Reitsch also mastered powered aircraft and became a valued test pilot, with the rank of Flugkapitän (U.S. equiv. flight captain), testing experimental aircraft for the Luftwaffe. In 1937, she became the first woman to pilot a helicopter. During World War II, Reitsch tested a variety of aircraft, including fighter planes, dive-bombers, and the Messerschmitt Me-163 rocket aircraft. She also tested aerial methods to cut barrage balloon tethers. Reitsch was one of just two women to be awarded the Iron Cross First Class and the only civilian so honored.
A fervent supporter of German leader Adolf Hitler, Reitsch proposed establishing a women's pilot squadron, an idea that German military leaders rejected. Her suggestion of a suicide squadron that would attack British industrial sites never was put into effect. The incredibly brave Reitsch piloted the final German flight into Berlin, carrying Luftwaffe General Robert von Greim to a meeting with Hitler and landing on a shell-pocked Berlin avenue on 26 April 1945. Reitsch offered to stay with Hitler and share his fate, but she was ordered to fly Greim from the city several days later.
Arrested after the war, Reitsch was held by U.S. authorities for 18 months. When freed, she went first to India and then to Ghana, where she opened an aviation school to teach gliding. She became the first female winner of the World Helicopter Championships in 1971. Many aviation historians consider her to have been the twentieth century's outstanding female pilot. Reitsch died at Frankfurt, Germany, on 24 August 1979. Elizabeth D. Schafer
Lomax, Judy. Hanna Reitsch: Flying for the Fatherland. London: Murray, 1988.; Piszkiewicz, Dennis. From Nazi Test Pilot to Hitler's Bunker: The Fantastic Flights of Hanna Reitsch. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997.; Reitsch, Hanna. The Sky My Kingdom. London: Greenhill Books, 1991.
Elizabeth D. Schafer