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The Komet 163
The fortieth anniversary of the first Moon landing brings to
mind a technology that was invented by the Nazis...
Like the Shuttle – a rocket-powered delta-wing
glider – the Komet 163 behaved in exactly the
same manner and was developed from glider
experiments by Alexander Lippisch, years
before the National Socialists came to power.
The need for an interceptor to counter America’s
daylight bombing campaign had become
evident; the long-range Mustang escort with
their pressed cardboard, wing-mounted fuel
tanks being more than a match for what was left
of Germany’s conventional fighter capacity.
Hellmuth Walther proposed a bi-fuel rocket
motor with 3000 lbs thrust that would take an
interceptor to an altitude of 30,000 feet in around two
minutes, whereby leaving it with an operational window of a
further three to four minutes’ fuel to intercept the bombers,
then it would be at the mercy of the fighters as it could only
glide back to its base. Even these estimates were only just
achievable, as the actual motor used one third of its fuel
capacity just to take off and attain the speed necessary to
enter a vertical climb. However, it only needed an operational
range of just 25 miles, allowing pilots to wait until the
bomber formation had been sighted almost overhead.
Willy Messerschmitt was tasked with designing an airframe
to cope with the rocket’s power and devised a small swept-
wing, tail-less aircraft which was launched from a trolley that
had to be individually made to fit each aircraft, such were the
tolerances required to balance the craft as it suddenly shot
forward under take-off power. The trolley was jettisoned at
an exact minimum height, otherwise it tended to bounce
back up against the aircraft, either damaging the fuselage or
contributing to the aircraft’s destruction as the proportions of
the two highly volatile fuels became unbalanced – causing
First discovered by photographic interpreter Constance
Babbington-Smith at RAF Medmenham in 1943, the
prototype of the 163 had first been developed in 1941 at
Peinemunde and went into production in 1942 as 163A.
With daylight bombing becoming a serious threat, in 1944
Hitler ordered they be put into action, known as the Komet
163B, it was built by Junkers and operated by JG400.
During its development it instantly became the fastest aircraft
of its day, achieving for its test pilot, Rudolph Opitz, a speed
of 623mph (approx. 1000kmh) at 13000 feet – a world
speed record kept secret from the rest of the world and
proving to be twice the speed of most allied fighters. Opitz
crashed in early attempts to land this unpowered glider still
travelling at huge velocity (80mps), breaking his back.
Germany’s darling female test pilot, Hanna Reitsch, was then
given the opportunity to continue the work. She described
the sensation of such high speeds as exhilarating.
The rocket motor itself was powered by the mixing of two
fuels which, although inert and water-soluble by themselves,
became one of the most volatile bi-fuel combinations known
in rocket history. Hydrazine hydrate and methanol, known as
C-stoff and hydrogen peroxide, known as T-stoff were
contained in two separate tanks immediately behind the pilot
who breathed oxygen for the whole mission. A small amount
of potassium permangonate was mixed with the hydrogen
peroxide to create a reaction which drove a small turbine
which in turn mixed the two fuels together. The slightest
misfunction in any part of the fuel system could be fatal.
When fuelling the aircraft C-stoff was delivered first in a
clearly marked tanker. Water was constantly sprayed over
everything and everyone to eliminate, or at least reduce the
risk of, contamination. Only when the first tanker had
departed the scene would the other tanker approach. The
process would be repeated, the tanker would depart and,
again, everywhere and everyone would be sprayed down
Looking at footage of this actual process you can see in the
body language of those involved, the extreme concern
associated with every facet of operating these flying bombs.
More 163s were lost to spontaneous explosions: during
refuelling, simply sitting on the tarmac, taking-off, operational
flying and coming into land with fuel tanks all-but empty, than
from combat. But such was the threat posed when actually
in the air, the Allies were extremely concerned about putting
this initiative out of action.
Whilst more than a match in speed for anything else in the
air, pilots of the 163 found they were travelling so fast that
they had difficulty in actually training the aircraft’s single
cannon on a target. They were reasonably effective in
combat but the lack of familiarity with the performance of the
‘powered egg’ meant that almost every flight was a learning
curve. Given more time they could have become a serious
threat but an intense campaign of bombing their production
factories and strafing airfields meant that they were doomed
to a short operational life.
You can see a genuine 163B motor on display at the
Ballarat Air Museum, featured in the previous edition of
Aerogram June 2009
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