test pilot Rudy Opitz tells it like it was
by Tom Atwood, based on interviews with Rudy
Historical data & photos adapted from
Jeff Ethells book,
Komet The Messershmitt 163
Click images to enlarge
One day, our project officers
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
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.
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.
|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.
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 Kometthe most advanced fighter of WW II. He was there when
the era of modern fighter aircraft was born. He knows and remembers how
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, Lippischs chief test
pilot. Rudy eventually became a key member of the Lippisch Deltas flight-test
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 Lippischs delta-wing
research team. Rudy, who had been unofficially managing the Luftwaffes
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.
|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.
Rudy clearly recalls his first look at the 163: I tell you, I couldnt
stop looking at that thing. With the 163A the fuselage really blended into
the wings. It was just beautifuland a rocket engine, my gosh. I was
in heaven to be involved with it.
|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
cockpitthe pressure gauge and airspeed indicatorand 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. 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).