Nazi Germany was far ahead of its time in terms of its technology. From the infamous V2 rockets to the world’s first operational jet fighter, the Third Reich designed and built some of the most advanced and deadly weapons of their day. However, there were cases where the German technological imagination leaped far ahead of what could be manufactured given the materials and techniques of the time. I’ve covered the most ambitious of these out there designs before–nothing less than an orbital doomsday device that would orbit the planet and use concentrated sunlight to obliterate enemy cities.
While such a thing was wildly impractical at the time–we couldn’t even build the Sun Gun with today’s technology–the subject of today’s article was something more attainable, although still far out of reach for rocket engineers in the 1940s. Dubbed the Silbervogal (“Silverbird”), Dr. Eugen Sanger’s revolutionary aircraft was designed to fly halfway around the world to strike a blow right at the heart of the American homeland.
The Amerika Bomber Program and the Silverbird
Dr. Eugen Sanger originally conceived of his Silbervogel design as a peacetime craft that would be able to reach orbit. After publishing articles in Flight magazine about the potential of rocket powered aircraft, Sanger was given free reign to build a secret research lab in Trauen, where he could begin to design the Silverbird for more fearsome purposes. Sanger’s work, funded by the Luftwaffe (the German Air Force), fell under the auspices of the Amerika Bomber program, which sought to build aircraft that could launch raids across the Atlantic Ocean and destroy targets in North America.
While several conventional crafts were being developed under the program, Sanger’s rocket plane was the most futuristic and audacious. The craft sported a flattened fuselage and stubby, wedge shaped wings. Fuel was stored in two large tanks on either side of the fuselage, and the end of the fuselage sported a flat tail surface. Oxygen tanks were located forward of the wings. The craft would be propelled in art by a large rocket motor capable of generating 100 tons of thrust. The pilot would sit in a pressurized cockpit in the front of the craft. For armament, the Silbervogel carried one 8000 pound bomb.
The real audacity of the craft lay in its proposed flight plan. It would be propelled down a two mile for eleven seconds by a rocket powered sled. It would take off at approximately 1149 mph and quickly reach an altitude of 90 miles. Then, the main rocket would fire for eight minutes, gobbling 90 tons of fuel and propelling the Silbervogel to a blistering 13,724 mph. Once the rocket burn was complete, the craft would “coast” along, being dragged down by gravity. When it suck far enough to hit denser air about 25 miles above the surface, it would “skip” up to a higher altitude, much like a stone skipping across a pond. In this fashion it would fly over America, drop its payload, and eventually glide to a conventional descent in Japan, using its tricycle landing gear.
Flight of the Silverbird
Sanger’s Silbervogel bomber was so far beyond the cutting edge of 1940s technology that even Sanger himself admitted it would probably be twenty years before it took flight. Sanger did get as far as testing early versions of the rocket engine, when Hitler ordered Operation Barbarossa to begin in June 1941. With the German blitzkrieg taking on the titanic Russian Army, all resources needed to be funneled toward more conventional designs. Such far of designs as the Silbervogel were luxuries Germany could ill afford, and Sanger was forced to utilize his expertise elsewhere.
After the war, Sanger and mathematician Irene Bredt, who he would marry in 1951, went to work for the French Air Ministry. By this time, various countries including the United States and the Soviet Union had obtained Dr. Sanger’s research results. Stalin saw that Dr. Sanger could be quite an asset, and sent Russian agents including one of his sons to kidnap the scientist. French authorities learned of the plot, and managed to conceal the scientist’s whereabouts before the Russians could nab him.
Despite Sanger’s determination, the Silbervogel never did fly. The closest craft to it was the X-15, a rocket powered plane designed by the US in 1960. While no rail based weapon system such as Sanger envisioned has been used, his design is echoed in such iconic crafts as the Space Shuttle.