The Soviet Union was the first country to adopt a rocket-powered fighter— and swiftly abandon it.
Although none of the Western powers came anywhere near the German level of rocket aircraft development before World War II, the Germans were not quite alone in such endeavors. Scientists in the Soviet Union had also been experimenting with liquid rocket propellants in the 1930s, and by the spring of 1941 the Viktor Bolkhovitinov design bureau had begun work on an airplane to use the D-1-A rocket motor, fueled by kerosene with concentrated nitric acid as the oxidizer.
Soviet Premier Josef Stalin does not seem to have been overly interested in the project until the German invasion of Russia on June 22, 1941, after which he gave it official authorization to proceed on July 9. Aleksandr Bereznyak and Aleksei Isayev designed an airframe for the rocket engine. Given the high fuel consumption of the power plant, the aircraft was intended to serve as a short-range point interceptor— essentially the same role that would later be envisioned for the German Messerschmitt Me-163B. Working round the clock, employees at the design bureau managed to produce the airframe in only 35 days. Combining a bullet-shaped fuselage with conventional straight wings and tail surfaces, all made of plywood and fabric, the Bereznyak-Isayev BI made its first unpowered test glide on September 10, with satisfactory results. Soon afterward, however, the continuing German advance toward Moscow compelled Bereznyak’s design bureau to evacuate its entire facility east to Sverdlovsk.
Meanwhile, unknown to the Russians, the German Messerschmitt firm was also working on a rocket-powered airplane. It combined a tailless sweptwing glider developed by Alexander Lippisch for the Deutsches Forschungsinstitut für Segelflug (German Sailplane Research Institute) with Hellmuth Walter’s HWK R.II-203 rocket engine, which used T-Stoff (hydrogen peroxide and water) as a fuel and calcium permanganate as a catalyst. The prototype Me-163V1 began flight testing in July 1941 and reached a world record speed of 623.85 mph— Mach .85—on October 2. The following December Lippisch and his design team began work on a fighter version.
As work resumed on the Soviet rocket fighter, engine testing was slowed by corrosion problems caused by its acidic fuels. Controlling a rocketpowered airplane also took some getting used to, and test pilots experienced a series of minor accidents during powered ground runs. On May 15, 1942, Captain Grigori Bakhchivandzhi finally took the BI up for its first powered flight, which lasted 189 seconds. He reached 248 mph and an altitude of 2,765 feet. Upon landing, he reported that everything went smoothly and that “the aircraft performed stable decelerations, gliding and handling like any ordinary aircraft.”
While the BI was being readied for its first test flight, the Me-163V3 was nearing completion in May 1942. The Germans found that the calcium permanganate catalyst used in the HWK R.II engine tended to clog its jets, so Walter devised another, the HWK 509, which employed C-Stoff (hydrazine hydrate and methyl alcohol) as the catalyst. Using the latter power plant, the Me-163V3 made its first powered flight at Peenemünde in August 1942.
Encouraged by the results of the BI’s first flight, Stalin authorized a preproduction batch of 50 BI-1 interceptors. It is not known how many were actually built, but a handful, each armed with two nose-mounted 20mm cannons, were assigned to a Russian home defense squadron, making it the first rocket-powered fighter to see military service.
Meanwhile, testing continued to determine the new interceptor’s full capabilities. During the second such flight on January 10, 1943, Bakhchivandzhi attained a speed of 497 mph and an altitude of 3,609 feet. A month later, Konstantin A. Gruzdev hit 418 mph but reached an altitude of 7,085 feet, which Bakhchivandzhi exceeded on March 11 and 14, reaching 13,123 feet on both occasions. Bakhchivandzhi flew the BI-1 again on March 21, and on March 26 he put the third prototype through its paces. During the latter flight, the BI-1’s seventh overall, he accelerated to a speed of 497 mph at 6,500 feet when the rocket-powered plane suddenly pitched downward. He was unable to recover control of the aircraft and crashed.
Although Gruzdev and Boris Kudrin continued test flying the aircraft, the death of Bakhchivandzhi—who was posthumously awarded the Gold Star of a Hero of the Soviet Union—left Soviet air force personnel uneasy about the “devil’s broomstick,” as they came to call the BI, and about the rocket fighter concept in general. The 50-plane preproduction order was canceled soon afterward, and the BI-1 was never used operationally. Thus the Soviet Union, the first nation to develop a rocket fighter, also became the first to abandon it.
Not so the Germans, who persisted through a series of delays to get the first Me-163B-1 Komet interceptors operational at the end of June 1944. Facing the overwhelming aerial armadas of the U.S. Eighth Air Force then bombing cities throughout the German homeland, the Me-163 pilots soon discovered how dangerous their own rocket fighters were: Me-163 pilots claimed a total of 16 Allied aircraft for the loss of 14 Komets. Given the grand total of 364 Me-163s built when production ceased in February 1945, those results were disappointing. But the Russians—who, like the other victorious Allies, got to test-fly captured German jets and rockets after the fall of the Third Reich in May 1945—could have told the Germans that the rocket fighter was a bad idea as early as 1943…had they cared to.
Originally published in the January 2008 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.