The First Woman to Fly a Helicopter, a Rocket Plane, and a Jet Fighter: Hanna Reitsch


Hanna Reitsch giving the German Salute (Deutscher Gruß)

Hanna Reitsch (March 29, 1912 – August 24, 1979) was a German aviator and the only woman awarded the Iron Cross First Class and the Luftwaffe Combined Pilots-Observation Badge in Gold with Diamonds during World War II. Reitsch was the first woman to fly a helicopter, a rocket plane, and a jet fighter. She set over forty aviation altitude and endurance records during her career, both before and after World War II, and several of her international gliding records are still standing to this day. During the last days of the war she made a daring rescue attempt flying into Berlin offering an exit to Hitler if he wished to escape from the besieged city.


Hanna Reitsch’s Family

Hanna Reitsch’s father was Dr. Willy Reitsch and her mother’s name was Emy Reitsch Geb. Helff-Hibler Von Alpenheim. Hanna Reitsch had an older brother whose name was Kurt Reitsch (born – September 16, 1910) who was a Fregatten Kapitan. Hanna Reitsch’s younger sister’s name was Heidi Macholz Geb. Reitsch who was born on May 11, 1916. Heidi Reitsch had two children – Hanns Jurgen Macholz and Ellen Und Bjorn Macholz [1].

The picture of Hanna Reitsch’s parents can be seen in this tribute video to Hanna Reitsch [2].


Early Life

Reitsch was born in Hirschberg, Silesia. Her father was an ophthalmologist who wanted her to become a doctor. She was interested in aviation, and thought she might become a flying doctor in North Africa and even studied medicine for a time. Reitsch began flying in 1932 with flights in gliders. She left medical school in 1933 at the invitation of Wolf Hirth to become a full-time glider pilot and instructor at Hornberg in Baden-Württemberg. She was soon breaking records, earning a Silver C Badge No 25 in 1934. She flew from Salzburg across the Alps in 1938 in a Sperber Junior.[3]


 Activities during the Third Reich

In 1937 Reitsch was posted to the Luftwaffe testing centre at Rechlin-Lärz Airfield by Ernst Udet. She was a test pilot on the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka and Dornier Do 17 projects. Reitsch was the first female helicopter pilot and one of the few pilots to fly the Focke-Achgelis Fa 61, the first fully controllable helicopter. Her flying skill and photogenic qualities made her a star to the people of Germany. In 1938 she made nightly flights of the Fa 61 helicopter inside the “Deutschlandhalle” at the Berlin Motor Show.


The Focke-Wulf Fw 61 is often considered the first practical, functional helicopter, first flown in 1936. It was also known as the Fa 61, as Focke began a new company—Focke-Achgelis—after development had begun.

With the outbreak of war in 1939 Reitsch 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. After crashing on her fifth Me 163 flight Reitsch was badly injured but reportedly insisted on writing her post-flight report before falling unconscious and spending five months in hospital. Reitsch became Adolf Hitler’s favourite pilot and was one of only two women awarded the Iron Cross First Class during World War II. Reitsch became close to former fighter pilot and high ranking Luftwaffe officer Robert Ritter von Greim who became her lover.


Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet



The film Operation Crossbow began a popular myth that early guidance and stabilization problems with the V-1 flying bomb were solved during a daring test flight by Reitsch in a V-1 modified for manned operation. However, in her autobiography Fliegen, Meine Liebe Reitsch recalled other test pilots had been killed or gravely injured while trying to land the piloted version of the V1 (known as the Reichenberg), so she made test flights late in the war to learn why and found the craft’s extremely high stall speed was thwarting test pilots, who had no experience landing at extremely high speeds. Reitsch’s background with the very fast Me163 along with simulated landings at a safe high altitude led her to a successful landing of the Reichenberg, but only at over 200 km/h.


Piloted V1 rocket



During the last days of the war, in light of Herman Göring’s dismissal as head of the Luftwaffe for what was an act of treason, he appointed Colonel-General Robert Ritter von Greim as head of the Luftwaffe. To enable him to meet Hitler, von Greim asked Reitsch to fly him into embattled Berlin.

Red Army troops were already in the downtown area when Reitsch and von Greim arrived on 26 April in a Fieseler Fi 156 Storch. With her long experience at low altitude flying over Berlin and having already surveyed the road as an escape route with Hitler’s personal pilot Hans Baur, Reitsch landed on an improvised airstrip in the Tiergarten near the Brandenburg Gate (Greim was wounded in the leg when Red Army soldiers fired at the light aircraft during its approach). They made their way to the Führerbunker where Hitler promoted von Greim to Hermann Göring’s former command of a now wholly defunct Luftwaffe. During the intense Russian bombardment, Hitler gave Reitsch a vial of poison for herself and another for von Greim. She accepted the vial willingly, fully prepared to die alongside her Führer.[4] On Hitler’s orders, she escaped from Berlin with von Greim during the evening of 28 April, flying the last German plane out of Berlin shortly before the fall of the city by climbing through heavy Soviet anti-aircraft fire. Hitler had ordered them to rendezvous with Karl Dönitz, who Hitler was convinced was rallying troops for a counter-attack.


Reitsch was soon captured along with von Greim and the two were interviewed together by American military intelligence officers.[5] When asked about being ordered to leave the Fuhrerbunker on 28 April 1945 Reitsch and von Greim reportedly repeated the same answer, “It was the blackest day when we could not die at our Führer’s side.” Reitsch also said, “We should all kneel down in reverence and prayer before the altar of the Fatherland.” When the interviewers asked what she meant by “Altar of the Fatherland” she answered, “Why, the Führer’s bunker in Berlin…”[6] She was held and interrogated for eighteen months. Her companion, von Greim, committed suicide on 24 May. Her father killed her mother, her sister, and her sister’s children before killing himself during the last days of the war after expulsion by the Polish from their hometown of Hirschberg.[7]


Later Flying Career

After her release Reitsch settled in Frankfurt am Main. Following the war German citizens were forbidden from flying but within a few years gliding was allowed, which she took up. In 1952 Reitsch won third place in the World Gliding Championships in Spain (and was the only woman to compete). She continued to break records including the women’s altitude record (6,848 m). She became German champion in 1955.

During the mid-1950s Reitsch was interviewed on film and talked about her wartime flight tests of the Fa 61, Me 262 and Me 163. In 1959 she was invited to India by prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru to begin a gliding centre. In 1961 Reitsch was invited to the White House by US President John F. Kennedy. From 1962 to 1966 she lived in Ghana where she founded the first black African national gliding school.[8]

She gained the Diamond Badge in 1970.[3] Throughout the 1970s Reitsch broke gliding records in many categories, including the “Women’s Out and Return World Record” twice, once in 1976 (715 km) and again in 1979 (802 km) flying along the Appalachian Ridges in the United States. During this time, she also finished first in the women’s section of the first world helicopter championships [9].


Later Life

Although she kept a low profile after the war, toward the end of her life she was interviewed and photographed several times in the 1970s by US photo-journalist Ron Laytner.[10] At the end of her last interview she told Laytner:

And what have we now in Germany? A land of bankers and car-makers. Even our great army has gone soft. Soldiers wear beards and question orders. I am not ashamed to say I believed in National-Socialism. I still wear the Iron Cross with diamonds Hitler gave me. But today in all Germany you can’t find a single person who voted Adolf Hitler into power… Many Germans feel guilty about the war. But they don’t explain the real guilt we share – that we lost.

In 1976, there was a test pilot interview with Hanna Reitsch which is available here [11]



Reitsch died in Frankfurt at the age of 67 on 24 August 1979 following a heart attack. She had never married.[12][13]

Some people severely criticize Hanna’s lover Von Greim for her death, because they believe that it was Von Greim’s romantic relationship with Hanna that drew Hanna to extreme level of danger and perhaps also her death.

In his book “Wings On My Sleeve – The World’s Greatest Test Pilot Tells His Story”, Former British test pilot and former Royal Navy Officer Eric Brown mentions that he received a letter from Hanna to his utter surprise at the beginning of August 1979 in which she said they (Hanna and Eric Brown) had a common bond in love of flying and of danger, but neither Eric nor anyone outside Germany really understood her passionate love of the Fatherland (Germany). This letter was short and finished with the words “It began in the bunker, there it shall end.” These words (in German) puzzled Eric and only the news of her death in Frankfurt on August 22, 1979 gave Eric a possible key to this mystery. It was well known that Hitler gave Hanna and Von Greim each a cyanide pill before dismissing them from the bunker on April 28, 1945. Hanna always considered that she and Von Greim had made a binding pact to commit suicide, one after another, but with an intervening period to prevent rumour of a love affair. Von Greim swallowed his pill on May 24 while under arrest in hospital at Salzburg. It is known that Hanna had managed to retain her cyanide pill throughout these years, and then again news of her death was not made public until a fortnight after demise. Also there appears to have been no post mortem made on her body, or at least no such report is available. Anyway, Eric sent Hanna’s letter to her brother Kurt, whom Eric knew in the post-war German Navy, but received no acknowledgement. Eric wondered if Hanna was honoring her pact with Von Greim several years after Von Greim’s suicide.[14] Eric received Hanna’s final letter to him just few weeks before her death as mentioned above. Based on this calculation, Von Greim made the pact with Hanna in the bunker which was long before she even found out anything about the death of her family. Hanna’s book “The Sky My Kingdom” acknowledges that she and Von Greim’s stay in Adolf Hitler’s bunker was before finding out about the death of her family.

Hanna may have been planning to use cyanide capsule. But as mentioned above, the reason for Hanna’s death has been identified as Heart attack. The doctor would have been able to find out if Hanna Reitsch used cyanide capsule or not. This is because the way cyanide works is that oxygen can’t leave the blood. The face and the parts of the body on the surface also becomes red in color. This can be seen in detail in the documentary “Holocaust Handbooks Eric Hunt ‘The Jewish Gas Chamber Hoax[15].



First woman astronaut & test pilot – Hanna Reitsch“:


List of Awards and World Records

  • 1932: women’s gliding endurance record (5.5 hours)
  • 1936: women’s gliding distance record (305 km)
  • 1937: first woman to cross the Alps in a glider
  • 1937: the first woman in the world to be promoted to flight captain by Colonel Ernst Udet
  • 1937: world distance record in a helicopter (109 km)
  • 1938: the first person to fly a helicopter Focke-Wulf Fw 61 inside an enclosed space (Deutschlandhalle)
  • 1938: winner of German national gliding competition Sylt-Breslau (Schlesien)
  • 1939: women’s world record in gliding (which record?)
  • 1943: While in the Luftwaffe, the first woman to pilot a rocket plane(Messerschmitt Me 163). She survived a disastrous crash though with severe injuries and because of this she became the first and only German woman to receive the Iron Cross First Class.
  • 1944: the first woman in the world to pilot a jet aircraft at the Luftwaffe research centre at Reichlin during the trials of the Messerschmitt Me 262 and Heinkel He 162
  • 1952: third place in the World Gliding Championships in Spain together with her team-mate Lisbeth Häfner
  • 1955: German gliding champion
  • 1956: German gliding distance record (370 km)
  • 1957: German gliding altitude record (6.848 m)


Books by Hanna Reitsch

  • Fliegen, mein Leben. 4. Aufl. Herbig, München 2001, ISBN 3-7766-2197-4 (Autobiographie
  • Ich flog in Afrika für Nkrumahs Ghana. 2. Aufl. Herbig, München 1979, ISBN 3-7766-0929-X (früherer Titel: Ich flog für Kwame Nkrumah).
  • Das Unzerstörbare in meinem Leben. 7. Aufl. Herbig, München 1992, ISBN 3-7766-0975-3.
  • Höhen und Tiefen. 1945 bis zur Gegenwart. Heyne, München 1984, ISBN 3-453-01963-6.
  • Höhen und Tiefen. 1945 bis zur Gegenwart. 2. erweiterte Auflage von 1978, Herbig-Verlag München/Berlin ISBN 3-7766-0890-0


Portrayal in the media

Hanna Reitsch has been portrayed by the following actresses in film and television productions.

  • Barbara Rütting in the 1965 film Operation Crossbow
  • Diane Cilento in the 1973 British film Hitler: The Last Ten Days.[18]
  • Myvanwy Jenn in the 1973 British television production The Death of Adolf Hitler.[19]
  • Anna Thalbach in the 2004 German film Downfall (Der Untergang).[20]



  3. 3.0 3.1 Slater, AE (December 1979/January 1980). “Obituary”. Sailplane & Gliding 30 (6): 302. British Gliding Association.
  4. William L. Shirer “The Rise And Fall of The Third Reich”, p.1454
  5. “Hitler’s Woman Pilot Seized”. New York Times. 10 October 1945. Retrieved 2008-07-07. “The question whether Adolf Hitler is dead or alive may be answered by the testimony of Hanna Reitsch, woman Luftwaffe pilot, who was in a Berlin bomb shelter with him a few hours before the Russians captured it. She was arrested in the United States zone of occupation today and is being interrogated.”
  6. Page 234, The Decline and Fall of National Socialist Germany and Imperial Japan, Hans Dollinger, Library of Congress Catalogue Card Number 67-27047
  7. Piszkiewicz, Dennis, From National Socialist Test Pilot to Hitler’s Bunker: The Fantastic Flights of Hanna Reitsch, Praeger Publishers, 1997. ISBN 978-0275954567, from summary by Emerson Thomas McMullen (Ph.D., History and Philosophy of Science, Indiana University, 1989), retrieved 8 January 2010
  8. The school was commanded by JES de Graft-Hayford with gliders such as the double seated Schleicher K7, Slingsby T21 and a Bergfalk along with a single seated Schleicher K8.
  9., Profiles, May 2005, retrieved 6 May 2008
  10. [1]
  12. “Hanna Reitsch, 67. A Top German Pilot. Much-Decorated Favorite of Hitler Was Last to Fly Out of Berlin Was Cleared by U.S. Hitler Gave Her Iron Cross In Voluntary Suicide Squad.”. New York Times. 31 August 1979. Retrieved 2008-07-07. “Hanna Reitsch, the leading German female pilot and a much-decorated favorite of Hitler who flew the last plane out of Berlin hours before the city fell in 1945, died Friday at her home in Bonn, West Germany. She was 67 years old.”
  13. “Hanna Reitsch, Test Pilot for Hitler”. Washington Post. 1 September 1974. Retrieved 2008-07-07. “Aviation pioneer Hanna Reitsch, 67, who flew the last plane out of burning Berlin before the fall of National socialism in 1945, died Aug. 24, the West Germany radio has reported.”
  14. Eric Brown’s Book “Wings On My Sleeve- The World’S Greatest Test Pilot Tells His Story”, Pg. 113-114
  16. Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973). Retrieved on 8 May 2008.
  17. The Death of Adolf Hitler (1973) (TV). Retrieved on 8 May 2008.
  18. Untergang, Der (2004). Retrieved on 8 May 2008.


Source: Metapedia


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