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Hitler's Pocket Rocket: The Messerschmitt 163 Komet Interceptor

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(Pic from learning-history.com)

 

 

 

The story of the Messerschmitt 163 Komet begins in 1938 with aerodynamic research conducted by Dr Alexander Lippisch with two gliders developed by the German Institute for Glider Research (Deutsches Forschunginstitut für Segelflug), the DFS 39 and DFS 194. These gliders were of swept-wing design and tailless, and were to be the test bed for Lippisch to experiment with rocket propulsion and its effects on this type of aircraft design, with an eye on breaking the sound barrier. In terms of power plant, Lippisch turned to Walter for provision of a rocket engine similar to that which had been used for the experimental Heinkel-built He 176 which had already flown.

At the beginning of 1939, no doubt stimulated by the increasing likelihood of a war, the DFS 194, together with its design staff, was transferred to the Messerschmitt company in Augsberg where Lippisch began work on the design of a rocket-powered tailless swept-wing aircraft. At first, engine-less glide tests (the plane being towed aloft, and various glider sorties) were performed to prove the tailless swept-wing formula and hone the design of the aircraft, and with the success of these, rocket engines were fitted. Powered flight tests were carried out in the summer of 1941 at Peenemünde, starting in August, initially using the Walter R-II-203 rocket engine. With its extraordinary performance figures, military officials could not ignore the seeming possibilities of this aircraft and prototypes of the Me 163B were ordered on 1 December 1941. Thus, the single-engined, single-seat, Me 163 Komet rocket-powered interceptor was born. This was a small aircraft; the Me 163 B-A1 measured 5.69 m (18 ft 8 in) in length with a wingspan of 9.32 m (30 ft 7 in); its size and dumpy shape led pilots to nickname it “Kraft Ei” (Power Egg).

 

 

 

A Messerschmitt 163B interceptor on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force (top pic from upload.wikimedia.org, then from the National Museum of the US Air Force at media.defense.gov)

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Before moving on to discuss the Me 163 post development, it is important to mention the role of Heini Dittmar in perfecting the design of the Me 163; it was he who carried out vital flight tests on the aircraft, both in glider form and as a rocket-powered aircraft. Dittmar himself was a glider pilot who worked in aircraft design and testing during World War Two and became the first person to exceed 1,000 km/h. The exact speed he achieved in his Me 163 on 2 October 1941 was 1,0003.67 km/h (623.65 mph).

Deliveries of the first Me 163 production models began in early 1944. Due to delays with the supply of engines and the time required for testing and the training of pilots and ground crew, it was not until May 1944 that the  Me 163 was ready to be deployed as a daylight fighter against the B17s of the US Eighth Air Force. Because the recording of aerial victories all but ceased towards the end of the War, it is not known exactly how many bombers were shot down by the Me 163; confirmed kills numbered 9 (including 2 probables) while estimates vary from 20-60.

 

 

 

Cutaway illustration of Me 163B-1 by Steve Karp; HistoryNet at 263i3m2dw9nnf6zqv39ktpr1-wpengine.netdata-ssl.com)

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The role of the Me 163 in the Luftwaffe was necessarily restricted, mainly due to its performance characteristics. It’s clear advantage lay in its rate of climb and maximum speed, which were astonishing for the time. The initial rate of climb of the Me 163 B-1 was 80 m (252 ft) per second, and the plane could reach 12,000 m (39,370 ft) in just three minutes;  because the rocket engine did not rely on oxygen, the Me 163 could attain 16,000 m (52,500 ft), an altitude beyond the reach of all other co-current aircraft - with its engine running, it was virtually unstoppable. Nevertheless, the high speed of the Me 163 (maximum speed, 959 kph (596 mph) was not always an advantage:

Firstly, at the highest achievable speeds, air compressability became a problem and the Me 163 could then become difficult to control. And the second problem with the high speed of the aircraft occurred when encountering target bombers. In order to avoid ramming a target plane, the Me 163 was forced to veer away at a distance of 200 m (650 ft). The MK 108 30 mm canons (firing at 600 rounds per minute) fitted in the wing roots of the Me 163 (which replaced the original 2 MG 151 20mm canons) had a relatively short range, and it transpired that the pilot only had a window of just 450 m (1,480 ft) in which to fire, a distance covered by the Me 163 in one or two seconds. Pilots found that it was almost impossible to successfully take aim, and many of them missed when attacking US bombers. Interestingly, an alternative weapons system was developed for the Me 163 comprising five R4M 50 mm (1.97 in) rocket launchers mounted vertically in the root of each wing. When a light cell on top of the plane detected a target above, a salvo of rockets would be fired upwards. This innovative weapon, the “Jagfaust”, was never put into production but at least one B-17 bomber was shot down using it.

 

 

 

A series of archive photographs of the Me 163 Komet from the Luftwaffa World War Two archive site, luftarchiv.de/LuftArchiv.de:

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In addition to the rate of climb and the overall speed of the Me 163 while being powered by the rocket engine, the other performance parameter affecting its military role was the lack of range and endurance. The powered endurance of the engine was a mere 7.5 seconds (with a range of 80 km (50 miles)), which meant that the Me 163 had to be based either in the direct flight path of the enemy bomber streams or else in the vicinity of the object to be protected. After take-off, the Me 163s would climb to an interception altitude of 10,000 m (32,800 ft) and would then have a maximum of four minutes in which to attack. Walter subsequently developed a power plant with an additional cruise combustion chamber which extended the combat time to nine minutes, still extremely short, but the newly revised Me 163C with the new engine (and bubble canopy) came too late for full production and deployment. There was even, briefly, an Me 163D which finally did away with the jettisoned wheels in favour of a retractable undercarriage and featured a new Walter engine

The first fighter unit to recieve the Me 163 Komet was I Gruppe Jagdgeschwader 400, which was equipped with the Me 163 B-1A in May 1944 and transferred to Brandis airfield outside Leipzig to protect the Leuna chemical plant. A pre-production V series aircraft was the first Me 163 to fly operationally, in May 1944, but the first contact with enemy bombers was on 17 August 1944 when Brandis-based I Gruppe JG 400 made an unsuccessful attack on American B-17s. A second JG 400 squadron was formed and equipped with Me 163s and stationed in Venlo in the Netherlands. However, when it was discovered that no enemy bombers were taking that route to Germany, this second unit was also moved to Brandis. About 40 Komets and a similar number of pilots were now based at Brandis, and were additionally given responsibility for defending the Buna plant near Halle - meaning that the entire force of Me 163s was now devoted to protecting the manufacture of synthetic fuels vital to Germany’s war effort.

 

 

 

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An Me 163 being shot down, recorded by a gun camera

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( Above Pics from i.pinimg.com)

 

 

 

The engine powering the Me 163 B-1A Komet was a single Walter HWK-509-A1 liquid-fuel rocket producing 14.70 kN (3,305 lbf) thrust. This engine utilised a combustion chamber and blast pipe rather than simply a solid-fuel rocket; two extremely volatile liquid components - the oxidiser (or T-Stoff), a solution mainly consisting of hydrogen peroxide, and the fuel itself (the C-Stoff), a solution based on hydrazine hydrate and methanol - were brought into contact with each other in the combustion chamber, producing thrust via a jet nozzle. 

The Me 163 was not the great success that had been anticipated in view of the promising raw performance figures. In the event, the withdrawal of the Me 163 before the end of the War, with 470 having been built in total, came about primarily due to the practical problems encountered in adopting a pioneering rocket-engined fighter plane without resolving serious technical difficulties, some of which involved major safety concerns:

Firstly, there were design flaws in the practical considerations for landing and take-off. The Me-163 took off on a double-wheeled dolly jettisoned once the aircraft was in the air, and it landed on an extensible, sprung skid located forward of the centre of gravity. In take-off pilots could jettison their landing gear too early: the wheels sometimes bounced back and damaged the plane or even caused it to crash. As for landing, even though pilots wore some protection against contact with fuel (with one of the tanks being located behind the pilot’s head) they were constrained to use up all their fuel during the sortie in view of accidents caused by contact with the corrosive engine fuel on landing. Thus, the Me 163 would glide back to base (remember that the Me 163, with its plywood wings, was still in essence part glider) with empty tanks, at which point it was vulnerable to attack by Allied escort fighters. And vibration was a real problem generally, not merely the result of a bad landing, with explosions caused by fuel fumes building up in the cabin, and Me 163s were known to explode for no apparent reason.

 

 

 

Picture showing the "scheuch schlepper" or towing vehicle, used before takeoff and after landing (Pic from upload@wikimedia.org):

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The two-wheeled dolly that carried the Me 163B during takeoff before being jettisoned as the aircraft left the ground (Pic from upload@wikimedia.org)

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Secondly, there were real hazards when it came to refuelling the Me 163 and this procedure had to be carried out by specially trained staff under the safest conditions. If the two fuel components came together, even in small quantities, the result was an uncontrolled explosion, frequently lethal.

The Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet was both a taste of the future and simultaneously a dead-end. In terms of wing design, the plane was advanced and was prescient in featuring the swept-wing formula. Interestingly, Alexander Lippisch continued to be a pioneering aircraft  designer. His experience with the development of the ME 163 gave him a march on others towards the end of the War in researching the use of high-speed swept and delta which were to be crucial for later military aircraft in the age of the jet engine. In contrast to this prescience, the Me 163 was a dead-end in terms of aircraft engine development; rocket power was just not well-suited to the needs of aircraft - both military and civil - and it was to be jet engines that were the foretaste of things to come in terms of powered flight. It is ironic that an unsuccessful World War Two fighter built in rather small numbers should have been preserved to the extent that quite a few still exist; this is essentially a tribute to how advanced this aircraft was seen to be by the Allies that it required examples to be acquired for study, and how high speed and rapid rate of climb were sought by air forces the world over.

 

 

 

Ejection from an Me 163 (pic from ww2aircraft.net):

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Article title illustration, "Bat out of Hell" (Pic from historynet.com) :

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NOTE: When researching and writing topics of this nature, one often discovers slight discrepancies between sources in figures given for specifications such as size, top speed, range, dates, etc.. I have done my best here to be as consistent and accurate as possible when stating specifications but one cannot always verify which is the most accurate source.

 

 Acknowledgements: A number of sources were used in the writing of this article and particular thanks is due to the following two publications:

“Fighter: Technology, Facts, History”, by Ralph Leinburger; Parragon Books Ltd, Bath, 2008.

“Aircraft of World War II: A Visual Encyclopedia”, by Michael Sharpe, Jerry Scutts, and Dan March; Parkgate Books Ltd, London, 2000 (originally published in 1999 by PRC Publishing Ltd)



 

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Tip-top, I often wondered if they saw active service and I was very curious as to how they landed as I knew they had jettison wheels.  Thanks for that.

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