The Komet was not a war’s-end-crazy-idea born of desperation, as is often believed. The design actually began in the 1930s and the prototype was flown in 1941. The aircraft was the fastest operational aircraft in World War II both for speed and climb. It was the fastest operational aircraft of World War II, both in terms of speed and climb. It also presented, however, more danger to its pilot than any other aircraft flown operationally during WW II by any combatant (if Japan’s Baka Bomb is ignored). It was also a very ineffective weapon despite its high-tech design.
Germany’s high command, especially Hitler, was enamored with advanced technology. Der Führer was continually looking for newer, faster, bigger everything and micromanaged his side of the war to the point where he personally was responsible for much of the outcome. The Komet was one of those aircraft. The Komet was unique, promised blinding speed and looked like an affordable aerial killer that nobody could touch. So it was a “must-have”. The speed was indeed fast, but that proved to be only a small part of its appeal.
Alexander Lippisch was one of the many geniuses that Germany employed. His trademark was a highly swept wing with a vertical tail (no horizontal stabilizer). Lippisch first developed this concept for sailplanes and brought his knowledge to Messerschmitt to work on the Komet in 1939. He initially worked with a glider version to test the aerodynamics, but in 1941, the Me 163A V4 was shipped to Peenemünde, where the Messerschmitt HWK R11-203 rocket engine was installed. Heini dittmar, along with Heini in October of the same year
At the controls, this aircraft set a world record for absolute speed of 624mph. Dittmar, however, pushed his record up to 702mph in July 1944 with a Me 163B V18, powered by a modified version of the rocket motor. The tail of his aircraft was missing when he returned. Original motors only had 850 pounds thrust and seven and a quarter minutes of power, while the newer engines with 3,400 pounds of thrust could run for up to 12 or 13 minutes. It may seem absurdly short, but it was a very impressive flight profile.
An Me 163B-1, from takeoff, could reach 39,000 feet in less than three minute, far above most bomber formations. Because rockets don’t need air to breathe, the 163B climbed faster the higher it went, reportedly achieving rates of climb of 16,000 feet per minute at altitude. The climb angle was an almost-impossible-to-believe 70 degrees! The initial plan was to station squadrons of Me 163s in rings around population and industrial centers, where, with five minutes’ warning, they could be attacking bomber formations at altitude (jettisoning their landing gear on takeoff). The very thing, however, that gave the Komet its edge—550mph speeds in “cruise”— greatly hampered the pilot’s ability to fire accurately. Even with multiple passes, pilots couldn’t reliably achieve the four or five hits their 30 mm cannon required to down a bomber. The fighter escorts also realized that the Komets would run out of fuel quickly, so they waited for them to glide back to their base and then followed them.
The aircraft literally were flying bombs. Its fuel was made up of two chemicals, T-Stoff (a hydrogen peroxide-oxidizer and C-Stoff – a methanol hydrazine-based rocket fuel). These two chemicals exploded when a few drops were mixed together. Both fuels are extremely toxic, and can melt a pilot who comes into contact with them. When it wasn’t exploding or being shot down, however, the Komet reportedly was an easy and pleasant airplane to fly and highly maneuverable, even when out of power.
Although the Komet appears to be a plane of the seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time variety, it spawned technological advantages out of proportion to its tiny size.
Text & Photos By Heath Moffatt
Flight Journal first published Me 163 Komet, a brilliant failure.