Bachem Ba 349 “Natter” – vertical takeoff, rocket-powered interceptor death trap

The Bachem Ba 349 “Natter” was a radical prototype aircraft produced by Nazi germany during the final years of the war when the allies were starting to push ever closer to Berlin. The aircraft was essentially a very early version of a homing missile, and it was just one of several similar projects to be under development in Germany at the time. The primary target of the Bachem Ba 349 was to be the allied bombers which were slowly bringing the German war machine to a halt.

The Bachmen Ba 349 was designed by Dr Eric Bachem, an engineer who until 1944 worked for aircraft manufacturer Fieseler. In fact the Ba 349 was a development of one of his Fieseler designs. The aircraft was built from wood, glued and nailed together. The pilot was afforded some protection in the form of a bulletproof windshield and an armour plated seat.

Powering the Bachem Ba 349, nicknamed “Natter” (adder in English), were five rockets. Four Schmidding SG34 solid fuel rocket boosters provided the thrust to fire the aircraft up its 20-metre high vertical launch ramp and into the air. After 10 seconds these burnt out and were jettisoned. A larger bi-fuel rocket motor inside the fuselage provided the thrust for the remainder of the flight.

Bachem Ba 349 Natter rocket powered fighter aircraft diagram

Once in the air the Ba 349 was directed towards the enemy bombers using an autopilot system controlled from the ground. When the aircraft was roughly a mile from its target, the pilot would take control, aim it at the bombers and fire his entire load of 19 R4M rockets. Following this single attack run, the Ba 349 would turn away, or fly up and over the bombers, and once out of range of the gunners aboard the allied aircraft the pilot would jettison the nose of the aircraft, release a parachute which would bring the rear of the Ba 349 safely to the ground (containing the valuable and reusable primary rocket) and parachute down separately himself. It was designed to be cheap, simple to operate, navigate and was intended to be flown by inexperienced pilots.

The Natter first flew in 1944 – without a pilot. Remarkably it was a success. So two months later a second prototype was launched, this time with a dummy pilot on board. Again this was a success, and the dummy pilot was brought safely to the ground by parachute. The third flight was to be manned. The pilot was a 22-year old Luftwaffe test pilot called Lothar Sieber. On 1 March 1945 he strapped himself into a Ba 349 and took off.

unmanned Bachem Ba 349 Natter rocket powered fighter aircraft on test flight

About 100 meters (330 ft) the aircraft pitched onto its back, although continuing to climb at roughly 30 degrees. At about 500 metres (1,600 ft) the cockpit canopy was seen to fly off as the aircraft continued to climb before it disappeared into the clouds. It is estimated that the Natter reached an altitude of 1,500 metres (4,900 ft) before it went into a nosedive and slammed into the ground at tremendous speed just 32 seconds after take off. Sieber was killed instantly. The exact cause of the crash is still unknown. However Bachem surmised that the canopy was not properly attached and that when it came off it caused Sieber’s head to snap back suddenly and possibly knock him unconscious. The catastrophic damage caused when the aircraft hit the ground meant there was very little which could be learnt from the wreckage. Posthumously, Sieber is credited with being the first man to take off vertically using rocket power. It is also theorized he may have been the first person to break the sound barrier.

Nevertheless, three more manned flights took place after the accident. All three passed without incident, and Bachem began building more aircraft for delivery to fighting units. 36 aircraft were produced in total. But thankfully it was too little, too late, and amazingly, by coincidence, the day the first Ba 349 Natters were to be launched fully armed and used against allied bombers, American tanks were charging towards the launch sites in Hasenholz and the whole unit was forced to retreat.

Bachem Ba 349 Natter rocket powered fighter aircraft (image by Creanium)

despite being just a day away from being used in the war, the Bachem Ba 349 was never used in anger. One original example, captured in May 1945 by US troops, still survives and is held at the Smithsonian Institution’s Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration, and Storage Facility in Suitland, Maryland.

There are other examples of the Ba 349 in museums around the world, however many of these are either reproductions or made up from different airframes and components.

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