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Messerschmitt Me 163

Messerschmitt Me 163B-1
Crewone, pilot
Length18 ft 8 in5.70 m
Wingspan30 ft 7 in9.33 m
Height9 ft2.75 m
Wing area18.50 m²
Empty4,191 lbs1,905 kg
Maximum take-off9,500 lbs4,310 kg
Engines1x Walter 109-509A-2 rocket
Power3,750 lbs1,700 kg
Maximum speed596 mph960 km/h
Combat range80 km/h
Ferry range
Service ceiling39,700 ft12,100 m
Guns2x 30 mm MK 108
The Me 163 Komet was the first (and last) operational rocket fighter aircraft. It required a lengthy development process and entered the war in a very limited fashion only in 1944.

Prior to the start of World War II, Hellmuth Walter[?] had started experimenting with the use of hydrogen peroxide as a fuel for various engines. The fuel was particularly useful as a rocket fuel, as it would "ignite" (although it was actually just decomposing) simply by being passed through a metal catalyst. That meant that one could build an engine with nothing more than a pump and a tube with a wire mesh in it.

However the engine had very real problems being scaled up to any useful size. Although a number of missiles and RATO systems would eventually be built using this engine design, any aircraft based on it would have to be very light weight. At the same time the fuel consumption of the engine was such that the plane would also require a huge internal volume for the tankage. This appeared to be a catch-22.

Enter Alexander Lippisch[?]. Lippisch had been working for a number of years on tail-less glider designs. Without a tail the gliders were smaller and lighter than their more conventional counterparts, although they required to the wing to be "bent back" in order to be stable. Although Lippisch had not invented the design with rocket power in mind, a tail-less aircraft could be built with much larger internal volume and still have the same drag as a smaller conventional design. Combining the Walter rocket with a larger Lippisch glider seemed to offer the potential to create a powerful short range rocket interceptor.

Works started under the aegis of the DSF[?], the German aeronautics institute. They produced a number of designs using an early cold engine under the name DSF 246. When work had progressed to the point that it was likely to reach production, the effort was moved to Messerschmitt and became the Me 163. Secrecy was such that the number, 163, was actually that of an earlier project to produce a small two-passenger light plane, as it was thought that intelligence services would conclude any reference to the number would be for that earlier design.

Me 163A

Me 163A-1
The first Me 163A models were essentially cleaned up DSF planes, and started production in 1941. At this point in time the engine was nowhere near ready. A small number of flights took place as gliders to test airworthiness, and then powered flights started. The flights could not be considered wildly successful, the engines tended to explode rather easily and the aircraft was difficult to land. Nevertheless, between the mishaps the performance was clearly untouchable and plans were made to put Me 163 squadrons all over Germany in 25 mile rings.

Me 163B

Me 163B-1
The wheels used for takeoff can be
seen dropping away from the plane
Meanwhile Walter had started work on a newer hot engine which added a fuel of hydrazine hydrate[?] and methanol that burned with the oxygen-rich exhaust for added thrust. This resulted in the slightly modified Me 163B of late 1941. Once again the engine would prove to be nowhere near ready for use, and it would be another two years before the B models would be ready for widespread testing.

As good as the performance was, it was also clear that the 163 was a rather impractical aircraft. Based on a glider, the plane landed on a small skid running down the centerline of the plane. This might work for a slow plane, but the 163 was nothing of the sort. Landings were often very hard with the pilots injuring their backs, and minor upsets on landing could cause the plane to tip over and clip a wingtip and go spinning down the field. Even if the pilot did manage to land the plane OK, it was immobile on the field until it could be towed away. Another major concern was the short flight time. With only 8 minutes of powered flight, the plane truly was an interceptor and nothing more.

Nevertheless the plane was astonishing in flight. After take-off from a dolly it would be going over 200mph at the end of the runway, at which point it would pull up into an 80 degree climb all the way to the bomber's altitude. It could go even higher if need be, reaching 40,000ft in an unheard-of three minutes. Once there it would level off and quickly accelerate to speeds around 550mph or faster, which no allied plane could hope to match.

Operations first started in 1944. As expected the plane was simply untouchable and for a time the allied fighters were at a complete loss as what to do about it. In fact the plane often climbed to the bombers faster than the opposing fighters could dive in an attempt to intercept them. But that high speed was to prove a problem in that they were never able to make a truly effective weapon for the plane, one that could fire fast enough to allow it to kill a bomber before running right past it.

It wasn't long before the allied pilots noted the extremely short lifetime of the powered flight. They simply waited it out, and as soon as the engine went off they would hunt them down. They also quickly identified the fields the planes operated from, and started shooting them up after they landed. More of the planes were being lost than pilots could be trained on them, and it was clear that the original plan for a huge network of 163 bases was never going to happen.

Attempts were made to address these issues, culminating eventually in the Me 263. This included a new version of the engine with a smaller "cruise" chamber which was tuned to be most efficient at lower power. The new engine allowed the plane to have 12 minutes of powered flight, roughly doubling the time at combat altitudes. It also included tricycle landing gear for better takeoff and landing, a "bubble" canopy for better visibility, a pressurized cockpit and a host of other improvements. However the design was pursued slowly and never reached operational status.

In any operational sense the Komet was a failure. More were lost to landing accidents than they ever accounted for in bomber kills, which stands at only 16. But at the same time the Komet was a successful design in pointing the way to the future. It was one more piece of strong evidence that the day of the propeller fighter was over, and it also spawned improved weapons like the Bachem Ba 349 Natter and Convair F-92[?].

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