Me 263 Rocket-Powered, Interceptor Prototype

In July of 1944, German test pilot Heini Dittmar achieved 700 mph (1,130 km/h), setting an informal flight airspeed record that turbojet-powered aircraft couldn’t surpass until 1953.

That same year, the Me 163 commenced operational flights, predominantly tasked with defending against enemy bombing raids.

Due to their alliance with the Empire of Japan, Germany supplied design plans and one Me 163 unit to Japan, facilitating the development of the Mitsubishi J8M.

By the war’s end, approximately 370 Komets were constructed, with the majority deployed operationally.

However, several of the aircraft’s deficiencies remained unresolved, rendering it less efficacious in battle as initially anticipated. With only a maximum of seven and a half minutes of powered flight, its range was significantly limited, impeding its capabilities.

Although initiatives to enhance the aircraft were undertaken, including the development of the Messerschmitt Me 263, many did not experience combat due to the rapid progression of Allied forces into Germany in 1945.


First Manned Rocket Flight

The first-ever manned rocket flights were conducted by the German vehicle maker Opel RAK.

The inaugural flight was achieved by a glider, modified for rocket flight and designed by Alexander Lippisch, at Wasserkuppe Mountain on 11 June 1928.

Replica of Opel RAK’s Lippisch Ente in Deutsches Segelflugmuseum as the world’s first rocket-powered glider

Equipped with two black powder rockets developed by Friedrich Wilhelm Sander, positioned at its rear. The glider was named “Ente,” meaning duck in German, due to the utilization of a forward canard setup by Lippisch.

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After an unsuccessful initial attempt, one of the rockets properly ignited, and the Ente was airborne, piloted by test flyer Fritz Stamer for 4,900 feet before managing a controlled landing.

A subsequent attempt, utilizing both rockets, was not as successful.

One of the rockets exploded, leading to the damaged aircraft igniting due to the remaining functioning rocket; despite loss of control and enveloping flames, Stamer narrowly escaped as the fire consumed the Ente.

Following the destruction of the Ente, Fritz von Opel ordered the creation of a specialized rocket plane, designated as the Opel RAK.1. The design was developed by Julius Hatry, who, like Lippisch, was an early innovator at Wasserkuppe.

This new craft was also fitted with Friedrich Sander’s Opel RAK rockets. The inaugural public flight of such a rocket-powered aircraft occurred in Frankfurt on 30th September 1929.

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Concurrently, Lippisch persisted with his individual design endeavors over the ensuing years, especially focusing on rocketry, a pathway that eventually culminated in the development of the Me 163.

Me 163

The Me163 Komet, holding the distinction of being the only rocket-propelled interceptor to ever be operational, was a desperate deployment by the Luftwaffe.

The Me163 Komet, holding the distinction of being the only rocket-propelled interceptor to ever be operational
The Me163 Komet, holding the distinction of being the only rocket-propelled interceptor to ever be operational

Its aim was to counter the Allied strategic bombing offensive during the final phases of the Second World War.

This aircraft evolved from a series of research initiatives conducted in the late 1930s, with the inaugural flight trials of the initial powered prototypes commencing at the Peenemunde West rocket test center in the final months of 1941.

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The Me163, powered by its Walther rocket motor, could attain a maximum speed unparalleled by any other fighter aircraft of its time, but the instability of the reactants used posed a high risk of explosions.

Jagdgeschwader (Fighter Wing) 400 was the only Luftwaffe unit to achieve operational status with the Me163, assigned the mission of safeguarding the crucial Leuna oil refineries situated near Leipzig.

After observing the functional feasibility of the twin-chambered motor in the Me.163B Komet “V6,” momentum grew for the development of a new interceptor

On 16 August 1944, Me163s from this unit initially confronted Eighth US Army Air Force B17 Flying Fortresses. By the war’s conclusion, JG 400 had managed to down nine Allied aircraft.

However, severe fuel scarcities and technical glitches impaired the unit’s operations, inflicting severe casualties.

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Given its limited range, brief operational duration, and reliability issues, the Me163 was more of a brilliant yet futile endeavor, a courageous attempt to reclaim aerial dominance over Germany from the Allies.

Ju 248

Throughout the developmental phases, the RLM (German Ministry of Aviation) expressed dissatisfaction of Messerschmitt over the progression of the 163 project.

This lead to a decision to shift development to Heinrich Hertel at Junkers, while Lippisch stayed with Messerschmitt, maintaining the support of Waldemar Voigt and persisting in the development of the 163C.

Under Junkers, the foundational design of the 163C was utilized to create a more extensive model, the Ju 248.

It preserved the new pressurized cockpit and bubble canopy of the 163C, offered increased fuel capacity, and incorporated a new retractable landing gear.

On September 25, 1944, a wooden mock-up was presented to the officials. The intended production model was planned to be equipped with the superior BMW 109-708 rocket engine, replacing the Walter power plant.

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Before the assembling of the Ju 248 began, it was intended that two Me 163Bs, v13 and v18, would undergo reconstruction.

Near-Total Ruin

However, owing to the degradation of v13 due to weather conditions, only v18 was reconstructed, which had been flown by test pilot Heini Dittmar to a record-setting 700 mph (1,130 kilometres per hour) on July 6, 1944, and had experienced near-total ruin of its rudder surface.

This particular aircraft is frequently recognized as the Me 163D, although its construction occurred after the initiation of the Ju 248 project.

A Me 163’s HWK 109-509A engine

Hertel aimed to incorporate Lorin ramjet engines, but this technology was too advanced for the era.

As a temporary solution, they chose to construct the aircraft with Sondergeräte (special equipment) in the form of a Zusatztreibstoffbehälter (auxiliary fuel tank), proposing the installation of two 160 L (35 imp gal; 42 US gal) external T-Stoff oxidizer tanks beneath the wings.

While this would result in a 10% speed reduction, it would not affect flight characteristics negatively.

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Despite claims from Junkers that the Ju 248 employed a standard Me 163B wing, a decision was made to alter the wing to accommodate more C-Stoff fuel, a modification executed by the Puklitsch firm.

Me 263

In November 1944, the aircraft underwent another renaming to Me 263, highlighting its lineage with the Me 163. Both projects were christened – the Ju 248 as Flunder (Flounder) and the Me 263 as Scholle (Plaice).

By early 1945, Junkers introduced their own vision, the EF 127 Walli rocket fighter, positioning it as a rival to the Me 163C and Me 263.

Messerschmitt Me 263

The Me 263 v1 took its inaugural unpowered flight in February 1945, followed by several additional unpowered tests that month. The primary challenge arose from a displaced center of gravity, which was counterbalanced with added weights.

In the production models, either repositioning the engine or altering the landing gear installation might have addressed this issue. The non-retractable landing gear seemed satisfactory for production upon initial assessments.

However, testing faced interruptions due to a scarcity of fuel for the Bf 110 towplanes. Given that the Me 263 wasn’t prioritized in the Jägernotprogramm (Emergency Fighter Program), it was challenging to allocate the necessary resources.

The end of the Me 263

Even though immediate production wasn’t anticipated, further enhancements were approved. The v2 and v3 prototypes were still in development.

The v2 was expected to feature retractable landing gear, while the v3 would have integrated armaments. The following month saw both v1 and v2 equipped with the dual-chamber HWK 109-509C, ameliorating the center-of-gravity issues, but they only operated as gliders.

By April, American forces took control of the manufacturing facility, seizing the three prototypes and the mock-up.

While the v2 was destroyed, another prototype was transported to the US. The remaining prototypes were surrendered to the Soviets, who subsequently developed their Mikoyan-Gurevich I-270 interceptor.