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The First Rocket Fighter in History

The Me 163 was more than a record-breaking speed machine for Nazi Germany. In addition, it delivered a hellish punch.

A German Messerschmitt Me 163B Komet rocket-propelled fighter (s/n 191095) at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Dayton, Ohio (USA).

Despite their current pacifist attitude, the Germans have a lengthy history of innovation in the field of weaponry. Everything from the first commercially successful semiautomatic pistol to the first commercially successful double-action semiauto pistol (the Walther PP in 1929, which gave birth to James Bond’s world-famous Walther PPK two years later) to the first successful jet fighter (the Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe). They transferred Teutonic operational ingenuity to the world’s first rocket-powered fighter aircraft. Still, it did not achieve the same long-term success as the patents described above. Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet was the revolutionary military aircraft in question.

Intended as a dedicated interceptor for point defense, the Komet was the only rocket-powered fighter ever to enter service. My 19-year-old colleague Peter Suciu summarises the brief service life of the Komet: “During the final nine months of World War II, the Me 163 gained no small degree of success, and, arguably, it was the most inventive and even radical of Germany’s combat aircraft to see service.” Nevertheless, it reached operational units too late and in insufficient quantities to alter the final result.”

When this high-speed Luftwaffe warplane first emerged on the scene, it terrified Allied pilots and military strategists as it blindsided them. About 400 mph (643 kph) faster than the B-17 Flying Fortress bombers they were intended to intercept and 155 mph (249 kph) faster than the previous world speed record. Unofficially, German test pilot Heini Dittmar achieved a global flight airspeed record of 700 mph (1,130 kph) while flying a Komet in July 1944. This feat was surpassed until October 1947, When Chuck Yeager flew the Bell X-1 past the protective sound shield.

The Me 163 had advantages beyond its record-breaking speed. It also possessed two 30mm Rheinmetall-Borsig MK 108 guns, which gave it a hellish punch. These formidable weapons had a maximum fire rate of 650 rounds per minute and were also dubbed “pneumatic hammers” because of their distinctive firing sound. Several Komets were also equipped with an experimental airborne anti-bomber rifled recoilless weapon, the Sondergerat 500 Jagerfaust. An optical photocell identified the dark silhouette of a bomber. After activating this pretty peculiar gadget, it triggered the firing of 50 mm rounds vertically into the bombers’ bottom flanks.

Because of the Komet’s speed and firepower, its pilots shot down 16 Allied planes in aerial combat. Which, mostly B-17s and RAF Mosquitos—If any Luftwaffe plane could compete with the Bf 109, it was the Me 163 or surpassed the Mosquito in terms of speed—though on one occasion in August, the rocket plane also managed to shoot down three P-51D Mustangs in a single engagement.

Feldwebel (Sergeant) Siegfried Schubert was the most successful Komet pilot, with three verified kills against B-17s. In one incident, the aircraft vanished in a smoke and fire cloud.

Fritz Kelb was the sole Me 163 pilot to achieve a kill with the Jagerfaust mentioned above; he did it on April 10, 1945, against a British Halifax (or Lancaster, depending on whose source you consult). As Kelb’s fellow Komet pilot Hauptmann (Captain) Wolfgang Spate stated, “Kelb approached the lead aircraft of the bomber formation and flew beneath it at an extremely close distance. On the upper side of the aircraft, he had sustained numerous hits from shrapnel from the massive explosion that had shattered his objective. It was the only time this airborne weapon system was employed. “Too late!”

Six to nine Me 163s were shot down by Allied fighter pilots, who discovered, as they did with the Me 262, that the formidable rocket plane was at its most vulnerable when descending to land.

These phrases apply equally to the ME 163 in general and the ME 262 in particular. Fortunately for the Allies, bureaucratic interference and internecine conflict stifled the creation and development of these Wunderwaffen (German for “wonder weapons”) in both situations. On the Schwalbe, which required the intervention of none other than Der Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler wanted the jet fighter to be developed as a bomber. Professor Alexander Lippisch, a pioneer in rocket propulsion, and Professor Willy Messerschmitt, himself a pioneer in rocket propulsion, engaged in a piss-off over the Komet. These two strong-willed personalities clashed over crucial design elements, resulting in delays that prevented the ME 163 from making its first flight until September 1, 1941. The aircraft finally entered service in 1944.

Unfortunately, even after finally putting the aircraft into service, issues persisted. The Komet proved to be as lethal to its pilots as it was to its foes, if not more so. At least nine ME 163 pilots, including the Feldwebel, as mentioned above Schubert, were killed in accidents (on the same day he scored his last two kills, no less). It was mostly attributable to its exceedingly volatile fuel, a mixture of T-stick and C-stick that was not only explosive but also highly corrosive and poisonous. According to Dr. Alexander Lippisch, an aviation engineer, “if you stick your finger in it, you only get the bone.”

Its fuel also limited the ME 163’s flight to about 7 minutes. Although the seemingly contradictory maxims “Speed is life” and “Speed kills” apply to fighter pilots, in the case of the Komet, it was “too much of a good thing,” as its pilots had just 2.5 seconds to aim and fire their cannons.

Then there were the landing complications. Aviation expert Don Hollway said, “ascents were so rapid that nitrogen bubbles developed in the bloodstreams of pilots in their unpressurized cockpits.” planning diet restrictions to prevent intestinal gas from causing ballooning. Yes, dear readers, the pilots of the Komet were subject to fart control.

Due to the lack of real landing gear — the wheeled dolly was ejected upon takeoff — the pilots were forced to land the aircraft straight on the fuselage using a keel skid. It, coupled with the fuel as mentioned above, explosion difficulties, made the situation extremely precarious.

There were 370 Komets built in all. Despite its flaws, a few M163s remain in museums in Australia, Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. One of the instances in the United States is the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.

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