Messerschmitt Me 163

The Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet,was a German rocket-powered fighter aircraft designed by Dr. Alexander Martin Lippisch who, for many years, had been working on tailless sailplane designs. In January 1939, he and his design team joined the Messerschmitt Company and began work to convert the DFS 194 tailless research glider to be powered by an 882-lb thrust Walter rocket motor. Successful testing of this aircraft, during which a speed of 342mph was attained, resulted in Messerschmitt receiving an order for six Me.163A prototypes.

After testing of the first Me.163A prototype as a glider towed by a Bf.110, the prototypes were extensively tested at Peenemünde in the summer of 1941 powered by the 1,653-lb thrust Walter HWK RII-203b rocket motor demonstrating speeds of up to 550 mph. During one of these tests a Me.163A, flown by Test Pilot Heini Dittmar was towed to a height of 13,125 ft before the engine was fired, attained 623.85 mph before losing stability as a result of compressibility effects. Dittmar succeeded in regaining control, but the wing needed to be redesigned to alleviate this problem. Other problems that need to be addressed were those posed by the highly unstable rocket fuel and by the jettison able wheeled dolly/ retractable landing gear.

The Me.163A was followed by an order for ten pre-production Me.163A-0 aircraft built by Wolf Hirth as training gliders, and after further development work by six Me.163Ba-1 production prototypes and seventy Me.163B-1a Komet (Comet) interceptors. The latter entering service with the German Luftwaffe in May 1944.

The type saw action for the first time on 28 July 1944, when five Me.163s of 1/JG 400 (the first operational unit) attacked a formation of Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses. This revealed another problem (and one that was ultimately unsolvable), for, with a closing speed of around 808 mph the twin 30mm slow firing MK 108 cannon could be fired for only about three seconds before the pilot was forced to break off the attack.

When production ceased in February 1945 nearly 400 Me.163s had been built including a few examples of the Me 163S tandem two seat trainer and the Me 163C-1a with a revised airframe (three built but only one flown). At the ending of hostilities projected developments included the Me.163D prototype for a Junkers built version (Junkers Ju.248) and the improved Messerschmitt Me.263. One aircraft, captured by the Soviets was modified in 1946 as the I-270(ZH) although development of this was soon abandoned. In addition plans existed for production of a license built version in Japan as the Mitsubishi J8MI Shusui (Ki-200).

It was the only operational rocket-powered fighter aircraft during the Second World War and until today. Although revolutionary and capable of performance unrivaled at the time, it proved ineffective as a fighter and resulted in the destruction of very few Allied aircraft. The only rocket-powered fighter ever to fly in combat, the Me.163 incorporated revolutionary technologies, but it was also a simple machine made largely of wood and could be a firery deathtrap for its pilot.

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