The Smithsonian's Me-163
This Me-163 and its Place at the Center
The Smithsonian’s Messerschmitt Me-163 Komet, Serial Number 191301, is on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Dulles, Virginia. It is in a niche at the entrance of the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar. The niche is adjacent to where the other World War II Luftwaffe aircraft are displayed. The nearest Luftwaffe aircraft to it is a Dornier Do-335 Pfeil. The Me-163 was the fastest airplane built by Germany during World War II. The Do-335 was the fastest piston engine airplane the Germans built during the conflict. The Komet was well over 100 miles per hour faster than the Pfeil.
The Komet is dwarfed by the SR-71 Blackbird that is in front of it. Together these two aircraft illustrate how much aviation progressed from 1944-1964. The SR-71 was 4 times faster and had a service ceiling over 25,000 feet higher.
Inside the McDonnell Space Hangar is the Space Shuttle Discovery. Like the Me-163 the Discovery took off on rocket power and glided to a landing. They both had enough fuel for 8 minutes of rocket power. The Komet’s engines provided 3,800 pounds of static thrust. The Discovery’s engines provided a combined static thrust of 7 million pounds.
The Me-163 in Combat
Major Wolfgang Spate flew the first combat mission for a Me-163 on May 13, 1944. A “flame out” and running out of fuel made his two attempts at 8th Air Force P-47s unsuccessful. Major Spate then glided safely to base. The 737 8th Air Force fighters claimed 73 German aircraft shot down on that day for a loss of 9 fighters and 12 bombers[i]. Over the next year Me-163s occasionally attacked allied aircraft. Me-163s shot down very few aircraft, probably no more than 16. In 1944 the Me-163 fighter wing, JG-400, lost 6 Komet’s to enemy aircraft and 9 to accidents.
The worst day for the Komet was November 2, 1944. The 8th Air Force shot down 4 Me-163s, P-51s shot down 2 and B-17s shot down 2, and three of its pilots were killed. The Komets only claimed 1 B-17. Conventional Luftwaffe fighters scored more kills but at a much greater cost. The 8th Air Force shot down over 100 Luftwaffe fighters. The 3 Komet pilots were among the 70 German pilots killed. Another 28 pilots were injured.[ii] The U.S. 8th Air Force lost 40 bombers and another two were damaged beyond repair.[iii] Another 583 bombers returned damaged. The 8th Air Force lost 16 fighters. This was the first time in over a month the Luftwaffe had seriously challenged the 8th Air Force. The Luftwaffe launched 305 sorties against the 8th Air Force. U.S. fighters prevented other German fighters from taking off.[iv] The 8th Air Force decisively won the battle but with 559 of its airmen killed or captured and another 26 wounded it was a bad day for all sides. Two days later the 8th Air Force launched 1,160 bomber and 890 fighter sorties.[v] The Luftwaffe didn’t attack the 8th Air Force in significant numbers until November 21. That battle was also a crushing defeat for the Luftwaffe.
On April 22, 1945, RAF Bomber Command launched 767 aircraft against Bremen.[vi] Oberleutnant Franz Woidich challenged this armada in a Me-163. Woidich shot down an RAF Lancaster. This was the final air victory for him, his 110th, and probably the last Me-163 victory. The RAF lost 2 Lancasters on this raid.
In May 1945 British forces captured the Smithsonian’s Me-163, and a number of others at the ME-163 base in Husun, Germany. On May 3, 1946 a B-29 Superfortress towed the Smithsonian’s Me-163 above 30,000 feet then released it. Major Gustav E. Lundquist glided the Komet to a landing. The US abandoned plans to have this Me-163 make a take-off on its own power after delamination of the wings was discovered.
The Komet has the distinction of being the only rocket fighter ever used in combat. The Me-163’s significance is not in air combat but as a step along the way to supersonic and space flight. On July 6, 1944 Rudolf Opitz reached 702 miles per hour in a Me-163.[vii] This happened when the aircraft exceeded its critical Mach and went into a dive. Opitz brought his Komet out of its dive just in time. Most of the aircraft’s rudder was torn off.
[i] Might Eighth War Diary by Roger A. Freeman © 1981 Roger A. Freeman, P. 243/244,
[ii] JG26: Top Guns of the Luftwaffe by Donald L. Caldwell© 1991 by Donald L. Caldwell.
[iii] Mighty Eighth War Diary by Roger A. Freeman© 1981 Roger A. Freeman, P. 375.
[iv] JG26: Top Guns of the Luftwaffe by Donald L. Caldwell© 1991 by Donald L. Caldwell.
[v] Mighty Eighth War Diary by Roger A. Freeman© 1981 Roger A. Freeman, P. 376.
[vi] The Bomber Command War Diaries: An Operational Reference Book: 1939-1945, by Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt © 1985 Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt, P. 699.
[vii] Warplanes of the Third Reich by William Green © 1970 William Green, P. 604.
Me-163, Me-262, He-162 Stats
Rate of Climb
Robert Sacchi (author) on August 05, 2018:
Getting people to volunteer to do dangerous jobs doesn't seem to be a problem. After the war a British test pilot wanted to fly the Komet. He got the captured ground crew to help get the plane ready after he gave them signed statements saying they were acting under orders. German test pilot Hanna Reich was very upset when she was told she wouldn't be allowed to fly the plane under power. This decision was made after a pilot was killed in a Komet crash.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on August 05, 2018:
It is amazing after reading your last comment that any pilot would have wanted that job! Perhaps all of them were ordered to pilot those aircraft and did not have a chance to decline "the offer." That...or they were daredevils!
Robert Sacchi (author) on April 03, 2018:
That's not the 1/2 of it. The rocket engine ran on 2 types of chemicals. The only thing separating them was 3/8" of aluminum. If they came together BOOM! The chemicals were also corrosive so the pilots had to wear special suits so they wouldn't melt if there was a leak.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 02, 2018:
Amazing! Those pilots must have had nerves of steel when piloting these aircraft!
Robert Sacchi (author) on April 02, 2018:
Exactly, it was strictly point defense. It would take off, fly to the bombers' altitude within 3 minutes. Then it had 5 minutes to make its intercept and put enough distance between itself and the escorting fighters before running out of fuel. Then there is about a half hour glide back to base. It used a skid rather then wheels to land.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 02, 2018:
That Me-163 Komet is an odd looking aircraft. After reading that it was rocket powered and would glide to a landing it made more sense when just looking at your photos. With only 8 minutes of rocket power it must have been used for very targeted areas.