Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1253:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1253.

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.

Hanna 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 resistance.

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 threat.

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 work.

(Theme music)

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.

Previous Episode | Search Episodes | Index | Home | Next Episode