- Hanna Reitsch, the first female test pilot in the world, suggests the creation of the Nazi equivalent of a kamikaze squad of suicide bombers while visiting Adolf Hitler in Berchtesgaden. Hitler was less than enthusiastic about the idea.
Reitsch was born in 1912 in Hirschberg, Germany. She left medical school in which she had wanted to be a missionary doctor to take up flying full time, and became an expert glider pilot–gliders were motorless planes that the Germans developed to evade strict rules about building warplanes after WWI. In addition to gaining experience with gliders, Reitsch also did stunt flying for the movies. In 1934, she broke the world’s altitude record for women at 9,184 feet. An ardent Nazi and admirer of Hitler, she was made an honorary flight captain by the Fuhrer, the first woman to receive such an honor.
In 1937, the Luftwaffe, the German air force, put her to work as a test pilot. Reitsch embraced this opportunity to fly as part of what she called Germany’s “guardians of the portals of peace.” Among her signal achievements was the testing of a proto-helicopter in 1939. Reitsch came closer than any other woman to seeing actual combat during World War II, depositing German troops along the Maginot Line in France during the Germans’ 1940 invasion by glider plane. She won an Iron Cross, Second Class, for risking her life trying to cut British barrage-balloon cables. Among the warplanes she tested was the Messerschmitt 163, a rocket-power interceptor that she flew 500 mph. While testing the ME 163 a fifth time, she spun out of control and crash-landed even though she was injured during the crash, she nevertheless managed to write down exactly what happened before she passed out from her injuries. For this, Hitler awarded her an Iron Cross, First Class.