The Me 163B Komet.

The modern liquid-fueled rocket dates back to the 1920s, with Robert Goddard’s experiments in rocketry.  More efficient and more controllable than the gunpowder rockets that had preceded them, liquid-fueled rockets were able to reach speeds far faster than piston engines - and could potentially bring a plane up to a very high altitude very quickly, allowing for interception of high-flying recon flights.  So, in 1941, a monopropellant rocket was mated to a modified glider airframe, producing the Me 163A.

A formation of USAAF B-17Gs, the target of the Me 163

The Me 163 owed a lot to its glider heritage.  It handled impressively when airborne, and rather than using traditional airplane landing gear, the Komet landed on a skid; further, rather than powered landings (which would’ve required using up more of the limited fuel in the tiny plane), the Komet glided down, unpowered.  As a testbed for rocketry, it was quite good.  But by 1943, Germany needed interceptors, not testbeds, and so the first operational squadron of Me 163B Komets, with bipropellant liquid-fuel rockets, began combat duty in early 1944.

An Me 163B being towed by a Scheuchschlepper tractor

As a fighter, the Komet was a difficult plane to use.  The plane carried seven minutes of fuel at best - and often just five minutes of fuel.  There wasn’t time to set up a traditional approach on a target; instead, a pilot would be best off trying to attack while in a 45-degree climb.  You could get one pass on the way up, another pass as you glided back down through a bomber formation.  Then you had to get back to base.  On the way up, your speed meant that Allied escort fighters couldn’t even try to intercept - but on the way back down, unless you dove fast and low to get under the defensive umbrella of your airfield’s flak, you’d be prey for passing P-51s and P-38s.  And when you had landed, you had to wait for a tractor to tow you back to the hangar, leaving your plane more vulnerable to strafing or bombing attacks on the airfield.

An Me 163B being downed by a P-47, as shown from the American plane’s gun camera.

As a result, the combat record of the Komet was rather poor.  The Germans put 91 Me 163Bs into service, but scored 10-16 kills - losing 6-15 Komets for their part.  Pilots were flying an unpressurized plane, with cannons that were only accurate at short distances, using rocket fuel that was also used by the V-1 cruise missile and that was so volatile that they had to wear nylon-based clothing (since cotton clothes would burst into flames).  With the Me 262 jet fighter in service, the Komet was pushed aside, ultimately being withdrawn shortly before the end of World War II.

The Saunders-Roe SR.53, a rocket/jet interceptor of the 1950s.

The concept of a rocket-powered interceptor didn’t die with the Komet - though future manned designs would have jet engines as well.  The USAF considered a few rocket-assisted designs, but recognized that their poor endurance would make them difficult to use to defend the United States.  Britain in the 1950s was also faced with the threat of Soviet nuclear bombers, and unlike the US, had a much smaller territory to cover (and rather less time to get interceptors airborne before Soviet bombers could arrive and nuke their targets).  Saunders-Roe developed two fighters - first the S.R. 53, then the S.R. 177 - that combined rocket and jet engines to produce a fast-climbing fighter that could rapidly ascend to and intercept a Soviet bomber formation before returning to base under jet power.  

BOMARC, an unmanned interceptor.

These projects came to a close, however.  Even as the bomber threat began to pale in the face of the threat of ballistic missiles, another factor emerged to kill these designs - why put a person in a rocket-powered interceptor, when you can instead just build an unmanned surface-to-air missile?  Ultimately, the Me 163 was most influential not as a fighter, but as an aerodynamic testbed; its designer, Alexander Lippisch, brought the aerodynamic knowledge learned from the tailless, delta-winged Komet to the US.

As a postscript, here’s an excerpt from the linked article, in which chief Komet test pilot Rudolph Opitz conducts his last flight in the Me 163:

At the end of the War we were at an airfield close to the Danish border. One day, unexpectedly, a single railroad car arrived with fuel. We started to fuel and camouflage three 163s. It was a foggy morning. Suddenly, bombers were flying in from the West and there was an alarm. The three 163s took off to engage the bombers but one flew back, having broken off because of engine troubles. 

“After landing, the ground crew ran up the engine and found no problems. Now there was a question about the pilot’s account. Further complicating the situation was that the plane had been assembled and flown without any real checkout, but that was the reality of the War at that point. So I said, ‘Let’s fly it and see about the engine.’ By then, it was in the afternoon. Just after I lifted off, sure enough, the fire light came on. I couldn’t go straight out over the water, as it was a cold April and there was nobody to pick me up. I pushed the quick release to jettison the fuel. 

“Fuel vapors then appeared in the cockpit and I figured I had to bail out. When I got the canopy off, the airflow circulated from the back towards the front of the cockpit. As I made my approach to land, there was fire in the cockpit. I was sitting on the parachute and figured it had gotten pretty hot and was getting hotter and may not open. 

“My instruments were all covered with soot even before the canopy went, as were my goggles, so I had to take them off. Now I flew with a 200mph wind in my face, without goggles, and with plenty of smoke coming in. Looking sideways I could see the field, I just didn’t know where I was. Looking from just behind the bulletproof glass in front of me didn’t help.

“I missed the runway, probably by 20 degrees. Suddenly, I saw the roof of a house very close by, and the plane touched down, flew a bit, touched down again, settled down in a meadow and continued forward, plowing through a stone fence, leaving the wings behind. It came to rest near a ditch with a little creek. I had injured my collarbone but was able to get free of the plane and shortly fell unconscious. I came to for a moment and remember seeing cannon tracers exploding from the plane and bouncing off the hillside as the plane burned. 

“I didn’t miss the airfield by much, and people were quickly attracted to the explosion and billows of smoke. They all thought that was the end of me. A farmer who lived nearby said, ‘There’s a guy down there, he told me to run away because it will explode.’ I was lying in that ditch close to the water and remained unconscious until they found me. They took me to the hospital. That was the last flight I made in the 163. 

“When the ground crew had told me that the pilot of that plane had come back and yet the engine ran normally, I knew it would forever be on that pilot’s mind. They would have blamed him for letting the other guys face the bombers on their own, you know. I heard from one of the pilots in that unit, 25 years later, after he had moved to Canada. He said it was his turn to fly that aircraft on the next shift, and he was so glad I had checked it out!” 


Claims and misgivings have been expressed by Pop Star, Madonna and her agents, against the Malawi Government and its leadership for not giving her the attention and courtesy that she thinks she merits and deserves during her recent trip to Malawi.

According to the claims, Madonna feels that the Malawi Government and its leadership should have abandoned everything and attended to her because she believes she is a music star turned benefactor who is doing Malawi good.

Besides, in the feeling of Madonna, the Malawi Government and its leadership should have rolled out a red carpet and blast the 21-gun salute in her honour because she believes that as a musician, the whiff of whose repute flies across international boundaries, she automatically is candidate for VVIP treatment.

For not receiving the attention and the graces that she believes she deserved, Madonna believes someone, not lesser in disposition than the President’s sister, Mrs. Anjimile Mtila-Oponyo, has been pulling the strings against her following their earlier fallout bordering on a labour dispute.

State House has noted these claims and misgivings. State House has followed the debate incidental to these claims with keen interest, and would wish to respond as follows to put the record straight:

1. Neither the President nor any official in her government denied Madonna any attention or courtesy during her recent visit to Malawi because as far as the administration is concerned there is no defined attention and courtesy that must be followed in respect of her.

2. In any case, even if the defined parameters of attention and courtesy existed in respect of Madonna, the liberties of discretion to give or not to give that attention or courtesy would ordinarily and naturally remain the preserve of the host. Attention or courtesy is never demanded.

3. Granted, Madonna has adopted two children from Malawi. According to the record, this gesture was humanitarian and of her accord. It, therefore, comes across as strange and depressing that for a humanitarian act, prompted only by her, Madonna wants Malawi to be forever chained to the obligation of gratitude. Kindness, as far as its ordinary meaning is concerned, is free and anonymous. If it can’t be free and silent, it is not kindness; it is something else. Blackmail is the closest it becomes.

4. Granted, Madonna is a famed international musician. But that does not impose an injunction of obligation on any government under whose territory Madonna finds herself, including Malawi, to give her state treatment. As stated earlier in this statement, such treatment, even if she deserved it, is discretionary not obligatory.

5. It should be put on record that Madonna did not come to Malawi at the invitation of the President nor her government. In other words, she was neither the guest of the President nor of her government.

6. For all that is known, she came to Malawi like any other visitor that feels like coming to Malawi. Such visitors don’t have to meet with the President and are never amenable to state attention or graces.

7. If the argument is that because she is an internationally renowned star, and, therefore, Madonna believes she deserved to be treated differently from other visiting foreigners, it is worth making her aware that Malawi has hosted many international stars, including Chuck Norris, Bono, David James, Rio Ferdinand and Gary Neville who have never demanded state attention or decorum despite their equally dazzling stature.

8. Among the many things that Madonna needs to learn as a matter of urgency is the decency of telling the truth. For her to tell the whole world that she is building schools in Malawi when she has actually only contributed to the construction of classrooms is not compatible with manners of someone who thinks she deserves to be revered with state grandeur. The difference between a school and a class room should be the most obvious thing for a person demanding state courtesy to decipher.

9. For her to accuse Mrs. Oponyo for indiscretions that have clearly arisen from her personal frustrations that her ego has not been massaged by the state is uncouth, and speaks volumes of a musician who desperately thinks she must generate recognition by bullying state officials instead of playing decent music on the stage.

10. For all that is known, Mrs. Oponyo has never been responsible for arranging state meetings with foreigners who are looking for those meetings. If Madonna was indeed a VVIP and a regular guest of State Governments as she wants to be seen and treated, she would have been familiar with procedures that have to be followed to get such meetings. They don’t happen by simply sneaking into a country whose President and Government you scarcely desire to meet.

11. Even if Madonna followed the procedures to have her meetings with the President or government officials, the administration reserved all its rights to grant the meetings or not.

It must be noted that the President, Her Excellency Dr. Joyce Banda and her Government are ready to welcome any philanthropist seeking to assist in improving the welfare of the people of Malawi knowing that Her Excellency, herself, is a known philanthropist. However, acts of kindness must always remain as such; they must not smack of blackmail. In addition, let philanthropists not hold to ransom the President and any official of her Government because they showed some kindness to any Malawian.