The story of her life sounds like a plot for a Hollywood movie: Elly Beinhorn was the first woman to fly solo around the world, and when she married racing driver Bernd Rosemeyer, the two became one of the most celebrated German couples of the 1930s.
Elly Beinhorn’s career began with a refusal. Ever since childhood, she had been fascinated by Africa and its wild animals, and at the age of 16, she applied for a job as an animal trapper at the Hagenbeck zoo in Hamburg.
The application went unanswered, though, so the young woman decided to try something even more adventurous.
When she told her parents about her plans, they thought their daughter was crazy and wanted her to see a psychiatrist. But Beinhorn, who was born in 1907 in the German city of Hannover, was certain: she wanted to become a pilot. So, in 1929, she went to Berlin and within a few weeks, she received her pilot’s licence.
Thirst for adventure
It proved to be Beinhorn’s ticket to faraway countries, where she experienced a rich variety of cultures and true adventures. In January 1931, the 23-year-old did something that was more than extraordinary for a woman at that time, taking off in her lightweight plane for Africa without a radio, radar or navigation system on board.
I had the great luck to fly at a time when this was really an adventure.
After 70 hours and 7,000 kilometres, she reached Bolama in what is now Guinea-Bissau. On the return flight, disaster struck when a broken oil pipe forced her to land in the desert. For four days nobody knew where she was until she reached the town of Timbuktu. She had walked the 50-kilometre route.
Battered and bruised
Word of her intrepid journey and the crash in the desert soon got around and when Beinhorn landed back in Berlin in April 1931 thousands of people came to Tempelhof airfield to welcome her back. The accident in Africa had left Beinhorn with a torn tongue, plenty of bruises and a real shock, but she had no intention of giving up flying.
Only a few months later, on 4 December 1931, she took off on her first flight around the world. Her 80-horsepower Klemm L 26 aircraft carried Beinhorn 31,000 kilometres on a route that took in India, Thailand, Bali, Australia, New Zealand and South America. On 26 July 1932, she returned to Berlin as the first woman to fly solo around the world.
Elly Beinhorn had become a world star and German president Paul von Hindenburg presented her with a trophy and 10,000 Reichsmark. Of course, she spent the money on her biggest passion and continued to fly.
In 1936, she crossed three continents in just three days on her flight from Berlin through Damascus, Cairo, Athens, Budapest and back to Berlin. In the same year, the aviatrix gained even more notoriety when she married famous racing driver Bernd Rosenmeyer. Like her, he was an adventurer and speed-lover, and their achievements in the air and on the racetrack made them one of the most celebrated German couples of the time.
I was in charge when flying, but Bernd was a valuable partner. We laughed a lot during our transcontinental flight to South Africa.
But their common happiness lasted only briefly: just two months after the birth of their son, Rosenmayer was killed attempting to set a speed record. To overcome her loss, Beinhorn got back in the cockpit and, with her Messerschmitt Taifun, she flew to India. “I wanted the air over Persia, India, Burma to blow my eyes and my heart, so that I could look clearly and happily again into the world,” she later explained.
Back in the air after the war
In 1942, Beinhorn married again, gave birth to a daughter and experienced the Second World War as a housewife. She refused to fly for the Nazis and it was only when the war was over that she got back in the air. As a journalist and photographer, she travelled the world for years.
On 28 November 2007, Elly Beinhorn died in Ottobrunn, near Munich, at the age of 100. Thirty years earlier, she had given back her pilot’s licence – after 5,000 flight hours. “It was about time,” she commented. “I have been flying respectably for 51 years.”
In one of her books, she wrote: “Today, there are so many efficient female pilots who can do just as much and even more than I once could.” With the difference that she had the “great luck” to fly “at a time when this was really an adventure.”
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