By James Maclaine
In her autobiography Fliegen, mein Leben Hanna Reitsch wrote that, ‘at great altitudes the airman feels close to God.’ With these words she captured the privilege that is the pilot’s and the otherness that has caused those exemplary in the world of aviation to be lauded and recorded. Although traditionally a male occupation, certain women aviators have found notoriety. But whilst Amelia Earhart is as well remembered as Charles Lindberg, the memory of Hanna Reitsch has faded. Time is not to blame; her achievements followed Earhart’s. Rather her context within Nazi Germany has caused popular history to obscure her successes. This fate is at odds with the high achieving pilot, who made herself known to her society and its powerful: to Hitler and Goring during the war, and thereafter to presidents of Ghana, Indira Ghandi, and even John F. Kennedy. Hanna Reitsch did not recognise limits; flight gave her this confidence. She was the plucky 5ft1 Silesian, who told Hitler deluded by the potential of the jet plane in 1944 that he was trusting in the ‘grandchild of an embryo’. She knew her subject, but at times she knew the wrong people. How then should history remember this woman?
The issue to be considered is the inextricable entanglement of Reitsch’s biographical details and achievements. Whilst one can praise the Ring Cycle and not necessarily recall Wagner’s politics, one cannot remove Reitsch’s success from its context. For the significance of her role in the development of aeromechanics is proven by the formal acknowledgement of the Nazi State. Her experimental work testing a balloon cable cutting device (a measure to counter England’s barrage balloon defences) earned her the Iron Cross 2nd Class in 1941. She was only the second woman since the medal’s institution to be so awarded. This preparedness to risk all was further recognised by the addition of the Iron Cross 1st Class for the testing of the rocket plane, the Me 163, which left Reitsch hospitalised for 5 months and requiring extensive reconstructive surgery. It was for her daring and exemplary capacity as a pilot that she could be involved in those final flights to and from Berlin on the brink of surrender, for which if anything she has only been recalled.
On 26th April 1945 she flew to the Reich Chancellery with Colonel-General von Greim, who had been summoned by Hitler. A flight of enormous risks that almost ended disastrously, with von Greim injured by a bullet, was only saved by Reitsch’s ingenuity to reach around the general’s body and to land the craft safely. Hers was the last plane to leave Berlin three days later before its actual downfall. Her involvement in these flights was a conclusion of her extraordinary talent. This is not to claim her as naive or disinterested in contemporary politics; her reluctance to explain is notable in her autobiography with the citing of ‘the cause of Germany’ her only concession. Yet the absence of the specifics of her beliefs should prevent exaggerations like those, which followed the war painting Reitsch as the lover who visited Hitler in his final days in the bunker.
In her accounts the absolute emphasis is on flight. The consummate aviator she writes with an infectious enthusiasm that convinces aviation was her life’s purpose. It is this zeal that has oddly avoided common attention. She sought every opportunity to pursue her ambitions. At an early age she persuaded her reluctant parents, who hoped their daughter would pursue a medical career, that a pilot’s training would be necessary if she were to become a flying doctor in Africa. This possibility remained exactly that as her career as a glider and test pilot sky-rocketed. In a television interview of 1976, she referred to, ‘the only burning wish to continue as test pilot again’, following her hospitalisation. Here one can appreciate the constancy of Reitsch’s ambitions. It appears that this passion had risen within her in response to the male prejudice that she endured. Instructors dismissing her success as accident in the initial tests at the School of Gliding in Grunau in the early 1930s forced her to sit them again. To them it was, ‘the old story of the blind hen that manages sometimes to pick up the grain of corn.’ Thereafter Reitsch proved that her vision was as keen as the rooster’s, studying the mechanics and reconstructing dismantled engines to impress the foreman and gain the required respect. Her mentor, Wolf Hirth, acknowledged this inviting her to serve as an instructor at a new gliding school in Swabia, at which all her pupils were male.
So extensive were Reitsch’s accomplishments that one need not forever consider the disadvantage of her sex. Further to the world records that she set in distance and endurance as an aviatrix, she outperformed her male colleagues as an aviator. The first woman to join the Civil Airways Training Scheme at Stettin she set an irreversible precedent in Germany. A woman’s uniform was not yet in existence, and the oversized masculine attire swamped her frame causing her to fall facedown onto the carpet before a station commander, but she was there to remain. In May 1937 she was very much one of the men as one of five Germans who were the first to cross the Alps by sailplane following a flight of over 100 miles from Salzburg to Pieire di Cadone. Her test flights for the development of dive brakes established her role in the history of aeronautics, as the award of the title, Flugkapitan, testified. Whilst knowledge of the dive brakes’ significance belongs to the engineer, all can appreciate the advent of the helicopter. Invented by Prof. Fokke, Reitsch was one of its initial test pilots and her findings aided its invention. Fittingly it was she who demonstrated it to the world at the International Automobile Exhibition in Berlin’s Deutschlandhalle in 1937.
Her first flight in the helicopter caused Reitsch to think of the hovering lark and how, ‘Man had wrested from him his lovely secret’. This response illumines the mindset of the woman, whose primary fascination was flight. Revisiting her childhood she considers her existence, ‘between Reality and Fairyland’. Perhaps this is the universal child’s experience? But for Reitsch it was to direct her life. Aviation was a dream to be made true. She was the creature from fairytale to the men who encountered her. She developed the real possibilities of flight. Reitsch discovered that Reality could be found; she escaped Fairyland. Yet the grim reality of the Nazis has tainted her legacy. One must remember and explore both; a veil should never be drawn. Past failures and successes should together be recalled.
Reitsch. H, The Sky My Kingdom (London, 1991)
Piszkiewicz. D, From Nazi Test Pilot to Hitler’s Bunker: Fantastic Flights of Hanna Reitsch (London, 1997)