In 1932, medical student Hanna Reitsch began soaring and went on to become one of the first people to cross the Alps in a glider. After graduating to powered aircraft, her daring and skill landed her in the forefront of Germanyıs aviation efforts.
Even before the second World War, Hanna was recognized as Germanyıs leading aviatrix for her work flying experimental aircraft. One of her first feats was to fly the worldıs first practical helicopter inside of an exhibition hall. Always the professional flier, she was quickly recruited as a test pilot. The worldıs first female test pilot became known for her courage as she took on many unbelievably dangerous jobs, including testing a V-1 flying bomb equipped with a cockpit. With WWII, Germany was desperate to get advanced aircraft into production, and this desperation led Hanna to test some of the most ill-conceived aircraft ever built. Hitler presented Luftwaffe Flugkapitan (Luftwaffe captain) Reitsch with the first Iron Cross awarded to a woman for testing a device designed to cut the tethers of barrage balloons in 1941. During one of the tests, a cable shaved off parts of her Dornier Do 17ıs propeller blades; she calmly feathered what remained of the propellers and brought the plane down to a safe landing.
Soon Hanna was given the even more difficult mission of testing the German Me 163 experimental rocket plane. Considered ³super-hazardous,² the Me 163 took off in a roar of flame and could soar to 30,000 feet in 90 seconds, eventually attaining a speed of nearly 600 miles per hour. Even sitting on the ground in ³a hellish, flame-spewing din,² Hanna recalled, it was ³all I could do to hold on as the machine rocked under a ceaseless succession of explosions.² On her fifth night, an equipment failure forced Hanna to come in for a crash landing with the plane bucking and rolling. Always the professional, Hanna reached for a pad and pencil and drew a sketch of the sequence of events leading to the crash before she blacked out. She spent more than five months in the hospital recuperating from serious head injuries. While she was still recovering from headaches and dizzy spells, she put herself through a strict regimen of tree and roof climbing to regain her sense of balance and was soon test-flying again, much to the astonishment of her doctors.
Concerned about the progress of the war, Hanna offered to form a squadron of women pilots to fight for Germany, on the same terms as the men of the Luftwaffe. Although this plan was rejected, her idea for a suicide squadron that would strike at vital production centers in England was approved. This plan, however, was abandoned when the Allies landed in Normandy in June of 1944.
Hanna Reitschıs most dangerous assignment was to ferry Luftwaffe General Robert Ritter von Greim to meet with Hitler in the bunker of the Berlin Reich Chancellery in the last days of the war. The Luftwaffe officers clearly believed this mission to be impossible: Berlin was completely surrounded by the Soviets and not a single German plane had been able to get into the city for two days. Greim was wounded during the approach to Berlin, but Hanna brought the Fieseler Storch to a safe landing on a shell-pocked street near Hitlerıs underground bunker. After spending two days in the bunker, watching the disintegration of Germanyıs leader, Hanna and Greim took off in an Arado Ar 96 monoplane, using a bombed-out street as a runway. Flying through a low cloud bank, Hanna was able to evade Soviet searchlights and fighters. Hanna was the only woman to be awarded the Iron Cross and Luftwaffe Diamond Clasp. She went on to set more than forty altitude and endurance records in motorless and powered aircraft in her lifetime.
Hanna Reitsch did not hesitate to break the ³glass ceiling² of womenıs aviation. In fact, she smashed through it in the fastest and most advanced aircraft of the day.