Flying a rocket-propelled plane can be deadly even for an experienced test pilot. Everything happens faster than in a conventional plane and a light touch on the joystick can cause the plane to spiral out of control. In 1942, Messerschmitt AG, an aircraft manufacturer, needed a pilot to test their Me 163a (later renamed Me 163b) rocket plane.
The plane was basically a pilot’s seat and joystick strapped to a rocket. The rocket burned at 1800º centigrade with a back thrust of about 4500 horsepower. At takeoff the plane reached speeds of 220 – 250 m.p.h. Once the undercarriage detached, the plane could accelerate to 500 m.p.h. and climb to 30,000 feet in less than two minutes. Landing was difficult because the plane approached the landing strip at 145 to 150 m.p.h. and had to be landed like a glider.
In October 1942, test pilot Hannah Reitsch strapped into the cockpit of the Me 163b. Unlike her initial four trials, this one went wrong immediately. The undercarriage failed to detach which meant she couldn’t do the time trials and landing safely would be nearly impossible.
When she couldn’t shake the undercarriage loose, Reitsch decided to approach the landing strip at a higher than normal altitude, then “sideslip” down so that she could ease the plane onto the ground without tearing it to pieces. Her maneuver was succeeding until the plane unexpectedly stalled and crashed and somersaulted.
Bleeding heavily, Reitsch pulled out paper and pencil and drew a sketch to show what happened. Then she blacked out. Later at the hospital, she learned that her nose had been destroyed, her skull was cracked in four places causing a brain compression and her upper jaw was displaced. She spent five months in the hospital and many additional months in physical rehabilitation. She received the Iron Cross, First Class, one of only two women who received this award in World War II.
Hannah Reitsch (1912 – 1979) was born in Hirschberg, Silesia (now Jelenia Gora, Poland). Her parents wanted her to become a medical doctor, but eventually relented and agreed that she could take flying lessons. She began flying gliders, the only type of plane that Germany was allowed to have under the terms of the Versailles Treaty. She switched to powered planes after Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933 and restarted the German aviation industry.
Reitsch came from a family of ardent Nazis and she remained a loyal Nazi until her death. Her devotion to Hitler and the Nazis is even more remarkable because she had ample evidence that the leading Nazis were unhinged and delusional.
In July 1943, her meeting with Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, degenerated into his rant on the stupidity of Christianity. Around the same time, she met with Reichsmarschall Herman Goring and was shocked to learn that he thought the rocket planes were in mass production. When she explained that they were still in the experimental stage, Goring stomped out of the room, furious.
Reitsch also saw Hitler again in his final days. She accompanied General Ritter von Greim, the last commander of the Luftwaffe, when he flew a Fieseler Storch into bombed-out Berlin in March 1945. Hitler was a pasty-faced shadow of his former self who refused to believe the war was lost even though the Russians were only a few streets away.
Reitsch offered to fly the six children of Josef and Magda Goebbels out of Berlin to save their lives. The offer was rejected and Reitsch and von Greim flew out of Berlin on April 29, 1945. A day later, Magda murdered her children in Hitler’s Bunker before committing suicide with Josef.
Reitsch’s family also committed suicide rather than face a world without Hitler. She spent 18 months as a POW of the Americans. After her release, she continued to fly. An updated edition of her memoirs was released as The Sky My Kingdom (2009 edition translated by Lawrence Wilson).
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