Childhood & Early Life
Hanna Reitsch was born on March 29, 1912, in Hirschberg, Germany. Her father, Dr. Willy Reitsch, was an ophthalmologist and her mother, Emy Helff Hibler von Alpenheim, belonged to the Austrian aristocracy and was known for her charitable works.
She had a brother Kurt who grew up to be Naval Captain and a sister Heidi. The Reitschs were a religious family. Her mother was a devout catholic but the family was brought up in her father’s protestant faith.
Hanna Reitsch was a good piano player and the family often played music together at home. As a child, she would watch the storks soar up the sky and dream of flying herself. At the age of 14, she let her father know of her desire to fly.
Dr. Reitsch wanted his daughter to enter the medical profession. Her father’s wish coupled with her deeply religious upbringing made young Hanna want to become a flying missionary doctor in Africa.
As her father was not too keen on her taking up flying, he told his teenage daughter that she would not talk of going to a gliding school until she finished her secondary school exam.
Before Hanna Reitsch started training to fly. it was decided to send her to a ‘Koloschule’ to learn practical work such as cooking, cleaning, riding, shooting and farm work. She spent a year at the ‘Koloschule’ at Rendsburg reckoning that such a training would serve a practical purpose if she were to live in Africa.
Reitsch got her father’s approval and joined the ‘Grunau School of Gliding’. She was the only female student of her class and her classmates and instructors treated her with condescension. She went on to surprise them by becoming the first person in the class to pass her ‘A’ level.
Her disbelieving instructors asked her to take the test again to make sure that it was not a fluke. She passed the second time as well and later went on to succeed in her ‘B’ and ‘C’ levels.
Hanna Reitsch went to the ‘University of Kiel’ in Berlin to study medicine. At the same time, she also convinced her parents that she needed to learn flying if she were to become a flying doctor in Africa. and joined the ‘German Air Mail’ school at Staaken.
At the flying school, she not only trained to fly planes but also learnt about airplane engines. This she did by hanging around with the mechanics and doing odd jobs. She mastered the internals of the engines well enough to be able to reassemble a dilapidated engine.
She became an accomplished pilot winning numerous competitions. She also flew the glider as a stunt double for the heroine of the film ‘Rivalen der Luft’.
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Hanna Reitsch acquired a formidable reputation as a pilot. Finally, in 1933, she gave up on becoming a doctor. The next year, she traveled to Brazil and Argentina to test fly gliders in extreme thermal conditions.
In 1935, she became a glider test pilot at the Deutsche Forschungsanstalt für Segelflug (DFS) which was the institute of glider research in Germany. She was the first person to test the first glider seaplane.
In 1936, Reitsch tested dive brakes for gliders. She successfully demonstrated the use of these brakes in front of Ernst Udet, head of the Technical Branch at the Ministry of Aviation, ‘Luftwaffe’ generals and aircraft designers and was given the rank ‘Flugkapitän’ the first woman to receive the title.
In 1937, she was appointed as a civilian test pilot of the ‘Luftwaffe’ by Ernst Udet. This was a post she held till the end of WWII. The same year, she became the first German to fly a glider over the Alps.
Her fame as a pilot, Aryan looks’ with blue eyes and blonde hair, made her an ideal candidate for Nazi propaganda. She became the poster girl for Nazi propaganda till the early 1940s.
In 1938, Ernst Udet asked her to demonstrate to an international audience that one could fully control a helicopter by flying one inside a building. Reitsch successfully completed a series of manoeuvres at the Deutschland-Halle in Berlin, becoming the first person to fly a helicopter inside a building.
In 1942, she began testing one of the most dangerous machines, the rocket-propelled Messerschmitt Me 163 - ‘the komet’. On her fifth test flight, the takeoff undercarriage did not fall away as designed. She tried to land the plane and it crashed on a field.
Hanna Reitsch suffered severe injuries including a fractured skull and broken jaws. She was hospitalised for five months and underwent several plastic surgeries. For her bravery, she was given the Iron Cross First Class.
In 1944, when it seemed apparent that Germany was going to lose the war she suggested to Hitler to create a squad of suicide pilots. Though he was not convinced, he gave her his consent. She started working on the project but it never materialised.
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Hanna Reitsch was one of the last persons to meet Hitler. She flew to Hitler’s bunker with General Ritter von Greim, landing on a makeshift airstrip. They stayed there for two days and Hitler gave them cyanide capsules. They flew out on the April 28 evening, the last plane to leave Berlin.
On May 9, 1945, Hanna Reitsch was taken into custody. During her incarceration and interrogation, she testified in detail about the complete disintegration of Hitler’s personality. She was released after 18 months.
After the war, Germans were forbidden from flying powered aircraft. Since gliding was permitted Reitsch took it up once more. She won the ‘World Gliding Championship’ in Spain in 1952.
In 1959, when Reitsch visited India to hand over gliders from West Germany to India, she was asked by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to start a gliding school. She helped set up the Delhi Gliding school which trained a large number of pilots.
In 1962, Hanna Reitsch moved to Ghana at the invitation of Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah. She worked with the government of Ghana and the armed forces and set up the first National Gliding school in Africa at Accra. She lived in Ghana till 1966.
In 1976 and 1979, Hanna Reitsch flew along the Appalachian ridges in the United States and broke the ‘Women’s Out and Return World Record’ both times. She also won the world’s first helicopter championship in the woman’s section.
Awards & Achievements
In 1932, Hanna Reitsch broke the world record in gliding by staying airborne in a glider for five and a half hours.
She created several records in 1937. She crossed the Alps in a glider becoming the first woman to do so. She also flew a helicopter inside a building. She was the first woman in the world to fly a rocket plane and a jet plane.
In 1943, she received the Iron Cross First Class, she was the first woman to get this award.
Family & Personal Life
Hanna Reitsch’s family was evacuated from Silesia just before the Soviet troops arrived. They escaped to Salzburg. Her father fearing capture by the Soviet troops, killed her mother, her sister and her sister’s three children and then shot himself. Hanna Reitsch received the news while she was in prison.
Hanna Reitsch had been very close to her mother. She came to terms with her death by becoming a catholic like her mother.
Hanna Reitsch’s political views have been called ‘naive’. When she heard about the concentration camps in Germany, she tried to find out the truth. She was told by the officials that this was Allied propaganda which she believed.
Hanna Reitsch never married and had no children. Some accounts say that General Robert Ritter von Greim had been her lover.
She became friends with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi during her visit to India. She was also close to the former Ghanaian Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah.
Hanna Reitsch died on 24 August 1979 in Frankfurt. The cause of death was given as a heart attack. She was buried in her family grave at Salzburger Kommunalfriedhof.
British test pilot Eric Brown who had been a friend of Reitsch said that he received a letter from her in August 1979 saying ‘it began in the bunker, and there it shall end’. He believes that Reitsch may have taken the cyanide pill Hitler had given her. However, her possible suicide remains unconfirmed as no autopsy was done.