknown dangers of pushing aircraft technology beyond known boundaries.
Without the technological breakthroughs that were central to the success of the Messerschmitt 163 Komet programme, the modern jet age would have advanced far more slowly. In a huge leap forward for modern fighter development, the Komet programme compressed decades of research into a few years of intense wartime effort. Rudy Opitz, still an active glider pilot in Connecticut, was a central figure in the testing and development of the Kometarguably the most advanced fighter of WW II. He was there when the era of modern fighter aircraft was born. He knows and remembers how it happened.
When Rudy arrived at the Deutsche Forschungs Institut für Segelflug (German Research Institute for Glider Flight) in the spring of 1936 to enter it's glider school, he had already been a glider pilot and instructor for some years. His ability soon came to the attention of Alexander Lippisch, the designer of the Me-163, and Heini Dittmar, Lippischs chief test pilot. Rudy eventually became a key member of the Lippisch Deltas flight-test team.
When, in the Spring of 1941, the Generalluftzeug-meister (Director of Luftwaffe Equipment) Ernst Udet (Udet was also a WWI Ace) observed Dittmar make a low- altitude pass at over 400 mph (643.6 km/h) in the Komet 163B, he could hardly believe the plane had no engine. When Dittmar flew the first rocket- powered test flight in August, Udet realised another test pilot would be needed and called Rudy to ask if he would be interested in rejoining Lippischs delta-wing research team. Rudy, who had been unofficially managing the Luftwaffes assault glider programme (where he was awarded the Iron Cross, 1st Class, for valour), at first thought it was a prank by his friends that someone as high ranking as Udet might be calling. He accepted the offer with elation and rejoined the team at Peenemünde-West.
After World War II Opitz joined the U.S. Air Force aeronautical research effort at Wright Field. He was awarded a special commendation for his design and testing of a rigid tow mechanism for U.S. glider operations.
Despite it's draw backs about 370 Komet's were produced & proved a series threat to the allies. Able to out perform any of their escort fighters it caused heavy losses amongst US daylight bomber raids. It remains to this day the only mass produced rocket fighter in the world.
The sole operational Komet group, JG 400, scored 9 enemy kills while losing 14 of its own aircraft.
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