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The Epic Failure of the Rocket Powered Messerschmitt Me-163 Komet

Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his many interests and his favorite topic.

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Karma works in mysterious ways. And in the case of the Nazi Germany, it was Hitler’s own obsessions with futuristic killing toys that helped topple such evil regime. The world should be thankful that the Fuhrer pushed the developments of Wunderwaffe, or wonder weapons, to help them turn the tide of war after the Allies gained the upper hand. It looked good on paper, with design concepts exceeding the performance of existing technology of that time. In reality, testing and developments of such revolutionary hardware required time and lengthy period of works, something the Nazi Germany never had. And the cost, from money to manpower drained their resources. Hitler should just push for more conventional bombers, tanks, ships and fighters that could yield realistic tactical advantages, not underdeveloped exotic toys. There are few successful designs and it were the Allies that benefited the most with those captured technology. And as a friend noted, it was this particular aircraft that perfectly summed up the Wunderwaffe in a nutshell.

Rocket powered planes with blinding speed were the stuffs of science fiction, and the Nazi Germany successfully fielded one, in the shape of the Messerschmitt Me-163 Komet. It was meant to intercept incoming planes, with their speed unmatched by any Allied bombers or fighters. The concept looks good, but real-life performance showed disappointing results.

How It Started

The DFS-194.

The DFS-194.

The idea behind the Messerschmitt ME 163 Komet was to build an aircraft that could outperform existing fighters and bombers. And during those time, Alexander Martin Lippisch, a German aeronautical engineer was working on the DFS-194. Now, Lippisch was known for his delta wings and tailless aircrafts, and the DFS-194 was based on these configurations, and during March 1938, he already completed an airframe. It then attracted the interest of the RLM (Reichsluftfahrtministerium), the aviation ministry of Nazi Germany. They felt they just found what they were looking for, with the tailless aircraft being the best fit for a rocket plane. Lippisch and his team then found themselves working for the company Messerschmitt (January 2, 1939), where they were involved in Project X. They fitted the DFS-194 with a Walter R 1-203 rocket engine, and were tested for engine functionality and glides.

And finally in August 1940, it was ready for powered flight, and the rocket propelled DFS 194 reached the speed of 550 km/h with Heini Dittmar as test pilot. It had issues with engine reliability, but the aircraft was reported to have excellent performance. It was ready to evolve into a more refined design, the Messerschmitt ME 163 Komet.

The Komet

The Messerschmitt Me-163 Komet

The Messerschmitt Me-163 Komet

With the success of the rocket powered DFS-194, production of prototypes started on 1941. The first of these, the Me0163A was fitted with a HWK RII-203 engine. It then set a world speed record, when it flew at 1004.5 km/h with Heini Dittmar in control again. Even during the unpowered flight, its gliding ability enabled safe landing.

Being a prototype, the Me-163A was not meant for mass production due to the complex airframe. Hence its production version, the Me-163B was introduced. This time the airframe design has simplified construction, while further improvements was made, especially in the landing gear. With a smaller size than conventional fighters, using retractable wheels to land was out of the question, as it lacks the available space to accommodate such mechanism. Plus, landing gears could affect the plane’s aerodynamics (not to mention its limited fuel capacity and weight), hence jettisonable undercarriages were used instead. The problem with the prototype was that the wheels used springs for suspensions, which threw the undercarriage upward during takeoff and hitting the aircraft. The production model used simpler dollies, and a retractable landing skid to absorb the shock of impact during takeoff and landing. Another remarkable feature was the propeller on its nose. It was not meant to power its flight, but act as an air turbine to supply the electrical power.

For weapons, it carried a pair of MK 108 cannons.

Pilot Hazards

A pilot ejecting from a Komet.

A pilot ejecting from a Komet.

Flying an untested technology had its risks, and many pilots died during the testing of this rocket plane. Going back to the landing gear, it won’t cause pilot deaths, but the skids could inflict injury to the pilot. In the unfortunate instances where the hydraulic cylinders of the skids malfunctioned, or left in the takeoff position, it cannot properly absorb the impact of landing. Hence the hard touchdown may cause back injuries to the pilot. Overall, the Komet, so elegant when flying in the air were immobile on the ground, and had to be towed by a modified tractor.

But a faulty landing skids were the least of the pilot’s worries.

An exotic plane needed an exotic fuel. A very volatile exotic fuel in this case. The liquid propellant in use here was called the C-Stoff, a cocktail of methanol and hydrazine hydrate. A hydrogen peroxide-based solution called T-Stoff was used to oxidize the C-Stoff. To the uninitiated, the names suggested a highly dangerous chemical mixture. They are right. They were corrosive, toxic and volatile when mixed, even at room temperature. Special suits were needed when ground crews handled the chemicals, while they employed separate fuel trucks when they fuel the plane. What was more unsettling was that the fuel was stored behind and next to the cockpit, with the pilot sitting so near to the dangerous chemicals. And there were cases where an Me-163 just burst into flame. And just to answer the question if a pilot died during an accident, yes, and in a horrific way.

Aircrafts were already lost, even before it flew into combat. Casualties during training and testing includes ten unfortunate pilots, thanks in part to the dangerous rocket fuel. In one notorious case, a fuel line ruptured, and the leaking chemical dissolved pilot Overleutnant Josef Pohs.

Performance

A Komet with the engine firing.

A Komet with the engine firing.

At first, the Komet’s incredible speed was a shock to the Allied fighter pilots. They had no way to counter such fast-flying plane. The Komet’s battle tactic involved attacking on its own or in pairs, doing hit and run dives in a bomber formation while. It then glided back unpowered to the airfield.

It first saw action in July 28, 1944 where it engaged two B-17 flying fortress, though no confirmed kills were made. It eventually scored kills, with Siegrfried Schubert shooting 3 bombers. But throughout the operations that continued from May 1944, to 1945, ten Me 163s was already lost, against the nine confirmed kills in the enemy side.

The problem here was that this plane sacrificed endurance over speed. Rocket engines were not known for their flight time, and Komet pilots reported that they could only do four passes on a bomber, before the fuel runs out. Because of its short flight time, the Komet was limited to being a point interceptor. Allied fighter pilots soon saw this weakness, and they took advantage of the unpowered aircraft once it drained its fuel. The Komet’s landing on skids never helped either. The plane was immobile once it landed, and relied on tractors to haul it away. This made it vulnerable, and Allied pilots would track the returning Komet before shooting it as it landed.

Then, there were the guns it carried.

The twin MK 108 cannons lacked long range and accuracy, thanks to its low muzzle velocity. Though it could destroy a fighter with a single shot, and a bomber with five shells, it was impractical to use when flying at high speeds. The Komet pilot only had 2.5 seconds to aim and fire at his target, before he passed them in a dive. Shortage of C-Stoff fuel caused by Allied bombing kept many of the Komets grounded.

Overall, the Komet never left an impressive record. It did bring down 16 Allied planes, but only nine was confirmed. On the other hand, about six or nine Komets were lost during combat, with another nine due to accidents. It soon fell out of favor, with the more practical jet-powered Me-262 being preferred.

In the end, the Komet was the Wunderwaffe in a nutshell. Loud, hyped, complex, but impractical.

References

  1. Ziegler, Mano. Rocket Fighter: The Story of the Messerschmitt Me 163. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1976.
  2. Späte, Wolfgang. Top Secret Bird: Luftwaffe's Me-163 Komet. Missoula, Montana: Pictorial Histories Publishing Co., 1989.
  3. Roblin, Sebastien (17 March 2020). "Meet the Only Rocket Fighter Ever Made: The Nazi's Me-163 "Komet"," The National Interest.


Comments

Mamerto Adan (author) from Cabuyao on May 03, 2021:

Well, Iqra, Singh, on the bright side it contributed to future aircraft technologies.

Iqra from East County & Cooking and Baking Expert on May 02, 2021:

The Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet is a German interceptor aircraft designed for point-defense that is the only rocket-powered fighter aircraft ever to have been operational and the first piloted aircraft of any type to exceed 1000 km/h (621 mph) in level flight.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on May 02, 2021:

Very interesting article. Pity it was not a practical success

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