Aircraft, awful and awesome: The Luftwaffe’s “Stork”

Dr. Marshall Michel
86th Airlift Wing historian

***image1***Helicopters were just beginning to come into service at the end of World War II, but the German Air Force had little need for one – instead, they relied on one of the most remarkable aircraft of the war, the Fi-156 Fiesler “Storch” (Stork). In the mid-1930s, in response to a call for a light liaison aircraft with short field capability, Fiesler designer Reinhold Mewes decided to turn the idea of getting the most speed from the least horsepower on its head, and set out to use the most advanced aerodynamic techniques to produce, rather than high speed, the maximum LOW speed performance. The aircraft he designed, the Fi-156, had a huge 46-foot wing, almost as long as the wing of the twin engine Bf-110 fighter, but the Storch’s wing had full-length fixed slats along the entire wing leading edge and retractable, Fowler-type slotted camber-changing flaps along the trailing edge, along with ailerons that drooped with the flaps when they were extended past 20 degrees. Additionally, the landing gear was very long and had large oleo struts that compressed 18 inches on landing to absorb the shock of an almost vertical touchdown. The result was incredible short landing and take-off performance. With a light breeze the Storch could take off in just 200 feet and land in 60 feet, and little more that its wing span.  (This means a Storch could easily land and take off in the parking lot in front of Ramstein’s north post office, even with the construction). It could fly under full control at 32 mph, and this plus the long oleos on the landing gear that absorbed any bounce allowed it to land under full control on a “spot.” As shown in the picture above, it demonstrated this capability early in the war when, after the surrender of Paris, a Storch easily landed on the Place de la Concorde in the center of the city.

The Storch’s side glass windows were angled out so the pilot and passengers had a nearly unobstructed, straight down view of the ground. However, maneuvering the Storch was reported to be a physical workout because of the heavy stick forces. While it was very slow, the Storch’s maneuverability made it an extremely difficult target for Allied fighters, and in an engagement its survival rate was reported to be ten times that of the Bf-109, Germany’s premier fighter.

The Storch was used to fly reconnaissance missions, ambulatory services, and often to rescue downed aircrew, but its short field capability also made it the ideal aircraft for spectacular, “James Bond” type missions. The most famous of these was when a Storch was used by the legendary German commando commander, Otto Skorzeny, to remove captured Italian dictator Benito Mussolini from a hotel on a 9000 foot mountain peak. The hotel was seemingly accessible only by cable car, but a Storch staggered up to the peak and landed in a clear space only two hundred feet long. It picked up Mussolini and Skorzeny, then flew off the edge of the cliff and fell a thousand feet before it could gain enough speed to fly the two to safety.

In another notable mission, on the night of 26 April 1945 a Storch flown by Germany’s famous female test pilot, Hanna Reitsch, made the last Luftwaffe flight in and out of Berlin when Reitsch landed a Storch in a small, debris covered open area near the Brandenburg Gate to deliver a field marshall summoned by Hitler.

The Storch’s ability to land near the front lines made it a great favorite with German generals, especially the “Desert Fox,” Erwin Rommel. Less well known is the fact that Rommel’s great rival, British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, also used a Storch as his own personal aircraft instead of an Allied aircraft.