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Komet 163
Chief test pilot Rudy Opitz tells it like it was
by Tom Atwood, based on interviews with Rudy Opitz

Historical data & photos adapted from Jeff Ethell’s book,
“Komet The Messershmitt 163”


Main Article:
• Chief test pilot Rudy Opitz tells it like it was
Article Sub-sections
Walking on the Edge—the challenges of data acquisition
Popular Wisdom vs. a Test Pilot’s Experiences (interview with Rudy Opitz)
A Fighter Ahead of Its Time (includes aircraft specs)

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Click images to enlarge

“One day, our project officer’s Komet 163 was fueled up and ready to fly when three Me 109s came over the field in a single line formation. I was among 30 pilots watching from the ground. Späte took off and was immediately upon them; we all saw that he easily could have picked them off. They tried to come behind him, but with his extra power and agility, he was soon behind each of them. Everybody was terribly excited to see what you could do with the new plane.”

Rudy Opitz and his peers in both the Komet and Me 262 programs were the very first of a new breed of warrior. They were the first to ride into battle perched on a tongue of flame. Their hands were wrapped around technology so new and so leading edge we have little to compare it to in our time.

Komet Me 163B.jpg - 15K
Rudy Opitz enters a Komet Me 163B at Bad Zwischenahn while being assisted by senior Messerschmitt mechanic Schöffler. His flight suit, boots, underwear and gloves are made of a non-organic, nylon-like material. Clothing made of organic material like cotton would burst into flames on contact with T-Stoff. The pilot was protected by 13mm armor behind his head and shoulders, and 8mm armor behind his back. A 90mm armor glass screen gave frontal protection with a 15mm armor nose cone. The constant speed propeller in front drove a generator for electric power.
The half century that separates then from now dulls our appreciation for the enormity of their achievements. And, yes, they were enemies. Yes, their research was intended to develop ever more potent weaponry to be used against us. But, first, last and always, they were technological pioneers who set the stage for an era not even visionaries like Robert H. Goddard could have forseen. The lethal hazards they faced on a daily basis were not the bullets of Allied soldiers but the unknown dangers of pushing aircraft technology beyond known boundaries.

Without the technological breakthroughs that were central to the success of the Messerschmitt 163 Komet program, the modern jet age would have advanced far more slowly. In a huge leap forward for modern fighter development, the Komet program compressed decades of research into a few years of intense wartime effort. Rudy Opitz, now 86 years young and still an active glider pilot in Connecticut, was a central figure in the testing and development of the Komet—the most advanced fighter of WW II. He was there when the era of modern fighter aircraft was born. He knows and remembers how it happened.

When Rudy arrived at the Deutsche Forschung-sinstitut fur Segelflug (German Research Instit-ute for Glider Flight, or DFS) in the spring of 1936 to enter its glider school, he had already been a glider pilot and instructor for some years. His ability soon came to the attention of Alex-ander Lippisch, the designer of the Me 163, and Heini Dittmar, Lippisch’s chief test pilot. Rudy eventually became a key member of the Lippisch Deltas flight-test team.

Eighth 163B-series prototype.jpg - 9K
Built at Regensburg as the eighth 163B-series prototype, this Komet side view shows the extended retractable landing skid and tailwheel. The tailwheel gave directional control on the ground, and the extended skid provided shock aborption to the wheel dolly, which is jettisoned after takeoff.
When, in the Spring of 1941, the Generalluftzeug-meister (Director of Luftwaffe Equipment) Ernst Udet observed Dittmar make a low- altitude pass at over 400mph in the Komet 163B, he could hardly believe the plane had no engine. When Dittmar flew the first rocket- powered test flight in August, Udet realized another test pilot would be needed and called Rudy to ask if he would be interested in rejoining Lippisch’s delta-wing research team. Rudy, who had been unofficially managing the Luftwaffe’s assault glider program (where he was awarded the Iron Cross, 1st Class, for valor), at first thought it was a prank by his friends that someone as high ranking as Udet might be calling. He accepted the offer with elation and rejoined the team at Peenemünde-West.

Rudy clearly recalls his first look at the 163: “I tell you, I couldn’t stop looking at that thing. With the 163A the fuselage really blended into the wings. It was just beautiful—and a rocket engine, my gosh. I was in heaven to be involved with it.

Rudy checks the cockpit.jpg - 9K
With data recording camara strapped to his head, Rudy checks the cockpit as an assistant closes the canopy. Note the thick armor glass and embedded Revi 16B gunsight at the front of the cockpit.

“For my first flight, Dittmar just turned the plane over to me and said, ‘Go for it.’ The dolly was just in front of the CG, so the tailwheel was able to come off the ground fairly easily once some speed was gained. I had my mind on the cockpit—the pressure gauge and airspeed indicator—and before I knew it, I was over the end of the runway and probably 200 feet in the air and had not ejected the dolly. Although it was not known how the dolly would affect the aerodynamics, I felt there was no reason to lose the dolly, so I decided to land on it. I had no breaks and, with the dolly attached, no shock absorbtion, but I landed without a problem.”

By October 22, 1941, the Messerschmitt A.G. gave Udet a detailed plan for the construction of 70 Me 163B interceptors that could lead to an operational fighter group by the spring of 1943. The eight 163As already built would serve as trainers.

In November, Dittmar severely injured his back on landing a 163 and was confined to the hospital. Rudy assumed leadership of the project. By June 1943, the new “hot” engine had been delivered, but the run time was a disappointing 6 minutes. An early test flight by Rudy proved to be one of his most harrowing (see “Walking on the Edge”).

Rudy takes off on a test flight.jpg - 14K
Rudy takes off on a test flight. The assistant in the foreground lacks ear protection; this came later.

As well as serving as a test pilot, Rudy was responsible for the training of Komet fighter pilots (a tough job considering the wartime drain on the pilot pool).


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