The 19FortyFive crew recently visited the National Air and Space Museum right outside of Washington, DC near Dulles Airport. We took some amazing photos and videos of the SR-71, Bell X-1, X-35 stealth fighter, and much more. And we also took some amazing original images and videos of the Me 163 Komet. We asked one of our top defense experts to break down the history of this unique aircraft from World War II:
Meet the Me 163 Komet
Of all the advanced military aircraft that were developed during the Second World War, Germany’s Messerschmitt Me 163 “Komet” was certainly the most radical, and arguably the most futuristic in concept. It was the result of an effort to produce a short-endurance local-defense interceptor. It is noted for its dramatically unconventional form – no horizontal tail
Often misidentified as a “jet fighter,” the Komet (German for “Comet”) was actually powered by a rocket engine. Had it been developed even a year sooner, the jet could have possibly been a serious threat to the Allies. The Me 163 achieved no small degree of success during the final nine months of the conflict. It was nearly twice as fast as the Allies’ P-51 Mustang, and proved to be a small and agile fighter – even if it was difficult to fly (more on that later). However, it reached operational units too late and in numbers too small to affect the ultimate outcome.
The Komet Takes Off
The Me 163 was based on the experimental DPS 194, which was designed in 1938 by Professor Alexander Lippisch, who had been a pioneer in rocket propulsion. His status as oth engineer and artist was evident in many of his 50-plus aircraft designs. After being transferred with his staff to Messerschmitt AG, Lippisch went to work on a new rocket engine.
Despite being a visionary, or perhaps because his visions were so revolutionary, Lippisch soon clashed with Professor Willy Messerschmitt on key attributes of the design, which resulted in developmental delays. Aviation experts have often suggested that if the two strong-willed personalities had been able to work together, the Komet would have certainly been developed sooner, and would have been in service much earlier. Fortunately, for the Allies, the battles within Messerschmitt AG stalled the program.
The first two Me 163 prototypes were flown in the spring of 1941 as unpowered gliders, with Me 163V1 then transferred to the Peenemünde Army Research Center, where it received its 1,653 pounds st HWK R.II rocket motor. The first rocket-powered flight of a Komet was made in August 1941, and in trials, the fighter was able to exhibit speeds of more than 620 mph (1,000 km/h) – faster than any aircraft of the era. It was also 155 mph faster than the previous world speed record. Impressively, that record figure was only officially surpassed after the war by an American Douglass D-588-1 on August 20, 1947.
The Komet was a true speed demon, but it was far from an easy aircraft to fly. Due to the compact size, the rocket-powered fighter was developed without landing gear, while the final production model was also a ton heavier than the original design weight. That necessitated the use of auxiliary booster rockets just to get airborne, while the aircraft would take off from a wheeled dolly that jettisoned once in the air. To land, the pilot had to touch down directly on the fuselage keel-skid.
Moreover, if the aircraft was not dead into the wind it could slew or veer around and possibly overturn, while any bump in the surface caused premature take-off or a bounce on landing. All of this was compounded by the highly volatile rocket fuel that could be accidentally ignited within the aircraft.
Despite its shortfalls, the Me 163 Komet proved extremely successful. In fact, it essentially shocked the Allies when first used against the U.S. Eight Air Force’s B-17s over Germany in August 1944. The Komet’s spectacular speed, which provided an element of surprise, resulted in many early successes against the bomber formations – downing at least sixteen bombers.
Aircraft on Display
As with many World War II aircraft, only a handful survived today – despite the fact that some 50 Komets were captured intact by the British Army at the end of the war. Those were used in subsequent testing, and five were apparently sent to the United States for evaluation.
Three of those are now in museums including one at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steve F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington, D.C. Another is in the collection of Paul Allen’s Flying Heritage Collection outside Seattle, while the third is now fully restored and on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (AFB), in Dayton Ohio.
A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.