The Fieseler Fi 156 Storch (stork) was a small German liaison aircraft built by Fieseler before and during World War II, and production continued in other countries into the 1950s for the private market. It remains famous to this day for its excellent STOL performance, and French-built later variants are a common fixture at air shows.
The first Fi 156 V1 prototype flew in the spring of 1936. It was powered by a 180 kW (240 hp) inverted-vee Argus As 10C V8 engine, which gave the plane a top speed of only 175 km/h (109 mph), enabling the Storch to fly as slow as 50 km/h (32 mph), take off into a light wind in less than 45 m (150 ft), and land in 18 m (60 ft). It was followed up by the second V2 prototype and third V3 prototypes, the ski-equipped V4, plus one V5 and ten Fi 156A-0 pre-production aircraft. It was immediately ordered into production by the Luftwaffe with an order for 16 planes, and the first Fi 156A-1 production aircraft entered service in mid-1937.
Fieseler then offered the Fi 156B, which allowed for the retraction of the leading edge slats and had a number of minor aerodynamic cleanups, boosting the speed to 208 km/h (130 mph). The Luftwaffe didn't consider such a small difference to be important, and Fieseler instead moved on to the main production version, the C.
The Fi 156C was essentially a "flexible" version of the A model. A small run of C-0s were followed by the C-1 three-seater liaison version, and the C-2 two-seat observation type (which had a rear-mounted MG 15 machine gun for defense). Both models entered service in 1939. In 1941, both were replaced by the "universal cockpit" C-3, suited to any role. Last of the Cs was the C-5, a C-3 with a belly hardpoint a camera pod or drop tank. Some were fitted with skis, rather than wheels, for operation on snow.
Other versions of the Fi 156 were the C-3/Trop, which was a tropicalised version of the Fi 156C-5, and the Fi 156D which was an air ambulance version. The first two Fi 156D models were the D-0 pre-production aircraft, and the D-1 production aircraft, powered by an Argus As 10P engine. Ten Fi 156E pre-production aircraft were fitted with tracked landing gear. The Fi 256 was a five-seat civil version, only two were built at the Morane-Saulnier factory at Puteaux in France.
The Storch could be found on every front throughout the European and North African theaters of operation in World War II. It will probably always be most famous for its role in the rescue of deposed Italian dictator Benito Mussolini from a boulder-strewn mountain top near Monte Cassino, surrounded by Italian troops. German commando Otto Skorzeny dropped with 90 paratroopers onto the peak and quickly captured it, but the problem remained of how to get back off. A Focke Achgelis Fa 223 helicopter was sent, but it broke down en route. Instead, pilot Walter Gerlach flew in a Storch, landed in 30 m (100 ft), took aboard Mussolini and Skorzeny, and took off again in under 80 m (250 ft), even though the plane was overloaded. The involved Storch rescuing Mussolini bore the radio code letters, or Stammkennzeichen, of "SJ + LL" in motion picture coverage of the daring rescue. On 26 April 1945 a Storch was one of the last planes to land on the improvised airstrip in the Tiergarten near the Brandenburg Gate during the Battle of Berlin and the death throes of the Third Reich. It was flown by the test pilot Hanna Reitsch, who flew her lover Field Marshall Robert Ritter von Greim from Munich to Berlin to answer a summons from Hitler. Once in Berlin von Greim was informed that he was to take over command of the Luftwaffe from Hermann Goering.
A Storch was the victim of the last dog fight on the Western Front and another was fittingly downed by a direct Allied counterpart of the Storch - a Piper L-4 Grasshopper-from the L-4's crew directing their pistol fire at it. The pilot and co-pilot of the L-4, Lts. Duane Francis and Bill Martin, opened fire on the Storch with their .45 caliber pistols, forcing the German air crew to land and surrender. The involved Storch was the only aircraft known to have been downed by handgun fire in the entire war.
A total of about 2,900 Fi 156s, mostly Cs, were produced from 1937 to 1945. When the main Fieseler plant switched to building Bf 109s in 1943, Storch production was shifted to the Mráz factory in Choceň, Czechoslovakia. A large number were also built at the captured Morane-Saulnier factory in France, starting in April 1942, as the M.S.500 Criquet. Both factories continued to produce the planes after the war for local civilian markets (in Czechoslovakia it was made as K-65 Čáp, 138 were made by 1949).
During the war at least 60 Storchs were captured by the Allies, one becoming the personal aircraft of Field Marshal Montgomery.
Because of its superb STOL characteristics (which would be of obvious great benefit to bush pilots, for example) there have been many attempts to recreate or outright copy the Storch in modern form, namely in the form of various homebuilt aircraft. One of the most successful recent examples of this is the Slepcev Storch designed by Nestor Slepcev. It is a 3/4 scale reproduction of the original with some modification for simplicity. Through the use of modern materials the aircraft features better STOL performance than the original with a take-off run of 30 m and landing-roll of 50 m with no headwind.