Women have played a key role in the defense of the Russian Motherland dating back to World War I. Following the February Revolution in 1917, the Russian Provisional Government formed the first all-female combat units as part of a last-ditch effort to boost the morale of the Russian Army. A generation later, during World War II women accounted for five percent of the total military personnel – with more than 800,000 serving including in front-line roles, notably as snipers. Many of the women also served as pilots in the Soviet Air Force.
Unlike the American Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), whose job was to fly aircraft from factories to bases, the Soviet's female pilots took part in combat operations. One of the most notable all-female units was the 588th Night Bomber Aviation Regiment (later known as 46th "Taman" Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment), which was made up primarily of volunteers who were in their late teens and early twenties. The young women flew the outdated trainer/crop dusting Polikarpov Po-2 biplane to great success—and a popular tactic of the night bombers was to idle the engine near the target so that only wind noise could be heard. The German soldiers compared the sound to broomsticks and the pilots became known as the "Night Witches" ("Nachthexen" in German).
Now nearly eighty years after the Night Witches and other women helped defend the Motherland, the Russian Aerospace Force has announced that the female fighter pilot cadets have finished the fourth course at the Krasnodar Higher Military Aviation School.
"We are training all the young women at the Krasnodar Higher Military Aviation School of Pilots for combat aviation," Russian Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov told TASS on Tuesday, following his visit to the Orenburg presidential cadet school.
"Yes, indeed, they are distributed among aviation branches: several female cadets — and there are a few of them — are preparing to join fighter aviation and several others are going for assault aviation, while an absolute majority of them are training for service in military transport aviation," the defense official added.
"In the immediate future, we will be able to see the first Russian female fighter pilots in operational aviation units," said Pankov. "The female cadets are carrying out flights and conducting parachute jumps and "are fulfilling the program of training Russian military pilots without any lenience."
The Russian Ministry of Defense has not announced what aircraft the first female cadets have trained with or will be assigned to, but it said that they will join the Aerospace Force as "fighter pilots" and will be operating "modern combat aircraft."
The United States military has allowed women to serve in combat aircraft roles since the early 1990s, and Air Force Lt. Col. Christine Mau became the first female F-35 pilot in the program in early 2015, while in December 2018, Air Force Maj. Rachael Winiecki became the first female test pilot to fly an F-35. In 2019, 1st Lt. Catherine Stark was selected to be the first female United States Marine Corps pilot selected to fly the F-35C.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.