Today, a brave woman and a terrible cause. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Reitsch was born in Germany in 1912. She wanted
to be a flying missionary doctor but, after the
Versailles Treaty had clipped Germany's wings, she
became an excellent glider pilot. She set records,
she worked as a movie stand-in flyer, and she went
on an expedition to study weather in South America.
Hitler made her an honorary flight captain, the
first woman to receive that award.
In 1937, the re-formed Luftwaffe hired her as a
civilian test pilot. She accepted with near
reverence, calling German warplanes,
"Guardians of the portals of peace." Historian Judy Lomax tells
how Hanna Reitsch's values were instilled by a
mother who wrote her daily, warning against the sin
of pride and praying for her safety.
Reitsch rode the forefront of German technology.
Before Siskorsky perfected the helicopter in 1939,
the Germans had developed a more primitive version
and Reitsch tested it. She tested the gliders which
silently deposited German troops on the Maginot
line in 1940 and broke the back of French
She worked fervently and methodically in a cause
she accepted without question. In 1941, Hitler
awarded her the Iron Cross, second class, for the
almost fatally dangerous work she did in developing
means for cutting the cables dangled by British
barrage balloons. The most dangerous machine she
tested was the Messerschmitt 163, Germany's
experimental rocket-powered interceptor. In a
minute and a half after takeoff it climbed at a
65-degree angle to 30,000 feet. It traveled 500 mph
-- the fastest any human had ever gone.
On her fifth flight, the takeoff dolly jammed. She
crash- landed, split her face open, and still had
the presence of mind to write out what'd happened
before she passed out. She spent the next four
months hovering between life and death; and, this
time, Hitler gave her the Iron Cross, first class.
When she recovered, she was horrified to find the
Me-163 in full production. Crazy wishful thinking!
The plane was as useless as it was dangerous.
If that didn't shake her belief in the Nazis,
rumors that they were exterminating Jews should
have. But when she confronted Heinrich Himmler with
that, he made her believe he was as outraged as she
was that the Allies would spread such propaganda.
And so she remained a believer. When she learned
Germany was thinking about a suicide version of the
V-1 rocket -- a Kamikaze bomb to be guided by a
human being -- she asked to test the prototype. She
was disappointed when she found it was an empty
After the war she was doggedly unrepentent. She
wore her Iron Crosses proudly and wrote somewhat
defensive and self-serving memoirs. Was she a Nazi
to the end, or just a proud woman? We don't know.
She continued to fly and was generous in helping
other women pilots from other countries. And, at
the age of 65, the year before she died, she set a
new women's distance record in a glider.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Lomax, J., Women of the Air. New York:
Ivy Books, 1987, Chapter 13.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright
© 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.
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