Thursday, April 18, 2013

Weapon Fail : Rocket fighters

In the 1930s and 40s along with the jet engine the rocket engine was another alternative method of propulsion that promised unrivalled performance gains over piston-engined fighters which, by the 1940s, were reaching the limit of their performance. However while the jet engine went on to dominate military (and civil) aviation in the postwar period the rocket engine has not and to this day there has only ever been one operational rocket powered fighter (not including jet powered aircraft which also used rockets for short-term boost) and that was the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet. Why? Because of range.

The Komet, which was one of the advanced fighters designed by the Germans in a desperate attempt to halt the daily Allied bomber attacks, had amazing performance. It could reach around 700mp/h, far in advance of anything on the Allied side at the time and easily out-climb any fighters being able to shoot up to 39,000ft in 3 minutes. That performance came at a heavy price though and the Komet had only enough fuel for a few minutes of powered flight. After that it was simply a futuristic looking glider and had to try and return to it's base unpowered.

One other problem with the great performance was that the targets (the bombers) were much slower than the Komet and thus were difficult to hit. The Komet pilot only having a couple of brief opportunities for firing on it's target before having to disengage. Only a small number of successful kills were made by Komets. Allied pilots quickly learnt the Komet had very short legs and waited for the fuel to run out before attacking the now unpowered and vulnerable Komet.

After the war rocket power continued to be explored by the various participants in the Cold War but the pure rocket powered fighter died a quick death. Rocket power was explored to boost the performance of jet powered aircraft but as jet engines gained in power rocket power has been relegated to research aircraft only.

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