On this day in 1919, 30-year-old Fritz von Opel, scion of a famous German auto making family, climbed into a custom-built glider specially equipped with 16 50-pound thrust rockets and took off from a field near Frankfurt. According to his 1971 New York Times obit, Opel’s 90 second, 1.5 mile ride, which achieved an altitude of 49 feet, was the first successful rocket-powered aircraft flight. Well, almost successful—Opel’s glider crashed upon landing. The feat also was the final foray in Opel’s effort to promote rocket-powered aircraft and cars as the transportation of the future.
Opel, grandson of the Opel company founder, studied engineering at the Technical University of Darmstadt and served in the German military in World War I, before taking a post in the 1920s as Opel’s director of testing—and also, oddly, director of publicity. Around that time, Opel got to know Max Valier, an amateur rocketry enthusiast and founder of the Berlin-based Society for Space Travel, whose impressive title belied the fact that initially it had just two other members. Valier and Opel dreamed up a plan to built rocket-powered cars and aircraft, ostensibly to promote the Opel auto brand.
“Rocket Fritz,” as he became known, wasn’t satisfied just to publicize experiments rocket-powered craft. He actually drove and piloted them himself. In 1928, he drove a rocket-powered car on Berlin’s Avus Speedway, hitting a speed of 120 miles per hour. (He also once raced an express train in a motorboat, but that was just for fun.)
The following year, he made his historic and nearly disastrous rocket-glider flight, from which he fortunately escaped unharmed. In an article that he wrote after the flight, he enthusiastically observed: “It is marvelous to fly like this, driven entirely by fire gases which escape from the nozzle at a speed of about 5,000 miles an hour. When we are able to make full use of this gas, we shall be able to fly around the world in five hours.”
But just like his final flight. Opel’s rocket-powered ambition soon crashed and burned. That same year, General Motors, which had just acquired a controlling interest in the Opel firm, decided that rocket-powered vehicles were a nonstarter. Opel resigned, and then quit Germany as well, moving to Switzerland. He came to the United States in 1940, which unfortunately led to him spending World War II in an internment camp for enemy aliens. After the war, he moved back to Europe, and became chairman of two German engineering firms before passing away in Switzerland in 1971.
And with that, here are the science and technology news of the day.