Me-163 Komet: Technological Marvel and Germany's Premier Rocket Fighter
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Me-163 Komet: Technological Marvel and Germany's Premier Rocket Fighter

The Me-163 Komet was ahead of its time, but time was running out too quickly for the German war machine to make use of it.

German aviation technology in World War II was first rate, and the Me-163B Komet was a perfect example of this. In the summer of 1941, German test pilot Heini Dittmar pushed the tiny rocket aircraft to over 623 miles per hour, eclipsing previous records. While some uncorroborated stories claim that the Komet did in fact break the speed of sound, the official honor still belongs to Chuck Yeager, who broke the barrier in 1947 in a Bell X-1. The X-1 did have a similar design as the Komet, however, and it can be logically concluded that German aviation engineering would undoubtedly have broken the sound barrier shortly after 1944 if the war had ended differently.

The Me-163 was Germany's answer to the high-altitude bombing threat posed by such heavy bombers as the B-17 Flying Fortress. It was hoped by Hitler that aircraft such as this and the Me-262 would be able to use their high top speed to annihilate fighter escorts and bomber squadrons and essentially achieved a miracle victory that would enable the German economy to re-equip the military and continue the takeover of the world. There were, however, several problems with the nature of the aircraft that made it difficult to implement in combat situations and regular use. The aircraft was very small, and was unable to carry a great deal of ordnance. Also, the powered endurance of the craft's HWK rocket motor tended to be about 8 minutes at maximum throttle, which meant that time on scene in the altitudes that heavy bombers operated was about two to three minutes.

The Komet was a quirky vehicle to operate, and its strengths were difficult for the Luftwaffe pilots to capitalize upon. For example, the aircraft operated at over twice the cruising speed of the bombers it attacked. This was an immense technological advantage! However, a Komet pilot making a pass on a bomber had only a brief moment to engage the bomber in his sights before the speed of the aircraft required him to pull away and flash past. Pilots compensated for this and the relatively short endurance of the rocket motor by using the Me-163's original testbed status of a glider. They would fly above the bomber formations and cut off their engines to glide down and attack, and then fire them up again for perhaps one more pass. This required some spectacular piloting, and faith that the rocket motor would indeed fire up again. Engineers came up with inventive ways of improving the effectiveness of the Komet, including introducing the SG 500 Jagdfaust weapons system. This consisted of a total of ten 50mm shell firing tube mounted in the wing roots of the aircraft at an upward angle and linked to a photo sensor. The pilot would fly under a bomber, and the shadow of the aircraft upon the sensor would cause the tubes to fire.

The total effect of the Me-163 was negligible, however, because the German wartime economy was already faltering from the debacle of the assault on Russia and a string of Allied victories. Only about 400 examples of the aircraft were produced, and many of these were destroyed on the ground or in factories by the same bombers they were intended to destroy. Additionally, the number of skilled German pilots remaining was extremely diminished from mounting losses to Allied aircraft, and the experimental nature of the technology combined with the high rates of speed meant many of the junior pilots were unable to handle the rocket aircraft. Landing procedures were unorthodox and difficult as well, because weight was a premium in the small aircraft. The landing gear was jettisoned after takeoff, and pilots had to land on a small skid.

The Komet is a striking example of one of the many unusual technologies being pursued and developed by German scientists at the time of the war. Like the V-2 ballistic missile and Me-262 jet, it is a representation of what could have been if Germany's Fortress Europe had managed to extend its domain outside of the continent. 

SOURCES

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Messerschmitt_Me_163B_USAF.jpg

http://www.pilotfriend.com/photo_albums/timeline/ww2/Messerschmitt%20Komet.htm

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