To the three most infamous dictators of the 20th century, the airplane was much more than a way to get from Stalag A to Gulag B.
- By Von Hardesty
- Air & Space magazine, May 2005
(Page 4 of 8)
On April 27, 1945, Benito Mussolini, along with his mistress, Clara Petacci, was captured by Italian partisans and summarily executed.
Hitler: The Pioneer of “Luftwaffe One”
In the opening frames of Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda film Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will), Adolf Hitler appears in the skies over Nuremberg in a glistening Junkers Ju 52; its shadow is shown moving across the cityscape. The event is the 1934 Reich’s Party Day convention, and the crowds milling in the streets below glance skyward to follow the Junkers. They greet the arrival of Hitler with awe and anticipation. The symbolism was powerful: The new German Führer, descending from the heavens, embodied the vision of German renewal.
During his 12 years in power, Hitler proved to be a frequent flier. And he managed to pioneer some real innovations, among them the first air squadron to operate a head of state’s aircraft—an analog of the U.S. Air Force’s 89th Airlift Wing, which operates Air Force One. He also fully embraced aviation as essential for the evolution of national life and as a way to project military power.
Unlike Mussolini, Hitler took no particular delight in flying and was not interested in learning to fly. His approach was measured, more an embrace of necessity than a personal passion. Hitler’s involvement began in the national elections of 1932, when as a presidential candidate of the National Socialist Workers Party, he leased a tri-motor Junkers Ju 52 transport from Lufthansa German Airlines for campaign jaunts.
Hans Baur, a veteran flier of World War I and a senior Lufthansa pilot, accepted the charter assignment. Baur flew Hitler to a number of rallies, fostering in the Nazi leader a level of comfort with air travel. When Hitler became chancellor in 1933, he formed the Fliegerstaffel des Führers, or F.d.F. (Aviation Squadron of the Leader), with Baur in charge as his personal pilot. The F.d.F. operated independently of the Luftwaffe and reported directly to Hitler.
Based at Berlin’s Tempelhof airport, the squadron quickly expanded. Baur attracted the most talented pilots and technicians, creating an elite unit. Since Hitler flew only occasionally, the squadron began to transport other Nazi leaders: Heinrich Himmler, Herman Goering, Karl Doenitz, and Albert Speer. Baur’s unit also flew Hitler’s Axis partners to Germany: Mussolini was a frequent passenger, as was Ion Antonescu of Romania, Miklos von Horthy of Hungary, and King Boris of Bulgaria.
After several years of flying the Junkers Ju 52, the squadron happily made the transition to the new Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor in 1939. The Condors represented a new level of technology and comfort. Hitler’s personal Fw 200, christened the Immelmann III, entered service in late 1939.
Hitler’s Condor was highly modified: The interior of the fuselage was divided into two compartments, the forward compartment for the Führer, the aft section for staff and guests. Hitler’s compartment was fitted with a couch, a table, the Führersessel seat, and an altimeter, airspeed indicator, and clock.