Rick Robinson

May 23rd 2018

Fritz von Opel and the Daredevil Birth of the Rocket Plane


Fritz von Opel, nicknamed Rocket Fritz, is known for his experiments and adventures with rocket planes, rocket-powered automobiles and motorcycles. This year, we celebrate the 85th anniversary of Fritz von Opel’s revolutionary rocket-propelled drive, which sparked the age of rockets.

The story begins in 1927, when von Opel was contacted by fellow pilot and rocket plane enthusiast, Max Valier. Valier was looking for someone to support his rocket propulsion experiments, according to Jalopnik. Fritz’s grandfather founded the Opel automobile company, so it might be said that a taste for speed was in his blood. Von Opel — who was always looking for new ways to go fast and gain publicity for the Opel company — agreed to collaborate with Valier.

“On Instinct Alone”

On April 11, 1928 — a largely forgotten benchmark date in the history of rockets — Fritz von Opel became the first known human to ride a rocket-powered car. The RAK-1 reached a top speed of about 60 miles per hour (100 kph), according to Opel. An improved model, the RAK-2, reached a top speed of 145 mph (238 kph). As Opel proudly recounts, Rocket Fritz described his handling of the vehicle as “acting on instinct alone, with uncontrollable forces raging behind me.”

The RAK-3 set an unmanned speed record on railroad tracks, but the RAK-4 exploded, and that was the end of Opel’s experiments with rocket-powered cars. A proposed rocket motorcycle was abandoned under pressure from the authorities.

Taking to the Air

Meanwhile, as Jalopnik notes, Fritz von Opel and Max Valier had raised their rocket propulsion goals to the skies. Valier had already co-founded the legendary Verein für Raumschiffahrt (Society for Space Travel), a group of space enthusiasts and experimenters that included a young Wehrner von Braun. According to Popular Science, Valier foresaw the potential of rocket planes for spaceflight as early as 1924, long before he met Fritz von Opel. Valier wanted to outfit a regular plane with a rocket engine, with the hopes that it would significantly reduce intercontinental travel time.

Alas, few details of von Opel’s and Valier’s rocket plane experiments were recorded. Strange Vehicles reported that von Opel bought a sailplane called the Ente and fitted it with rocket motors, but the aircraft exploded on its second test flight, before he had a chance to fly it. Fritz von Opel ended his rocket propulsion experiments there, and Max Valier was killed in a 1930 rocket explosion.

Return of the Rocket Plane

The greatest age of the rocket plane may still be ahead, as researchers continue to explore the possibility of spaceplanes that can use jet power to take off from a runway and climb through the atmosphere, then use rocket power to reach orbital speed. The challenges and potential of this technology are both enormous.

The U.S. Air Force’s X-planes, most famously the X-15, pioneered supersonic and hypersonic flight. Hypersonic transport — much more advanced than von Opel and Valier’s inventions — could make space travel affordable and accessible for the everyday person.

Yet, when considering the history of rockets, we should not forget those days, not yet a century ago, when rocket-powered cars and motorcycles were the technology of the future.