Fritz von Opel, the grandson of automotive industrialist and founder of the Opel automobile company, Adam Opel, became the first person to fly a rocket plane on this day in 1929.
Fritz von Opel worked as the director of testing and also the director of publicity for Opel, and through the latter role he became involved in a series of ever-more outrageous rocket-propelled publicity stunts towards the end of the 1920s, starting with automobiles and ending up with aircraft. On 15 March 1928, von Opel test-drove the world’s first ever rocket-powered car: the Opel-RAK 1. Inside this futuristic form of transportation he achieved a (rather unimpressive) top speed of only 47 miles per hour. Afterwards he immediately ordered the production of an improved sequel, the RAK 2, which was powered by no less than 24 solid rockets.
On 23 May of that same year, he test-drove this new iteration of the rocket car, and this time he reached a far faster top speed of 143 miles per hour. He then made a surprising change of course, and turned his attention to the skies above. That summer von Opel bought a sailplane, the Ente (or “Duck”), from fellow German pioneer of aerodynamics Alexander Lippisch, and had a series of rocket motors attached to it.
On 11 June 1928, the first-ever rocket plane was revealed to the world, and early testing started right away. Unfortunately, the Ente exploded on only its second test flight–a similar fate befell the RAK 3 rocket-powered railway car–before von Opel himself had even had an opportunity to pilot it. Undeterred, he commissioned another rocket-propelled plane from German aircraft designer Julius Hatry. And so, on 30 September 1929 in the city of Frankfurt-am-Main, von Opel flew a rocket plane for the first time in history.
Fritz von Opel was nicknamed “Rocket Fritz” because of these spectacular shows of rocket propulsion and daredevilry, culminating in a manned rocket plane flight. However, while he may well have produced considerable publicity for his family business, his volatile inventions have not found widespread favour. Alexander Lippisch (the man who sold von Opel his first sailplane) went on to invent the German Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet–the only rocket-powered fighter aircraft used in actual warfare–but these proved equally unpopular. Although over 300 Komets were constructed for the Luftwaffe in World War II, they often crashed, and were only responsible for bringing down nine allied aircraft in total, and so rocket planes are no longer in use anywhere.