Hanna Reitsch, Nazi Germany’s celebrated woman test pilot who had flown the VI rocket bomb in sub orbital flight in the early 1940’s — 20 years before the first American spaceman — was actually history’s first astronaut.
Hanna started with gliders. Her passion for the air soon overtook her interest in medicine, and she left medical school to become a full-time glider pilot (Germany had been forbidden to build “war planes” after WWI, which meant that most of the planes constructed in Germany were built without engines). She went on to become an instructor in gliding at the Horngerb in Swabia and also worked as a stunt pilot in films, but she really distinguished herself in competition.
She soon became Nazi Germany’s ideal woman, young and vivacious, daring and highly publicized by the Nazi propaganda machine.
If she hadn’t been on the losing side and if she had been later willing to admit the horrors of the Nazi regime, Hanna Reitsch would be honoured in history books as the greatest woman pilot.
At a time when women were expected to stay in the kitchen, she was one of the world’s top glider pilots. She held 40 world aviation records, was the first to cross the Alps in a glider, first to fly a helicopter and first to fly a jet plane. She was the first woman awarded the iron Cross and was the world’s first woman test pilot.
History records she flew into a burning Berlin at night in the last days of the war and landed a small plane safely on a street full of firing Russian tanks. A direct hit on her plane mangled the foot of the pilot, Ritter von Greim, who had been summoned by Adolf Hitler.
Hanna stayed three days in the Hitler underground bunker then flew the last plane out of Berlin before it fell to the Russians. Her eye-witness account of the last days of Hitler are an important part of history and her flights in the V-1 rocket are a first chapter in space travel.
In 1953 Hanna won the bronze medal in the International Gliding Championships in Madrid, Spain. In 1957 she set two women’s altitude records for gliders. She also continued to work as a research pilot. In 1959, she traveled to India, where she became friends with Indira Ghandi and Prime Minister Nehru, whom she took on a glider flight over New Delhi. In 1962, she founded the National School of Gliding in Ghana, where she stayed until 1966. Always drawn to people in power, she was friend with Ghana’s president, Kwame Nkrumah and flew for him until he was deposed in 1966. She reported these experiences in a 1968 book, Ich Flog fur Kwame Nkrumah.
She was accepted as a member of the American Test Pilots’ Association and was received by President John Kennedy in the White House in 1961. A photo shows her standing near Kennedy, not wearing her self-designed uniform but a dress and carrying a woman’s handbag. She spent her last years quietly. The darling of Nazi Germany was a post-war outcast. Germans who adored her later shunned her. Hanna Reitsch died by a heart attack at 67while was in bed at Frankfurt, Germany one year after setting a new women’s distance record in a glider. She never married, saying her man died in the war.