Today, the problem with secret weapons. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Germany's secret weapon, the Messerschmitt-163B, was going to
chew its way through allied bombers, late in WW-II. Nicknamed the Komet, it
was a stubby little plane powered by a liquid-fuel rocket. It could reach 40,000 feet
in four minutes, and it went 600 miles an hour. But it used all its fuel within eight
minutes, then had to glide back to earth with the grace of a falling rock.
The Komet was two-hundred miles an hour faster than our best fighters and
four-hundred miles an hour faster than our heavy bombers. Armed with two 30mm cannons,
this little machine promised to be the defensive weapon that would rule Germany's airspace.
Well, you how it is with promises. When the Komet was first test flown in 1941,
it had many bugs to work out. It was finally put into production in '43, and saw combat
in '44. Around 370 were built, and so we ask how significant they were.
Komets downed a total of sixteen allied planes. Allied fighters downed a few of
them, but their accident rate was our best defensive weapon against them. They required the
skills of a glider pilot combined with Buck Rogers. Of course those are also the skills of
a space shuttle pilot today. Komets passed through bomber flights too fast to hit
anything. So pilots developed a tactic of coming up below a bomber at reduced speed.
One late form of the Komet used an array of vertically aimed rocket tubes that were triggered
optically. All it had to do was fly below a bomber, whose shadow would then trigger the
rockets. One British Lancaster was lost to that tactic, but it was dicey. One
writer claims that clouds also triggered those rockets.
"Komets flew around the skies of Germany intercepting stratocumulus formations like some crazed meteorologist,"
We hear a great deal of hyperbole from both defenders and debunkers of this strange airplane.
Did its toxic rocket fuel leak into the cockpit and dissolve some of its pilots? Was landing
them so dangerous that they regularly exploded as they touched ground? It's rather hard to
get a straight story.
The famous German test pilot Hannah Reitsch crash-landed a Komet and was almost killed.
After ten months of plastic surgery and recuperation, she returned to work on another even
wilder project, the creation of a kamikaze suicide version the V-I pulse-jet
Buzz-Bomb, one that
could be guided to a target by a human being, instead of just being fired off in the general
direction of London.
The Luftwaffe never was as strong as German propaganda made it out to be. With people like
Göring and Hitler micromanaging, it constantly tried to shortcut the normal rhythm of development.
German engineers did produce many remarkable prototypes, but necessity is a poor parent to
invention. It gets in its way. And nowhere is that clearer than it is with the futuristic
technologies that Germany tried to rush to completion late in WW-II.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
G. Regan, Air Force Blunders. (London: Carleton Books, 2002) pp. 172-174.
For more on Hannah Reitsch, see:
For more on the ME-163 Komet, see: http://www.xs4all.nl/~robdebie/me163.htm
And, for a surviving German pilot's view, having flown the Komet, see:
An ME-163B, Komet. Notice that, without a horizontal stabilizer, it is close to being a flying wing
in its design. (Image courtesy of the USAF Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
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