01 February 2011

The Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet Takes to the Air Again

The all-red scheme is striking on the Me 163 replica glider
Towards the end of the Second World War, Luftwaffe pilot Jozef Kurz went through pilot training for the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet rocket interceptor but the war ended before he was able to make a powered flight in the aircraft. Years after the end of the war, Kurz had become an avid glider pilot and decided to build an airworthy replica of the Komet. Using hundreds of original microfilm drawings to create the needed building plans, Kurz had to make certain compromises in the design but remained as faithful as possible as he wanted his replica Komet to be as externally accurate as possible. The biggest difference was the use of wood in the replica instead of metal as was used on the original design. This resulted in some changes in the internal structure which also had the vertical fin as integrated structure instead of a separate structure on the original aircraft. But Kurz was able to keep the external appearance nearly faithful to the original, even using the Gottingen 765 wing profile. Like the original, Kurz's replica glider had two wing spars and the wings were removable reduce its hangar footprint and facilitate road transport. Because the replica was made of wood, it had a weight of 868 pounds compared to the empty weight of the original Me 163 Komet of nearly 4,200 lbs. 

The control surface arrangement of the replica glider was also faithful to the original, with fabric-covered coupled elevator/ailerons on the outboard wings and large trim tabs on the inner wings. Fixed slats were also built into the outer wings similarly to the original. Aside from using wood in the construction (and the obvious lack of the Walter HWK 109 rocket motor), the other main change from the original was using a single central wheel integrated into the central landing skid instead of using the jettisonable twin-wheel dolly.

Kurz painted his replica Komet in the markings of the most famous Me 163- the Me 163B flown by Erprobungskommando 16 (EK16- an operational test unit) commander Wolfgang Späte on the Komet's first operational combat mission in 1944. Though no pictures exist of the red Komet, Späte had written two books about his experiences in the Komet and described the plane he flew on the first operational mission- he had no knowledge beforehand that his ground crew painted the Komet in homage to the Red Baron- his accounts indicate the paint added about 40 pounds to the Komet and while it was audacious move and reflected confidence in the rocket interceptor's performance, Späte ordered the aircraft repainted in standard camouflage on his return. Kurz first flew his own Komet replica on 18 June 1996 with the registration D-ESJK. Designating his glider the Me 163BS, Kurz made numerous short test flights before unveiling it at a vintage aircraft fly-in in September 1997. Its last flight in Kurz's hands was at the Berlin ILA 2000 air show. With only five flight hours logged, Kurz sold the replica to EADS (which then had just been formed as the parent to Airbus Industrie and Eurocopter) for display in the Flugmuseum Messerschmitt at Manching, Bavaria. 

Note the EADS logo under the cockpit
German aircraft historian Werner Blasel, who had been the main driving force behind the establishment of a heritage flight at Manching as part of the museum, felt that it would have been a waste for the replica glider to remain as a museum display given that it had already proven its airworthiness. Work to return the glider to flying status began in 2004 and was completed in 2006. The most apparent changes were the addition of triangular side windows behind the cockpit, a new canopy, and external aerials that more closely resembled the original Komet. Since there were no longer plans to fit any sort of engine in the fuselage, structural rework was carried out to better integrate the wings with the fuselage structure to allow the aircraft to take the stresses of higher forces. Modifications were made to the undercarriage to facilitate ground handling and the slats were reprofiled to improve the glider's handling characteristics. Lead ballast was also added to better balance the aircraft in flight. The aircraft was re-registered as a one-off glider with the civilian registration of D-1636. Historical markings were added (sans Swastika, which is prohibited from display in Germany) and it made its second maiden flight on 20 June 2006 after which it joined the EADS Heritage Flight fleet at the Flugmuseum Messerschmitt. 

At the end of 2010 the replica Komet had flown forty hours. Two pilots with the EADS Heritage Flight are rated in the glider, using a Dornier Do 27 tow plane to get to altitude. Taking 10 minutes to reach 4,000 feet, the Komet is said to be most demanding on the tow line and is much easier to handle in free flight. As the aircraft was optimized for high speed flight, its gliding performance wasn't on par of purpose-built sport gliders but has nonetheless been a hit at air shows in Europe. 

Source: Aircraft, January 2011, Volume 44, Number 1. "Red Alert" by Marc Frattini and Dr. Andreas Zeitler, p38-45.

1 comment:

  1. Dear JP:

    Thanks for the fascinating profile of the Me163 replica. Years ago I had the interesting experience of meeting the late Rudi Opitz (he "went west" recently at a very advanced age). Rudi was the second test pilot brought into the Me163 development program by Dr. Lippisch.

    He certainly confirmed the comment from your post about the design's character in free flight. Rudi said that it was a delight to fly.

    Of course, the part of the story about the Walther engine is a whole 'nother line of inquiry. Herr Opitz still carried, when I met him, some scars from an encounter with "T-stoff".

    Excellent stuff about Rudi's work on the 163 can be found HERE.

    After the war, Rudi came to the US and became a notable glider pilot; he was a Designated Pilot Examiner in CT for many years. For a time he was our enemy, but he was a gentleman, a great story-teller and a superb pilot.