The Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet

Germany
Germany

side view front view under view

There is probably no other plane of the Second World War that has aroused more discussions and contradictory points of view than the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet. It was a truly remarkable and unique design, and the first operational aircraft in the world that was powered by a rocket motor. Some people therefor view the Komet as one of the best aircraft of World War 2, while others regard it as one the the greatest failures.
During the rise to power of the Nazi's in Germany there was strong belief that a manned aircraft powered by a rocket was a feasible and useful weapon. In 1936 therefor the Helmuth Walter company received a contract to develop a small liquid-propellant rocket. This rocket would feature in many tests where it would be fitted to wingtips of a conventional aircraft to test roll characteristics. This small device which had an output of 88 lb st (0,39 kN) proved very successful and led to the application in many areas like increasing climb rates and shortening take-offs of propeller driven aircraft. Also it was rendered possible to have an aircraft whose primary powerplant was a rocket engine. A larger engine was built to power the Heinkel He 176 experimental aircraft: the Walter R I-203 rocket, rated at 882 lb st (3,92 kN). Supervisors of this project, Dr. Adolf Bäumker and Dr. Lorenz, felt that the Heinkel He 176 was too conventional of layout, and suggested that a smaller design would use the potential of the engine better. The task to design such airframe was put in the hands of the Deutsches Forschungsinstitut für segelflug, a research institute specialised in gliders. At the institute Dr. Alexander Lippisch was employed, who was specialised in tailless aircraft. He suggested to use the DFS 38 Delta Ivc two-seat research aircraft, which was powered at the time by a small radial engine with a pusher propeller. The design was in wood, however, and would have been unable to accomodate the rocket and it's fuel.
Under great secrecy the German air ministry therefor ordered Heinkel to construct a metal fuselage, while DFS would build the wooden flying surfaces. This was called Project X. Windtunnel tests on the resulting frame suggested that the straight wing would be changed to a moderately swept wing, and the endplate vertical surfaces be changed to central ones for improved directional stability and Yaw/Roll characteristics. The changes eventually were so big that the design was designated the DFS 194. It would be powered by a piston engine to test the swept delta layout of the aircraft.
Problems with Heinkel, and the rigidly imposed security made a creative work atmosphere impossible, and late in 1938 Lippisch decided to move to Messerschmitt together with his 12-man strong design team. There the project was named Messerschmitt Me 163.
In the meantime Heinkel had completed it's He 176 design, and started flight tests. These were disappointing, to say the least. The aircraft was unable to leave the ground until the wings were enlarged. After that, it was able to reach a disstrous slow speed of only 217.5 mph (350 km/h) in stead of the anticipated 621 mph (1000 km/h) before running out of fuel. This prompted the Reichsluftfahrt Ministerium (RLM) to cancel the project. Also the Me 163 project received a much lower priority. Nevertheless the DFS 194 was completed, with an all-wood structure, and powered by 1 × Walter R I-203 rocket engine, rated at 882 lb st (3,92 kN). This rocket was powered by 2 fluids, known as T-stoff (80% hydrogen peroxide stabilised with oxyquinoline or phosphate) and Z-stoff (a solution of calcium permanganate in water). Although the fuselage needed to be revised in some ways, trials showed that the aircraft could reach a maximum speed of 342 mph (550 km/h), and possessed an incredible rate of climb.
Meanwhile Walter had come up with a new version of it's engine, the Walter R II-203b rocket motor, rated at 1,653 lb st (7,355 kN). This engine was primarily meant for use as a RATO (Rocket Assisted Take Off) unit, while they were working on a throttlable version that would deliverd 3,307 lb st (14,71 kN). The project gained momentum once more, as 4 additional prototypes were built, and plans were laid out for the production of the Me 163B that would be powered with the engine that was currently under development.
During the spring of 1941 the first trials were performed with the Me 163 V1, as a glider. Aerodynamically it was excellent, and revealed excellent gliding characteristics. Some aileron and rudder flutter was cured by rebalancinf those surfaces. In the summer to follow two prototypes (V1 and V4 were selected and shipped to Peenemünde, to be fitted with the Walter R II-203b rocket motor.

Versions:

Further pictures:

Side view of an Me 163 Komet
Side view of an Me 163 Komet

Front view of an Me 163 Komet. Note the tiny propeller on the nose.
Front view of an Me 163 Komet. Note the tiny propeller on the nose.

 

Technical data on the Meeserschmitt Me 163B-1a Komet
Powerplant 1 × Walter HWK 109-509A-2 liquid propellant rocket, rated at 3748 lb st (16.67 kN) dry Role during war
  • Fighter
Length 19 ft 2.33 inch Height 9 ft 0.67 inch
Empty weight 4190 lb Operational weight 9502 lb max
Wing Span 30 ft 7.33 inch Wing Aspect ratio 4.705
Wing Area 199.13 sq ft Service ceiling 39370 ft
Maximum speed 593 mph at 9845 ft Cruising speed unknown
Initial climb rate 15,950 ft per min.
Climb to 30,000 ft in 2 min 36 sec
Range 22 miles max
Fuel capacity internal 336 Imp gal (404 US gal) Fuel capacity external -
Machine guns - Cannons
  • 2 × 30 mm MK 108 fixed forward-firing in the wing roots, 60 rounds each, or
  • 2 × 20 mm MG 151/20 fixed forward-firing in the wing roots, 100 rounds each
Bomb load - Torpedoes/rockets -
Crew 1 Naval or ground based Ground
First flight (prototype) 13 August 1941 Operational Service late 1944 - 1945
Manufacturer Messerschmitt A.G. Number produced 343+ total, about 320 this version.
Metric system
Length 5.85 m Height 2.76 m
Empty weight 1901 kg Operational weight 4310 kg max
Wing Span 9.33 m Wing Aspect ratio 4.705
Wing Area 18.5 m² Service ceiling 12000 m
Maximum speed 954 km/h at 3001 m Cruising speed unknown
Initial climb rate 4.862 m per min.
Climb to 9.145 m in 2 min 36 sec
Range 35 km max
Fuel capacity internal 1.530 liters Fuel capacity external -
Machine guns - Cannons
  • 2 × 30 mm MK 108 fixed forward-firing in the wing roots, 60 rounds each, or
  • 2 × 20 mm MG 151/20 fixed forward-firing in the wing roots, 100 rounds each
Bomb load - Torpedoes/rockets -

Here is a quick overview of all different versions, without the full technical specifications:

Different versions of the Messerschmitt Me 163  Komet
Messerschmitt Me 163A prototype series. This version was used as a rocket test series. The first manned rocket powered aircraft ever built was the Me 163 V1 Komet, which took off on 13 August 1941 at Karlshagen. The speed attained on this first flight was over 497 mph (800 km/h), even when there was no intention of reaching a high speed. That this quick ride was full of dangers is probably the understatement of the century. The Komet took off on an unsprung dolly that was ejected. Every bump on the road could cause a premature take-off or worse. The liquids used for the rocket were so dangerous that small leaks into the cockpit could be deadly. The pilot had to wear a special suit to be free of fumes. The liquid were also very unstable, causing many explosions later on the program. And then there was the ghost of compressibility. During a later testflight on 2 October 1941, the Komet was towed to 13,125 ft (4.000 m) by a Bf 110. The engine was ignited, and after acceleration the pilot lost control of the aircraft as the nose dropped suddenly and violently. It was probably the first flight where an aircraft in level flight was near the speed of sound.
The fuels were changed during the test program. The initial Z-stoff (a solution of calcium permanganate in water) was replaced by C-stoff (30% hydrazine hydrate, 57% methyl alcohol, 13% water), a very toxic substance. Tests with this combination twice ended abruptly when the motors exploded with such force that the testbuilding in which the engine was housed was destroyed completely. And this wasn't even during take-off, the most critical part of the flight. The engines that were under test with the new fuels were Walter R II-211 throttlable rocket engines, later known as Walter HWK 109-509A
The second most critical time of the flight was the landing. Because it was a glider in essence, it reacted strongly to winds. If the Komet wasn't dead into the wind it would slew around and maybe even overturn. The rudder was useless at low speeds. Like with take-offs, any bump on the surface could cause troubles.
Number built: 6
Messerschmitt Me 163A-0 pre-production aircraft These aircraft were used as trainers for future Me 163B pilots.
Number built: 10
Messerschmitt Me 163B-0 Komet With the Me 163B version the first operational version was created. The Me 163B differed in some respects from the Me 163A versions. This version was armed with 2 × 20 MG 151/20 cannon. Directional control was exercised by a more conventional rudder, and pitch and roll were controlled by the elevons.
The Me 163B had a fuel consumption of 11.02 lb (5 kg) T-stoff per second. A powered endurance of 12 minutes was required, but the initially planned tanks were inadequate. When designing the tanks it was estimated that the T-stoff consumption would be a mere 6.06 lb (2,75 kg) per second, which meant that the T-stoff tanks of the Me 163B needed to contain 255 Imp gal (306 US gal, 1.160 liters). Additionally 108 Imp gal (130 US gal, 492 liters) of C-stoff was stored in four wing tanks. The initial fuel consumption estimates meant that the Komet was able to climb three minutes at full throttle to 39,370 ft (12.000 m), whereupon the engine would be throttled back to turn the remaining nine minutes of full-throttle power into 30 minutes of throttled-back cruising power at 590 mph (950 km/h) for a tactical radius of 149 miles (240 km). Needless to say that the increased fuel consumption meant that this was impossible.
6 prototypes and 70 pre-production aircraft (Me 163B-0) were ordered, of which 30 of the latter batch were used as test aircraft with Versuchs numbers (V1, V2, etc). Since the rocket engine was still in it's bench running tests, the first flight trials were made in the form of glider flights. When the engine finally became available, it was already the summer of 1943.
Number built: 70
Messerschmitt Me 163Ba-1 Komet The remainder of the pre-production aircraft that wasn't used in the development program were used for service evaluation and training. These were later redesignated Me 163a-1 Komet.
Redesignated aircraft
Messerschmitt Me 163B1-a Komet This was the first true production batch. The Me 163B1-a's were armed with 2 × 30 mm MK 108 fixed forward-firing in the wing roots, 60 rounds each. Because Allied bombing raids had already destroyed a cache of airframes production was widely dispersed, all major components being transported by guarded trains to a safe spot in the Schwarzwald (Black Forest). There the aircraft were put together.From there they were transported by sealed wagons to Lechfeld, a test flight center. Because of this difficult construction process it was not until February 1944 that the first Me 163B1-a made it's first flight. By July 1944 only 16 aircraft were accepted by the Luftwaffe.
Number built: about 250
Messerschmitt Me 163S This version was a tandem two-seat trainer for training pilots the gliding aspects of the Komet. In place of the main T-stoff tank there was another seat for the instructor, in a raised cockpit.. The C-stoff tanks were used for water ballast.
Number built: unknown (a few).
Messerschmitt Me 163C This version was fitted with an improved engine. The Walter HWK 509C-1 motor had a main and cruise thrust chamber. Only 2 prototypes and 3 production aircraft were built
Number built: 5
Messerschmitt Me 163D New design with a real tricycle landing gear and many other (unspecified) improvements.
Number built: 1
Messerschmitt Me 263 Redesignation of the Messerschmitt Me 163D
Redesignated aircraft
DFS 194 The DFS 194 was the forefather of the Me 163. It was a glider in which protoversions of the rocket engine could be tested to see how stability and control of the new design were. This aircraft stood model for the airframe of the Me 163 Komet. Extensive glidertests were performed, proving that a tailless layout could work for the Me 163.
Number built: 1
Heinkel He 176 Initially Heinkel was to build the all-metal fuselage design that was based on the DFS 194, with flight trial results incorporated. DFS had only experience in wooden aircraft, so another manufacturer had to be selected to build it. Actually, Heinkel didn't build the metal fuselage, but their own design aof a rocket powered aircraft, the Heinkel He 176. The first flight showed such desastrous performance that the whole concept of rocket powered aircraft was almost completely dropped.
Number built: 1
Junkers Ju 248 No further information except that it was similar to the Me 163D or Me 263. The Ju 248 was flown only as a glider.
Number built: 1
Mitsubishi J8M Shusui (Sword Stroke) This was a Japanese copy of the Me 163. It was built without detailed drawings, and the single example that was flown crashed on it's maiden flight with a wheels up landing.
Number built: 1

Remarks:

In operations the Me 163 was a complete disaster. It failed totally to live up to any expectation, except that it was the fastest ride through the skies. Many pilots were severely injured when their Komet took off too bouncy, or landed too hard. The skids were only able to soften the touch down little, and an improved cushioning seat also was only a token measure. The pilots that ended up with their spine in shambles were actually the lucky ones, for a great deal of the aircraft blew up in a violent explosion.
The very short range of the aircraft was enough for point defense, but also hampered in making the aircraft a succesful interceptor, it's intended role. Furthermore it didn't actually help that the development of the rocket engine was beset with problems, delaying the entry to operational status time and again.
The first major engament took place on 28 July 1944. Before that the Komet was seldom encountered, and than mostly a single aircraft performing flight tests. On the 28th of June, however, 6 Komets took off from Brandis to intercept a fleet of 596 B-17's heading for the Leuna-Merseburg oil complex. No hits were scored, let alone kills, because of the very high closing speeds.
Another major engagement took place on 16 August 1944, when 5 Komets engaged 1.096 heavy bombers. The first Komet to reach the bombers was hit by a B-17's tail gunner. Another Komet scored hits on a B-17 of the 305th BG, but was subsequently shot out of the sky by a P-51 Mustang.
Finally, on 24 August 1944 Komets succeeded in taking down some bombers. One Komet, flown by Feldwebel Siegfried Schubert destroyed two B-17's while other Komets destroyed two other B-17's. Schubert was later killed in a take-off explosion because of problems with the dolly.
After the war the records of the Komets were assessed, and the sad balance was made. It turned out that 80 percent of Komet losses were due to take-off or landing accidents. 15 percent of the losses were due to compressibility in dives, or due to fires in the air. Only 5 percent of the losses were due to combat. Only one unit was able to engage the enemy on a more or less regular basis. I/JG 400 claimed 9 bombers, and lost 14 aircraft in doing so.
Retrospectively, the enormous amount of development, money, pilots and resources needed to get the Komet to operational status is in no way on par with the 9 kills it eventually scored. I can only conclude that the Komet was the utter failure when seen in the light of returns on investment.

Strengths:

Weaknesses:

 

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© by Frans Bonné, 2000
Last revision: 5/20/01