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," he writes.
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 work.
G. Regan, Air Force Blunders. (London: Carleton Books, 2002) pp. 172-174.
For more on Hannah Reitsch see this Wikipedia article.
For more on the ME-163 Komet, see the Wikipedia article.