Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
At 5 PM (or 17.00 according to the German Vossische Zeitung) on July 18, 1932 and after doing a lap of honour over Berlin in the company of a wing of other aeroplanes, a single-decker plane called “Silbervogel” landed at the Flughafen Tempelhof, carrying on board the very first person ever to have flown the distance Berlin-Tokio alone.
Marga von Etzdorf, a 25-year-old granddaughter of General von Etzdorf, who took off in Berlin on August 18th, 1931 managed to cover the distance of 8,913 km (5,538 miles) without the help of a second pilot in only 11 flight days (12 regular days). During one of the stop-overs in Mongolia she was surprised to see a crowd of photographers and other press people waiting at the airport.
What she did not know then was that they were not there to report about her flight – at the same time as von Etzdorf, a British pilot Amy Johnson was on her way to Tokio, too. What the press did not know was that Marga´s flight would top Johnson´s by far: unlike Johnson whose flight was navigated by the second pilot, she was about to reach the capital of Japan on her own.
Marga von Etzdorf was the second woman in Germany after WW1 to get a pilot licence (the first one was the legendary Thea Rasche). She was also the very first German woman ever to co-pilot a Lufthansa (then DLH) line aircraft: she flew a Junkers F13 on the route Berlin-Breslau (Wroclaw today) and Berlin-Stuttgart-Basel. It is worth knowing that whatever theoretical knowledge she needed to pass the necessary exams, she gained the same way as she flew later. Alone. Deutsche Verkehrsfliegerschule educating passenger plane pilots did not accept female pupils. However, von Etzdorf could count on the support of another female expert: Melitta Schiller who was an experienced engineer at the Deutsche Versuchsanstalt für Luftfahrt (German Research Institute for Aviation) in Berlin-Adlershof.
The aeroplane von Etzdorf was flying on her historical flight to Tokio was a Junkers A 50 ce “Junior”. Her own private machine she re-painted bright yellow and named “Kiek in die Welt” (kiek is Berlin-ish for look, instead of the regular guck) did a splendid job at such long a distance. It was also a machine that von Etzdorf knew like the back of her hand: she performed endless loopings and maverick back-flips in it that made her famous not only among other professional stunt pilots.
During the landing in Tokio on August 29th, 1931 she was greeted by thousands of excited locals and many prominent figures. A lone woman who flew over the whole way from Europe was worth the greatest respect and the Japanese, for once, were not shy to show it.
But this story had no happy end. On her way back to Europe, soon after her take-off in Bangkok, “Kiek in die Welt” plummeted 80 metres with her pilot on board. The aeroplane was damaged beyond repair while Marga von Etzdorf spent months in hospital recovering from her (allegedly “light” or so the Vossische Zeitung) injuries. It is true that she used the time in Siam (today Thailand) well – she was the very first person to send reports about the onset of the Siamese Revolution to Europe – but the crash had deeper consequences than anyone could have thought at the time.
Her return to Berlin on July 18th, 1932 was a glorious moment for her. She was even welcomed personally by her great colleague, another brilliant female pilot Elly Beinhorn. But indirectly it was Beinhorn who changed her future course for a deadly one.
Since Elly Beinhorn chose Kaptstadt as the target of her next long-distance flight, Marga von Etzdorf who also planned to reach South Africa, decided to change hers for Australia. On the 27th of May 1933 she started towards Syria, where she was planning to land on one of the several legs of her inter-continental flight. She began bringing her machine, a Klemm KI 32, down with the wind and lost control of the aeroplane. After the crash she dealt with all the necessary formalities and then asked for a private room where she could refresh herself and take a short nap. It was in this room, not even an hour after the accident that Marga von Etzdorf shot herself to avoid the ignominy of having to return to Germany without her machine
She knew that this failure would have equalled the loss of sponsors, of any chance for a new plane and thus of an opportunity to ever fly again. She decided to take off before it happened.
Her body was flown to Berlin to be buried in Invalidenfriedhof in Mitte. Her tombstone (the grave was destroyed in the 1970s for the security zone surrounding Berlin Wall and then re-constructed in 2003) said: “DER FLUG IST DAS LEBEN WERT” (Flying is worth life).
And how did I meet her in Kreuzberg? Go to Trebbiner Strasse 9, to Deutsches Technikmuseum and you will know. They are all there: von Etzdorf, Rasche, Beinhorn, Helly Tussmar (one of the first female parachutists or skydivers), Vera von Bissing (one of the best ever German stunt pilots of the pre-war era) and Luise Hoffmann (the first female test pilot in Germany. Because whichever way you look at it, all roads lead sooner or later to Kreuzberg.