Hanna Reitsch, German Aviatrix: Wartime Test Pilot, 1st Woman Helicopter Pilot, Awarded Iron Cross

Hanna Reitsch in 1936 at Wasserkuppe

Starting as a glider pilot, Hanna Reitsch flew almost every German military aircraft in World War II. She was also associated with the development of the V1 flying bomb.

Female pilots were rare in the 1930s, particularly in Hitler’s Germany, where women were strongly urged to stay at home and tend to their families. Yet, from humble beginnings, Hanna Reitsch became the Fuhrer’s top test pilot, flew an early helicopter in front of crowds of people, and was eventually awarded the prestigious Iron Cross. How did this extraordinary woman manage it?

Her Early Life

Born in 1912, in Hirschberg, Silesia, from an early age Hanna wanted to fly. In her autobiography she wrote, “The longing grew in me, with every bird I saw go flying across the azure summer sky”. Despite her parents’ misgivings, she managed to persuade them to let her take up gliding in her teens. She loved flying from the start, and although she started to study medicine, her true love was always aviation. She managed to convince her parents that for a future career as a flying doctor in Africa she would need a pilot’s licence, and began to take lessons in powered flight. Proving herself to be both dedicated and determined when it came to anything to do with flight, she soon gave up her medical studies to become a gliding instructor for a number of years, also winning many glider competitions and gaining a number of records.

World War II Test Pilot

From 1935, Hanna began to be involved in glider research and test gliding. In 1937 she was one of the first pilots to cross the Alps in a glider. Around this time she was ordered to report to a Luftwaffe testing station for duty as a test pilot, and thus began the type of flying for which she is best known. She flew a wide variety of types of military aircraft, including the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka and Dornier Do 17. Her obvious flying skill made her a star in the Nazi party, though she herself was not interested in politics and simply loved flying.

With the outbreak of war in 1939 Hanna was asked to fly many of Germany’s latest designs. Among these were the rocket-propelled Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet, and several larger bombers, on which she tested various mechanisms for cutting barrage balloon cables. She became Adolf Hitler’s favourite pilot and was one of only two women awarded the Iron Cross First Class during World War II..

First Female Helicopter Pilot

In 1937 Hanna first flew an early helicopter, designed by Professor Focke of Bremen. Teaching herself to fly it, she thoroughly impressed its inventor, and was soon engaged to fly indoors, demonstrating the new flying machine to the public inside the Deutschlandhalle at the Berlin Motor Show. This gave her a love of helicopters which was to last all her life.

Later Flying Career

Hanna was captured and interned towards the end of the war, but afterwards settled in Frankfurt am Main, in Germany. She took up gliding again, and became German champion in 1955. Throughout the 1970s she continued to fly, breaking gliding records in many categories. She died in Frankfurt at the age of 67, on 24th August 1979, following a heart attack.

Hanna wrote at the end of her autobiography, “Flying – that is my life”. That about sums up the story of an outstanding pilot and a remarkable woman.