1984 - The 50th Anniversary of the German Soaring Expedition to South America
A "World Record" which was Never Flown.

By Peter Riedel

On January 5th, 1934, the "Monte Pascoal" pushed its way through ice floes from Hamburg down the Elbe river towards tile North Sea. On a warm summer night, January 22nd , she turned into the Bay of Rio de Janeiro glittering in its surrounding lights.

The next morning the following passengers stepped on Brazilian soil : Professor Dr. WaIter Georgii, the director of the German Research Institute for Soaring (DFS) as leader of the expedition; the pilots Wolf Hirth, Hanna Reitsch, Heini Dittmar, myself, Wilhelm Harth, a meteorologist of the DFS, and Richard Mihm, the technician who would service the Messerschmitt M-23 tow plane and repair the sailplanes.

Condor I type as used in South America. There was no tail number and the registartion was D-CONDOR

It had been designed and built in 1930 by Heini Dittmar, who designed all later Condors.This was the aircraft with was flown to a new World height record in a thunderstorm of 13,780 ft. (4,200 m), over Brazil. This was 12,630 or 3,850 m above the ground. The previous World Height record was 2,589 m or 8,484 ft. set up by Robert Kronfeld in 1929.

The planes were promptly unloaded: Dittmar's "Condor" , Hirth's "Moazagotl", a Grunau-Baby for Hanna Reitsch and the "Fafnir" for me. Unfortunately, the Brazilian Customs held them for many days during which soaring conditions were excellent. Finally they were released and our flying could begin. The military airport Campos dos Affonsos became our base.

Our towing plane was flown by Mr. G. A. Wachsmuth, a local pilot. Hanna Reitsch and Hirth alternately demonstrated stunting with the "Grunau Baby II" while Heini Dittmar and I made soaring flights. I flew about 15 miles towards Rio's down town area, circled around the large Christ statue on top of the 2300 ft. Corcovado, enjoying the view, well known on all post cards.. Finally I landed on the Ipanema Race course close to Copacabana's famous shore. Shortly after 2 p.m., the daily sea breeze destroyed the thermal formation close to the coast line, ending the day's soaring. That was among the first things we learned about Rio weather .

Inside the Hangar with the Grunau Baby wing on the left (Hanna Reitsch), Messerschmitt 23b tow plane, Condor I (Heini Dittmar), Moatzagotl (Wolf Hirth) close to the camera and the Fafnir with 17 on the tail (Peter Riedel)

On February 16th, Heini Dittmar braved the turbulence inside a powerful cumulus cloud and climbed to a 4350m (14260 ft) altitude gain. He surpassed the 2560m, (8393 ft.) world record established by Robert Kronfeld on July 30th, 1929. This feat alone guaranteed the success of our expedition, which had been initiated by an invitation from Brazil's Aero-Club.

Messerschmitt 23b 3 view
from Richard Ferrier

Around the end of February we arrived in Sao Paulo , 2700 ft. above sea level, with its many skyscrapers as a back- drop to our airfield at the Tiete river. Twice I tried flying cross country, but had to land on my second flight after only 130 km (82 miles) near the small town of Tatuhy . Further west large forests spread to the horizon without a chance for a safe landing. Therefore we spent most of our time just soaring above the nearby city.

Our journey continued by boat from Santos to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where we arrived on March 14th, 1934. Military trucks immediately brought our soaring planes to El Palomar, the airport of the Argentine Army Air Force. The M-23 was flown from the nearby harbour airport to Palomar . However, the clouds were grey and misty rain reminded us that this was autumn weather. The civilian airfield Moron was already inundated. A week passed before we could even think of making a flight.

On 21st March the weather cleared up enough for me to try our first distance flight, but there was an inversion at 2300 ft. and the thermals remained weak. After an hour my "Fafnir" came to a stop on the airport of the French airline "Aeropostale" near Jose C. Paz, 35 km (21 miles) from Palomar. Antoine de Saint Exupery, the writer, had flown from this field a few years earlier as a pilot of the "Aeropostale". Wolf Hirth towed me back to El Palomar.

The map above can also be seen on Google Earth. Download this .kmz file

On the 22nd the inversion had risen to 1000m (3300 ft .) and we all flew cross-country. I made it 135km (84 miles ) to Santiago Larre, a lonely ranch with its own railroad station . Hirth landed after soaring 70 km (44 miles) into the middle of nowhere. Gaunchos brought him to the next town, Canuelas, on a decrepit two- wheel horse drawn cart, after Hirth made it clear that due to his artificial leg he could not use the riding horse first offered to him. In Canuelas, after about 15 km (10 miles) through pampas grass , he found Hanna Reitsch and Heini Dittmar . They had landed 55 km (34 miles) from Buenos Aires. Hirth and Hanna returned home by automobile, while Heini stayed with the two sailplanes. After two days in Santiago Larre Hirth towed me back to El Palomar. Alarmed by the unfavourable weather, Professor Georgii went by night train to Cordoba, 660 km (412 miles) inland from the capital, but his hope to find better thermals there were disappointed . It was simply the autumn weather. However, one day we could use the thermals developing above the city itself, though a SW wind discouraged any long distance attempts. It would have taken us downwind over the large expanse of the La Plata Bay. I soared about seven hours and finally landed on the small harbour airport mentioned before. Otherwise, we could only demonstrate soaring around the airport , rather disappointing for all concerned.

Peter Riedel in the Fafnir

The Fafnir in South America

Then came a break in the weather. On April 2nd I flew 145 km (91 miles) along the Parana river to Baradero . The others did not even try that day. On April 6th, Heini Dittmar and I went cross- country together, but soon we lost sight of each other. He landed after 135 km (85 miles) near Del Carril. I soared 165 km (103 miles) to Perez-Millan, again along the Parana river.

This was all we could achieve in Argentina at this time of the year. The autumnal weather limited the size of our performances. Also one should remember that the gliding angles of our planes were considerably lower than today's:

Grunau Baby II
1 : 17
1 : 20
1 : 21
1 : 25

Nevertheless our expedition seems to have fulfilled its purpose. In both Brazil and Argentina soaring movements grew, so that in 1960 Argentina even produced a World Soaring Champion: Rudolfo Hossinger .

A World Distance Record which was never flown

In those days there existed no reliable telephone connections betweer the above mentioned landing sites and Buenos Aires. Instead we asked at the closest railroad station to transmit our landing report via their telegraph system. Thereupon somebody in the Buenos Aires railroad station would phone the Jousten Hotel where we all stayed . This worked out alright every time until something went wrong with my landing report from Perez-Millan. In the hotel it was understood that I had landed in Perez, another station on the same railroad close to Rosario, Argentina's second largest city . With 265 km distance this would have meant a new world distance record. The error was recognised only the next morning when the mailman delivered the written telegram to the hotel. This was too late to stop the headlines in the Buenos Aires newspapers, but now it was known where I was waiting0 Wolf Hirth flew to Perez-Millan and towed me back, as he mentioned it in Rolf Italianders' book "Wolf Hirth erztlhlt". (Wolf Hirth narrates), page 149. But this was not the end of the story!

22th March I934 H. Reitsch to Canuelas 55 kms
H. Dittmar to ca.nuelas 55 kms
W. Hirth I5 kms SSW from Canuelas 70 kms
P. Riedel to Santiago Larre 135 kms
2nd April 1934. P. Ri edel to Baradero-Parana 130 kms
6th April 1934 H. Dittmer to Del Carril 135 kms
P. Riedel to Perez-Millan 165 kms

Two days later all German newspapers reported a new 265 km soaring world record flight from Buenos Aires to Rasario , but. the pilots name was....... Wolf Hirth . Professor Georgii told me about this in a confidential manner expressing astonishrnent about such a turn of events. Since my distance flights had been made with so much effort and cliff- hanging moments of suspense in miserable soaring conditions , I was certainly not happy about these false reports. "Newspaper stories are soon forgotten." the Professor told me as a consolation and I tried to resign myself to the unfortunate situation .

To have newspapers retract false reports is of very little use . The impact of the first news does the damage and retractions make no headlines. That was Professor Georgiis' opinion and so he issued no denial of the news about "Hirth's world record" Besides, it certainly had increased the prestige of his expedition. Wolf Hirth did not revoke it either . After our return home I started as a Lufthansa pilot. This completely new activity absorbed all my attention and I disregarded the false world record.

In 1980, while researching in the Congressional Library in Washington, D.C., for my "Rhoen- History AS I SAW IT" (Erlebte Rhoengseschichte), I discovered by chance that the German aviation magazine "Flugsport", the French "Les Ailes" and others had reported Hirth's false world record in a big way . They had even illustrated the news item with the same special geographical map , showing the area between Buenos Aires and Rosario. Later I found Hirth's "265 km world record" in WaIter Hochberg's booklet "Segelflug" (Soaring) (1935) on page 153, with the remark behind it "on South American expedition • • • .".

What was to be done? I asked myself at the time deep in the stock rooms of the Library, but reasoned finally that all this didn't mean so much today . On the other hand it should eventually be reported as an oddity and also in order to straighten out a kink in the record of soaring history. So I have waited until 1984, the 50th anniversary, to tell the story . It is a world record in itself that the "canard" has lived half a century before being shot down as it deserved to be on the very first day.

Whoever wants to check this story can do so in Hanna Reitsch's book "Flying is my life", Van Rees Press, New York (1954) , on page 78, or in the German version "Fliegen , mein Leben" (195l), page 115.

There is another even clearer report to be found but in German only , in Hubert Zuerl's "Der Segelflug im Wettbewerb der Völker" (1941) ; it is a survey of soaring activities around the world up to that time. On page 178 Mr . Raul M. OlivaresJ the author of the chapter "Argentina" , w'ote that Helmuth Teichmann in the spring of 1940 soared 230 km distance in Argentina , "thereby surpassing his mentor Peter Riedel, whose flights had remained unbeaten for six years " .

From the files of the
Vintage Gliding Club

edited and enhanced by
Vince Cockett