Women Aloft and Hanna Reitsch

Farther, faster, higher


For German women, it was not easy to even attempt record flights during the years between the Wars. Under the terms of the Versailles Treaty, Germany was prohibited from having aircraft that might conceivably be employed for military purposes. Fliers were generally restricted to gliders or small sport planes, and they were required to limit the length of their flights.

Thea Rasche, the first woman to earn her pilot’s license in postwar Germany, satisfied her yearning to fly by stunting and racing sport planes in competition with the finest fliers of her time, in the United States and France as well as in her own country.

Elly Beinhorn, in a minuscule 80-horsepower Klemm monoplane, managed to fly in short stages from Germany to the Far East in 1931 and from Germany to Australia in 1932. From there she and her plane took ship for South America, where she flew over the Andes Mountains, dodging between the peaks that her small plane could not fly over. Although others had made the mountain crossing before her, including French flier Adrienne Bolland in 1921, it was still a hair-raising trip. She topped this adventure with a flying circumnavigation of the African continent.


Marga von Etzdorf, the first German woman to pass licensing examinations for commercial, glider, sports and stunt flying

A third remarkable German woman pilot, Marga von Etzdorf, born into an aristocratic family in 1907, managed for a time to fly larger and heavier aircraft even during the period of restriction. She earned her license in 1927 and quickly got a job as a copilot with Lufthansa. She therefore had the opportunity, unusual for German pilots of either sex to handle large aircraft, and to regularly fly a commercial route that covered considerable distances, from Berlin to Basel, Switzerland via Stuttgart.

She was soon possessed by an urge to fly even longer distances. Buying a small Junkers Junior with 80-horsepower engine, she learned aerobatics and then embarked in 1930 on a leisurely flight from Berlin to Istanbul, making several stops in the Balkans. She next undertook a longer trip that involved overwater jumps from Germany to the Canary Islands. Although her flight ended with an accident in Sicily- she suffered the flier’s humiliation of having to get home by train – this journey prepared her for her most successful long-distance effort, a 11 day solo flight from Berlin to Tokyo in 1931.

By this time one of Germany’s most celebrated woman pilot, Marga von Etzdorf became an unofficial ambassador of German aviation, giving lectures about her Tokyo flight in half a dozen countries. Then eager to try another long-distance journey, she set out from Germany for Australia in 1933. All went well until she tried to land in Aleppo, Syria, at the end of the second leg of the flight. Swirling winds and shifting sand at the Aleppo airport caused her to misjudge her approach and she crashed into the barrier at the end of the field. She was not seriously injured, but her plane was badly damaged and her dream of a triumphant, record breaking flight was shattered. The humiliation was too severe. Feeling that she had disgraced the noble Etzdorfs and her Fatherland, she retired to a room attached to the dining hall at the Aleppo airfield, ostensibly to rest, and shot herself. As one of Germany’s most noted pilots, she was given a state funeral by order of Adolf Hitler.


Marga von Etzdorf lies in state in Hamburg in July 1933 having shot herself after a crash in Syria.

Few German fliers had Marga von Etzdorf’s opportunities to pilot powered aircraft, most had to make do with gliders.

Hanna Reitsch


Hanna Reitsch was soon recognized for her remarkable flying skills

The most famous woman pilot in wartime Germany was Hanna Reitsch, whose exploits for the military surpassed even her achievements as a glider pilot and test pilot in the 1930s. For the Luftwaffe, she did virtually everything but fly combat missions. Aside from testing new fighters and bombers, she flew important Nazi leaders and military figures around the occupied territories and operational theatres, and she acted as a liaison between Dvance bases and rear echelon. She received the Iron Cross, Second Class, from Hitler’s hand for testing a device that was designed to shear through the cables of the British barrage balloons over London. During one of the tests in Germany, a cable shaved off parts of her Dornier Do 17’s propeller blades; she coolly feathered what remained of the propellers and brought the plane down to a safe landing.


Hanna Reitsch wearing the Iron Cross first class and the Luftwaffe gold brooch with diamond.

Soon she was on an even more difficult mission- testing the German Me 163 experimental rocket plane. A viciously unstable machine, the Me 163 took off in a roar of flame and could soar to 30,000 feet in 90 seconds, eventually attaining a speed of nearly 600 miles per hour. Even sitting on the ground in “a hellish, flame-spewing din,” she recalled, it was “all I could do to hold on as the machine rocked under a ceaseless succession of explosions.” On her fifth flight, a special launching undercarriage failed to drop as it was supposed to, and she was forced to come in for a crash landing with the plane bucking and rolling. Sitting stunned in the wrecked machine, she felt a stream of blood on her face an gingerly raised her hand to find that “at the place where my nose had been was now nothing but an open cleft.” Always the professional, she reached for a pad and pencil and drew a sketch of the sequence of events leading to the crash. Then she blacked out.

She spent more than four months in the hospital, recuperating from head injuries that her surgeons had thought would be fatal. Then while still suffering from headaches an dizzy spells, she put herself through a strict regimen of tree and roof climbing to regain her sense of balance. Soon she was test-flying again to the astonishment and concern of her doctors.

Worried about the progress of the War, she offered to form a squadron of women pilots “to fight for the Fatherland, on the same terms as the men of the Luftwaffe – without any privileges or restrictions.” She was turned down but soon was active with plans to form a suicide squadron that was to strike at vital production centres in England and key warships of the Allied fleet. The air raft to be used was the V1 rocket, the famous buzz bomb that was then in the final stages of development. For the suicide project, the V1 was provided with a seat for a pilot bu with no landing gear, since this was to be a one-way flight. Hanna Reitsch successfully test-flew a prototype of the V1 with special landing skids attached, and Hitler provisionally approved the project. It was abandoned when the Allies landed in Normandy in June of 1944.

Hanna Reitsch’s most dangerous assignment was to ferry Luftwaffe General Robert Ritter von Greim to meet with Hitler in the bunker of the Berlin Reich Chancellery in the last days of the War. The Luftwaffe officer who briefed them before the flight clearly believed the mission was impossible. Berlin was completely surrounded by the Soviets, and for two days not a single German plane had been able to get into the city. Only one airport, Gatow, remained in German hands, and it was under continual artillery fire and expected to fall to the Soviets momentarily. Moreover, it was separated from the Reich Chancellery in the centre of Berlin by 13 miles o Soviet-held territory.

Nevertheless, Hanna Reitsch and Greim decided to go ahead. The plan was to fly from Rechlin airport, 60 miles to the northwest of Berlin in a Focke-Wulf Fw 190 single-seater fighter that had been modified to carry a passenger. A Luftwaffe sergeant with an excellent knowledge of Soviet antiaircraft defenses around Berlin would fly the plane to Gatow, and Hanna Reitsch would accompany Greim the rest of the way to the Chancellery. With the sergeant piloting the plane and Greim in the passenger seat, she had to be wedged feet first into a space in the rear of the fuselage.

The virtually non-existent Luftwaffe somehow mustered 30 or 40 fighters to escort th Focke-Wulf, and on April 26, 1945, the plane managed to reach Gatow safely. For the flight to the Chancellery Hanna Reitsch chose a Fiesler Storch. At the last moment, Greim decided to take controls himself, since the woman aviator had no experience of flying under fire. They got off the shell-pocked runway safely and flew through the outskirts of Berlin at treetop level to avoids Soviet fighters. Suddenly the fighters appeared and at the same time, recalled Hanna Reitsch, “from the ground,out of the shadows, from the treetop themselves, leapt the very fires of Hell.” she looked down: “Below, Russian tanks and soldiers were swarming among the trees.”

Greim was hit, and Hanna Reitsch seized the controls. Though the plane was riddled with amour-piercing shells, she somehow managed to land it near the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin’s centre. There the pair hitched a ride in a staff car and arrived at last at the Chancellery.

They stayed scarcely more than a day, during which Hanna Reitsch observed a Hitler who had completely lost touch with reality. He appointed General von Greim Supreme Commander of the Luftwaffe to replace Goring, who he felt had betrayed him. Like everybody else in the bunker, the new arrivals were given vials of poison to permit them “freedom of choice.” Before they could use them, Hitler ordered Greim to leave and bring every available plane to the relief of Berlin. A low wing Arado Ar 96 monoplane had managed to land near the Brandenburg Gate, and Hanna Reitsch and Greim were to fly it out of the besieged capital.

Shortly after midnight on April 28, SS troops accompanied them in an armoured vehicle on an eerie ride through the ruined streets. While shells crashed nearby and Soviet searchlights probed the sky, Hanna Reitsch gunned the Arado down the smoky road and somehow got it into the air. Skimming the shattered rooftops, sh headed out of the burning city. The searchlights followed her and so did the guns. “But miraculously,” she later recalled, “not a single shot touched the plane.” what finally saved her was a low cloud formation on the outskirts of the city. She plunged into it and emerged 12 miles later, free of both antiaircraft fire and Soviet fighter panes. They landed in Rechlin at three in the morning. Two days later they heard of Hitler’s suicide.

Even in the last desperate days of the War, Germany hesitated to recruit its women fliers for combat.

Hanna Reitsch, pre-World War II

Among the finest glider pilots – and one of the most expert female aviators of all time – was Hanna Reitsch, a small blond woman with bright blue eyes and a broad smile, whose 1930s flights on motorless sailplanes took her thousands of feet aloft and kept her skimming the air currents for as long as 11 hours at a time.


Left: With a vigorous handshake and good natured smile, glider pilot Hanna Reitsch greets Luftwaffe Colonel Alfred Mahnke in 1936 at the Rhon Soaring Contests. Her enthusiasm and expertise earned her the honorary title of Flugkapitan-flight captain-from Hitler 1937; Right: Hanna Reitsch takes off in her specially built Sperber Junior glider at the Rhon meet in 1936. The only women among 61 entrants, she placed fifth in the plane “tailored to fit me so exactly, that once in the pilot’s seat I could hardly move.”

Hanna Reitsch was born on March 29, 1912 in Hirschberg, Silesia, now part of Poland but German soil at the time. In one of her several books she recalled that even as a little girl she had ached to soar like “the storks in their quiet and steady flight, the buzzards circling ever higher in the summer air.” her longing to fly grew, she recalled “with every cloud that sailed past me on the wind, until it turned into a deep, insistent homesickness, a yearning that went with me everywhere and could never be stilled.”

Like some other woman pilots, Hanna Reitsch had to overcome stubborn parental resistance before getting her wings. It was tacitly accepted in the Reitsch family that a girl’s task in life was to marry and have children. Still, her father, an eye surgeon, could not help encouraging her when she expressed interest in a medical career. He was less enthusiastic, however, when she decided at the age of 13 or 14, that she wanted to be a missionary doctor– a flying missionary doctor. Dr. Reitsch compromised: if she would not say another word about flying until she had received her high-school diploma, he would reward her with a training course at the nearby Grunau school for glider pilots.

Saying nothing more about her real ambition, the young Hanna studied hard and passed her school examinations. Her father, choosing to forger their pact, then gave her an antique gold watch. She quietly returned it to him, reminding him of his promise. When further parental ploys still failed to deflect his daughter, Dr. Reitsch gave in at last and permitted her to take gliding lessons.

In the early 1930s the Grunau Training School was a centre of German gliding activity, and its head, Wolf Hirth, was much respected in the German flying community of the time. To impress him was a passport to a future in aviation.

Hanna Reitsch found that her first task was to win the acceptance of her fellow students. She was the only female member of the class and she was still a tiny teenager, measuring half an inch over five feet and weighing less than 90 pounds. To the jeering young men in the class, the featherweight was bound to fail.

In an effort to impress her classmates, she began too boldly, taking a glider into the air when she had been instructed merely to make practice slides down the takeoff slope. The glider wavered precariously and dropped to earth. The premature performance occasioned much laughter and unwanted advice from the boys, and a three-day grounding for disobedience.

While languishing on the ground, however, she watched every slide down the takeoff slope and ever brief flight with unswerving attention, and she listened closely to every word spoken by the instructors, mentally rehearsing all the right moves. Her powers of concentration were such that, almost as soon as her punishment was over, she could outperform her classmates with ease. She passed her first test flights with such brilliance that the great Wolf Hirth himself took over the rest of her glider training.

Several days after she had passed her final test, Hirth invited his star pupil to take up the school’s newest glider. It was a great honour; only Hirth and the other instructors had previously flown the craft. Now a very small woman of 19 was being told that she could stay up as long as she liked – and wind conditions would allow.

For the first time,” she later wrote, “I was now free to fly without restrictions and I took off with feelings of real pride to soar for as long as the winds would blow, drawing on the loveliest songs I could remember and singing them out loud into the sky, hardly noticing that it rained and snowed, and coming down only when after five hours the wind finally died down.”

When she touched down, she was greeted by an excited throng of people and congratulated on setting a women’s glider endurance record with her five-hour flight.

Largely to please her father, Hanna Reitsch enrolled in medical school in Berlin, but she found that she remained more interested in the anatomy of aircraft than of human beings. Then, in May 1933, when she was back home in Hirschberg for the holidays, she experienced a dazzling if terrifying flight that spelled the end of her medical studies. One warm, cloudless day Wolf Hirth stopped her on the street and unceremoniously told her that she was take up a Grunau Baby, the very latest type of training glider. She hurried to the flying field and, still wearing her light summer street clothes, was soon sitting at the controls of the extremely fragile looking craft, studying the dials on the instrument panel.

The flight began uneventfully, but after a few minutes the glider began to rise abruptly. Gripped by strong thermal updrafts, it shot skywards–from 3000 feet to 4000 feet, to 5000 feet and still higher. “And then a million drumsticks suddenly descended on the glider’s wings and started up, in frenzied staccato, an ear splitting, hellish tattoo, till I was dissolved and submerged with fear. Through the windows of the cabin, which were already icing up. I could see the storm cloud spewing out rain and hail.”

The glider kept climbing until at 9750 feet, the instruments froze and the needles on the dials stuck before the pilot’s unbelieving eyes. And the glider no longer answered to the controls as it swooped and bucked at the mercy of the vicious storm. All Hanna Reitsch could do was hang on, her bare hands turning blue from the cold as she sat there in her summer dress.

All of a sudden, she became aware that it was warmer and brighter — and that the earth was now overhead rather than below. The storm ha spewed out the glider, but not before flipping it upside down. Seizing the control column, she righted her craft and wafted gently down into a level pasture several miles from here she had had taken off. Once back home in Hirschberg, Hanna Reitsch learned that she and the Grunau Baby, shot heavenward by the tempestuous winds, had set an unofficial gliding altitude record.


A few months after unplanned bit of record shattering, she was invited by Walter Georgii, a 44 year-old professor at the German Institute for Glider Research, to join an expedition to study thermal conditions in South America. Hanna Reitsch was delighted and earned the 3000 marks she was required to contribute to the expenses of the project by doing some stunt flying in a romantic film called Rivals of the Air, whose heroine was a glider pilot.


In South America in early 1934 she found herself, as usual, the only female pilot in a group of men; but in Brazil and Argentina this proved to be an advantage. Attending receptions and performing aerobatics for delighted crowds when she was not occupied with research flights, the little 21 year old German woman with the big nerve and enchanting smile was an instant hit. She also demonstrated her matchless skill by making a long-distance soaring flight over the pampas of Argentina; for this feat the Argentinians awarded her their Silver Soaring Medal, which had previously been won by male glider pilots.

Back home in Germany she succumbed to Professor Georgii’s insistence that she work with him at the Institute for Glider Research at Darmstadt. She stayed for 11 years, taking brief periods of time out to accumulate a rich variety of experience. A few weeks after joining the institute, she set a new women’s world record for long distance soaring covering more than 100 miles. A few months later, then still only 22 years old, she was invited to attend the Civil Airways Training School at Stettin, where she practiced cross country flying and advanced aerobatics in twin-engined aircraft — and where once again, she was the only woman in a class of men who quickly grew to respect her.

Yet her most important contributions to the cause of aviation at that time were made through the institute. Her work there consisted of test-flying new types of both motorless and powered aircraft, and of retesting existing types with a view for improving heir performance. In 1936 after a rash of fatal crashes among glider pilots, Hanna Reitsch was given the assignment of testing a newly developed braking device intended to increase a sailplane’s stability and set a limit to its maximum speed even in a vertical dive. These dive brakes, which resembled landing flaps, could be extended or retracted as needed by the pilot through the controls in the cockpit.

On the first test, the turbulence set up by the dive brakes as she made a shallow dive from 13000 feet shook the entire craft so violently that the control column was ripped out of her hands. She knew that if such a severe wing flutter were to occur during a vertical dive, the glider could break up in mid-air. Obviously, the device needed improvement.

Day after day, week after week, Hanna Reitsch and her colleagues devised new adaptions and made tests. Gliding at altitudes between 14000 feet and 19000 feet, she experimented with the new dive brakes until she felt that the final phase had arrived – it was time for a test in a vertical dive. With only a fleeting thought of what could happen should the dive brakes not hold down the glider’s speed during the headlong plunge, she aimed straight for the ground. She plummeted thousands of feet seeing the earth come closer and closer; and as she dived, the machine remained steady, its speed restricted to some 125 miles per hour. At 600 feet, she pulled out of the plunge, retracted the dive brakes and floated to a landing.

Fellow pilots, institute directors and mechanics came running up, overjoyed at the success of their efforts. In fact, the development of the new dive brakes was an important milestone in the history of aeronautics. A year later she had the satisfaction of flying a powered military aircraft that was fitted with the brakes she had tested.

That same year, 1937, marked the beginning of a new chapter in Hanna Reitsch’s life.
In spite of restrictions imposed by Versailles Treaty, Germany had secretly built an air force. Recently this force, the Luftwaffe, had been unveiled to the world, and Hanna Reitsch was asked to serve as a test pilot at the Luftwaffe’s testing station near Rechlin.

She eagerly accepted the opportunity to fly every type of military plane in the Luftwaffe’s growing inventory. During the same period she became the first woman to pilot a helicopter, putting an experimental craft through a series of test flights that she capped with a public demonstration inside the Deutschlandhalle, Berlin’s giant enclosed stadium. Following a vaudeville show that featured “Dancing Girls, Fakirs, Clowns and Blackamoors,” her unprecedented hovering flight seemed so simple and unspectacular that the public scarcely comprehended the significance of this early vertical-lift machine or the virtuosity of the pilot.

But technically minded people, especially those who saw the military implications of the helicopter, were enormously impressed, and some in other countries, were doubtlessly dismayed by this proof o Germany’s enormous strides in the field of aviation.

There would soon come a period in Hanna Reitsch’s life when she would be cut off from the camaraderie of her peers in other lands. Before that happened, however, she travelled to the United States in 1938 with two other German pilots to take part in the National Air Races in Cleveland. Like many another foreign visitor, she was stunned by the towering reality of New York’s skyscrapers, which she judged to be as high as “I had flown for my pilot’s certificate.” and she was taken aback at the Cleveland air races to see the American flag hoisted each morning by “beauty queens in bathing costume — an almost sacrilegious procedure to the German mind.

But the warm, spontaneous young German was captivated by the friendliness of Americans, and as a woman pilot who had fought her battles with jeering men she was charmed to find that the American husband, unlike his German counterpart, often “carries the wife’s shopping bag” and “helps with washing the dishes.” She liked American men, she wrote, “for their spontaneous chivalry and for their lack of aggressive self-assertion.”

What Hanna Reitsch did not note was that such domestic chivalry often failed to carry over into the world of aviation, and that even the best American women fliers were still not receiving the recognition opportunities and rewards that their skills deserved.


Courtesy of : Women Aloft by Valerie Moolman and the Editors of Time-Life Books; High-Flying Women by Alain Pelletier; published by Haynes North America Inc. 2012



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