Germany’s best-known female pilot during and after World War II.
Hanna Reitsch began her career by learning to fly gliders in 1930, becoming the protégé of the influential glider instructor Wolf Hirth. In May, 1933, riding the rising air of a storm cloud, she set a new world altitude record for gliders. After gaining certification and experience as a glider instructor, she was chosen in 1934 to be a glider test pilot for the German Institute for Glider Research. She tested newly developed dive brakes, demonstrating controlled terminal-velocity dives. These brought her to the attention of Ernst Udet, perhaps the most famous World War I pilot. Through Udet’s efforts, she became the first German woman to win the honorary title of Flugkäpitan, or flight captain.
With Udet’s assistance, Reitsch began testing the Luftwaffe’s latest fighters and bombers in 1937. That year, she was among a group of five pilots who made the first glider flights over the Alps. In 1938, she was sent to the United States to demonstrate glider aerobatics at the Cleveland Air Races. In 1942, she was the first German woman to win the Iron Cross, an honor that gained her access to the experimental Me-163 rocket-powered airplane.
Fiercely patriotic, Reitsch in 1943 organized with two friends a suicide bomber squadron to turn the tide against the Allied march. She performed tests on a piloted version of the V-1 rocket in 1944. In the closing days of the war, Hitler requested in his bunker the presence of Reitsch’s friend General Robert Ritter von Greim, whom Reitsch accompanied. After von Greim was wounded by Russian gunfire, Reitsch took command of his airplane. Although she wanted to die with Hitler, he commanded her to fly von Greim to where he could take command of the Luftwaffe. Reitsch flew the last German plane out of Berlin in late April, 1945, before it was seized by the Russians.
Reitsch was captured and interned for fifteen months by the U.S. Army, during which time she gave testimony about Hitler’s last days. When permitted by the Allies, she returned to her first love, gliding. In 1953, she gained a bronze medal at the World Gliding Championship in Spain, as the sole woman competitor. In 1957, she won a bronze medal at the German glider championships and set two women’s altitude records. She helped establish the national school of gliding in Accra, Ghana, beginning in 1962. Only a few months after her last flight, in 1979, she died of a heart attack.
Lomax, Judy. Hanna Reitsch: Flying for the Fatherland. London: John Murray, 1988. A comprehensive biography of Reitsch, from original sources, with details of her family, her unswerving patriotism, her personality, and her postwar activities. Piszkiewicz, Dennis. From Nazi Test Pilot to Hitler’s Bunker. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1997. A useful, recent biography from a longer perspective, concentrating on Reitsch’s wartime activities. Reisch, Hanna. The Sky My Kingdom. Translated by Lawrence Wilson. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1997. A translation of Reitsch’s autobiography Fliegen, mein Leben (1955).
Women and flight
World War II