The Fafnir
A life history of a 1930's German Sailplane and of it's pilot, Günther Groenhoff

A decade of research by
Vince Cockett


The Short Life of Günther Groenhoff

Arguably, the greatest and most popular of the German glider pilots was Günther Groenhoff who set many world soaring records in distance, duration and altitude. Many of his record setting flights originated at Wasserkuppe where he had been the official test pilkot at the Gliding School of the Rhon Rossitten Gesellschaft (RRG).
1908 Born at 7th April at Stade near Hamburg.

1923 Groenhoffs' first visit to the Wasserkuppe Summer Camp

1926 Obtained his glider A-Licence in Rossitten

1927 Passed the Motor-A-Licence at the Deutsche Verkehsfliegerschule Braunschweig (DFS)

1928 First motorised aerobatic performances

1929 On the 17th July he achieved his C-Licence at the Wasserkuppe. Shortly after the Licence exam he crashed at the "Westhang", 80m free fall to the ground, without bodily harm near to the place he died in 1932. 3 days after licence (20.07.1929) he made a record flight of 36 km from Wasserkuppe - Nordheim with a borrowed double seat "Rhönadler" along with a young farmers son. Thiswas was never broken untill after his death.

1930 In the summer Günther Groenhoff performed test flights of the "Köhlmaschine", also known as "Delta I", during the Rhön Soaring Contest. The Deltas maiden flight was as a Glider. He also gave many performances (flights and lessons) for the "Sturmvogel" society.

Lippisch, the designer stands beside the Delta with Groenhoff seated
Fiuther details of the Delta are available here

1931 In Summer he became a flight trainer at the Wasserkuppe

He became the owner of the 3rd ever Silver C on the 15th April.

In May, Groenhoff further demonstrated his skill and courage while conducting research for a Munich meteorology conference. On a mission to gather weather data, he installed various instruments on his Alexander Lippisch built "Fafnir" glider and was towed to altitude by a powered aircraft piloted by another famous pilot, Peter Reidel. As they approached towering cumulus clouds over Munich, Groenhoff's Fafnir was released to his fate. For the next eight hours, he was bounced and buffeted around the thunderstorm amid lightning flashes, hail and torrential rain, all the while collecting valuable information on weather conditions. Many times he flew blind. His journal indicates that he experienced one rapid descent in zero visibility to emerge from the cloud to see the ground only a few hundred feet below. He managed to bank and return to the front side of the thundercloud. He wrote, "as soon as the storm reached me, some powerful force pulled the plane straight up into the center of the clouds. It seemed to me as if I were riding an express elevator of a high skyscraper."

At the Rhön Competition 1931 his first official long distance record was achieved when he flew from Wasserkuppe to Magdeburg, a distance of 140 miles. He also had best performance for height gain with a hieght of 2050m.

Flying from Berlin's Templehof airport in a tailless plane he helped design, he attained a record setting speed of 90 mph. His altitude mark of 7,000 feet was set during a flight from Munich to Czechoslovakia. Not all flights were successful. During a 1931 flight from Jungfrau-Jock Mountain, high in the Swiss Alps, he lost half of his plane's rudder, but skillfully flew it to a safe landing on the valley floor 6,000 feet below.

After soaring with the storm for eight hours, he had traveled 240 miles and finally landed on a riverbed, coming to rest a few meters short of an electric line near Kaaden, Czechoslovakia. Groenhoff wrote that he was gratified that he was able to bring home "the rich information for meteorological research."

1932 In 1932 he become the 2nd "Hindenburgpokal für Segelflug" for the year 1931.

On the 21st March he had a very bad car crash near the Wasserkuppe when his car went off the road on a bend and hit a tree. His friend in the car, Beate Riedel, died in the crash. She was engaged to the Mercedes-designer Béla Barényi and was herself a popular glider pilot and sister to Peter Riedel. Because of the incident, Groenhoff became a bad depressive and often a drunked. Shortly before his death he wanted to emigrate with his brother to the USA. His brother later did that and after the war became a well-knowned Gliding photographer in the States.

On July 23, at the Wasserkuppe, Groenhoff once again soared into the strong, turbulent winds of a thunderstorm. However, his good fortune had run out. The rudder of his beloved Fafnir snapped and he crashed on the west slope, dying instantly.

This memorial is erected at the spot where Groenhoff died. He was only 23 years old.

photo supplied by Patrick Zimmer

Günther Groenhoff was a highly respected glider pilot of his time and was the chief test pilot for the R.R.G at the Wasserkuppe. Due to a fatal accident in the Fafnir, his life was cut short at the young age of 23.

“In the absence of a church steeple I am the
chimney pot of a high apartment building”
Groenhoff acts the fool.
From his own book.