Witold Aleksander Herbst, a 303 Squadron pilot, recalled that when he escorted an expedition of American four-engine B-17 bombers in 1944, he noticed a small plane climbing very quickly. His pilot had to be brave - he attacked 250 Flying Fortresses alone, protected by a hundred fighters. "The Mystery Guy was developing a speed I couldn't even dream of," admitted Herbst.
The attacking plane was the Messerschmitt Me-163 rocket fighter, with a maximum speed of 950 km / h, although in 1941 pilot Heini Dittmar had accelerated his Messerschmitt, a prototype powered by a Walter HWK R.II rocket engine, even more. The speedometer of this small plane, measuring just under six meters, showed almost 1004 km / h!
Herbst's Spitfire, who in his memoirs attributed himself to the probable shooting down of the plane attacking the bombing expedition, could "pull" a maximum of 652-658 km / h.
After the defeat of World War I and the liquidation of military aviation, Germany built a significant air force extremely quickly. They not only developed and introduced modern fighters and bombers, but also directed the development of aircraft structures on unprecedented, very visionary tracks.
Suffice it to say that the first jet plane - Heinkel He-178 - was presented before the war , In July 1939, and the official flight took place on August 27, 1939 - so before the salvoes of the battleship "Schleswig - Holstein" on Westerplatte!
The first jet plane - Heinkel He-178 - was presented before the war, in July 1939
In addition, Heinkel went even further and at the same time showed the first rocket plane - He-176, flown on June 20, 1939, with a top speed of 750 km / h! For comparison - the serial Polish PZL P11c fighter could fly at a maximum speed of 375 km / h, and the German Messerschmitt Bf-109D - 499 km / h.
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Defeated a serial fighter
Both innovative aircraft were not recognized by the authorities, so Heinkel developed the He-178 jet into the He-180 model, later converted to the He-280 (flown in April 1941).
Although it did not go into series production, it is worth mentioning that this plane from the period when the air forces of many countries still used canvas-covered biplanes, had not only a jet propulsion, but also a pilot's catapult seat and a front landing gear. wheel . Its performance was also impressive - a top speed of 900 km / h, a practical ceiling of 11,500 m, a maximum range of 650 km, and was armed with three 20mm cannons - although a variant with six cannons was designed!
A promising project, which during a practical demonstration - a simulated fight with the Fw-190 fighter, thanks to its speed, distanced the enemy, was ... buried by the decision of the Reich Ministry of Aviation and the head of the Technical Office, Ernst Udet, preferring proven turboprop designs.
The Messerschmitt Me-262 became the first jet in combat use (Photo:USAF / Public Domain)
Heinkel was ordered to use different engines than were designed for this aircraft - with worse performance and larger overall dimensions. Later, the rival Messerschmitt Me-262 jet fighter entered production.
The latter, in the line from 1944, became the first jet used in combat. With a top speed of 872 km / h and four cannons, he was a dangerous enemy of American and British planes , however, it was introduced too late (especially the fighter version), in too little quantity, with a shortage of fuel and trained pilots ...
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Single attack plane
Meanwhile, by far the fastest plane introduced to the line, the Me-163 missile, made its combat debut in July 1944. The first unit was established - as the 16th Experimental Department - in the area of today's Katowice - Pyrzowice airport.
This Messerschmitt was designed to intercept bombing expeditions and attack Allied planes in one lightning pass . It was not suitable for maneuvering with an escort, nor could it lose its greatest asset - speed, to sit behind the bomber and shoot it until it was done.
The Comet Pilot - as the rocket fighter was called - had only one option:he had to fire extremely precisely in the short time he was approaching the bombers, and he had no chance of repeating the attack. Its engine consumed so much fuel that the plane had a very short range - 40 kilometers - and was basically only suitable for defending selected points directly adjacent to its airfield.
This disadvantage was quickly recognized by the Allies who, knowing the location of the airfields where the Comets were potentially stationed, could simply chart their expedition routes away from them, or even maintain their own fighters above them to prevent the Messerschmitts from taking off.
Rocket Comets - despite their sensational speed and surprising tactical concept - did not achieve stunning success. The superiority of the Allied aviation was overwhelming. Nevertheless, the fighters of the JG400 unit knocked down 9 Allied aircraft, losing 14 of their own . It is estimated that 80% of own losses were due to take-off or landing, 15% to control problems, and only 5% to counteracting fighters and defensive fire from Allied bombers.
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Competition produces better
The unfavorable course of hostilities for Germany and the loss of air control meant that the industry had to focus on the increased production of already proven weapon designs and temporarily forget about research work and wasting energy and time on prototypes of new aircraft.
There were even situations where Hitler ordered to concentrate on the production of tanks, taking away the manpower of aircraft manufacturers - and it was necessary to skillfully persuade the leader so that the Messerschmitt plants would retain their crew. Recent competitors therefore had to unite, even undertaking the licensed production of "foreign" aircraft - just to maintain orders.
Since fighter jets were primarily needed, bomber manufacturers were rearranging their production lines - and so the Messerschmitty 163 missile was to be produced, among others, by Junkers, which made history earlier with the revolutionary construction of the Ju-87 Stuka dive bomber and the multi-purpose Ju-88 bomber.
The rocket Messerschmitts 163 were to be produced, among others, by Junkers, who made history earlier with the revolutionary construction of the Ju-87 Stuka dive bomber (photo:Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-J16050 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 de)
The Junkers team creatively approached the task - they wanted to eliminate the most important shortcomings of the fighter, i.e. short range, short flight time and the tendency to crash during take-off or landing, which is dangerous for the staff.
The plane was therefore heavily modernized, which was not notified to Messerschmitt:first of all, the fuselage was extended, in which larger fuel tanks were placed, which were to empty evenly so as not to disturb the flight stability. More fuel means more range and longer flight time , the more so that an auxiliary combustion chamber was added to the unchanged engine, which allowed for flight at marching speed.
In addition, the new fighter received a retractable landing gear - with a front wheel - and no longer had to take off from a thrown away two-wheeled cart, like the Komet, or land on a skid under the belly . And last but not least - the pilot got a new, armored and hermetic cabin ( in Comet you had to put on an asbestos suit because if the fuel tanks were damaged, it could burn everything).
Wings, fins, the aforementioned engine - remained the same as in the Me-163. Junkers named the new Ju-248 missile fighter, but authorities did not accept this designation and gave a "continuation" name - Me-263.
Unfortunately for the Germans, the plane was not mass-produced and did not achieve combat glory, although it certainly had a chance to be called the best rocket fighter. It reached a speed of 950 km / h, a practical ceiling of 16,000 meters, a maximum range of 160 km, and was armed with two 30 mm cannons. It was able to inflict losses on compact formations of the Flying Fortresses, the so-called combat boxes, and above all, it was to give its own pilots a better chance of survival than the Me-163.
Although preparations for mass production at Messerschmitt's subcontractors were advanced, the Third Reich, which was falling faster and faster, could no longer guarantee the supply of raw materials, adequate production staff, or - if brand new planes arrived at the airports - even fuel for them. Therefore, Komet did not have a successor ...
- Belcarz Bartłomiej, Messerschmitt Me 163B Komet fighter plane . Bellona Publishing House 1990.
- Herbst Witold A., Sky Cavalry , Zysk i S-ka 2013 Publishing House.
- Hyland Gary, Gill Anton, Luftwaffe's last chance, Amber Publishing House 1999.