During World War II, a handful of Soviet women became legends as pilots flying combat missions against Nazi troops.
But since 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian military pilots have been strictly male. Even as the United States, Britain and Israel eventually accepted females as fighter pilots, the glass ceiling barred the glass cockpit to Russian women.
But Russia's military has just announced that women will be allowed to become military pilots. “There are quite a few girls who would like to become military pilots,” said Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu. “We’ve received hundreds of letters, hence the decision to enroll the first group of girls in the Krasnodar military aviation school this year.”
Shoigu conceded that the first class of female cadets would only number fifteen. “However, considering the number of applications received by the Russian Aerospace Forces, we cannot ignore these requests, so on October 1, the first group of girls will start training to become military pilots,” he added. The Krasnodar school began accepting female aviation cadets in 2009—but not as pilots.
Women in the cockpit will revive a proud Russian military tradition. In October 1941, with Soviet armies reeling before the relentless Nazi blitzkrieg, Stalin ordered the formation of an all-female bomber unit under Colonel Marina Raskova. By 1942, they were flying missions over German lines.
The life expectancy of a Soviet soldier in 1942 was not high, and especially so for combat pilots pitted against vastly more experienced German pilots flying superior aircraft. But the 588th Night Bomber Regiment had a particularly difficult task. They would do in the Polikarpov Po-2, a honest-to-goodness biplane that first flew in 1928, and served as a trainer and crop-duster.
The two-seat Po-2 putted through the air at 80 miles an hour, the air streaming around the open cockpit. Yet it was actually a logical choice. The mission of the 588th wasn't strategic bombing or close air support. Its mission was to keep German soldiers awake at night. The 588th would fly low and slow in the darkness, dropping small 100-pound bombs: the Po-2 carried just six, but that was enough to awaken sleeping soldiers and make them cover. The standard tactic was to fly at an altitude of just a few dozen feet, shutting off the engine so the aircraft glide over the German lines before releasing its bombs and then restarting the engine to fly away.
The Germans soon nicknamed the night intruders “night witches.” German ground troops, already exhausted to the breaking point by the savage and relentless struggle against the Red Army, found their sleep interrupted by the sudden whistle and explosion of bombs. But there wasn't much they could do about it. The Luftwaffe's vaunted Messerschmidt and Focke-Wulf fighters flew in the daytime, and lacked radar. Radar-equipped night fighters were few on the Eastern Front. And even if a modern fighter came upon a seemingly helpless biplane, there was no easy kill. Biplanes are far more nimble and fly far slower than fast monoplanes: an Me-109 stalled at just over 100 miles per hour, which was still faster than the Po-2 flew. The Germans offered an Iron Cross to any Luftwaffe pilot who knocked down one of those pesky intruders. Few claimed the reward.
Yet Night Witch missions were no girl's night out. German fighters weren't so bad, but the Germans also had plentiful flak and searchlights. Not to mention the dangers of flying on the Eastern Front, where facilities and navigational aids were primitive. Still, the women of the 588th developed their own tactics. “They flew in groups of three,” notes one aviation site. “Two would go in and deliberately attract the attention of the Germans. When all the searchlights were pointed at them, the two pilots would suddenly separate, flying in opposite directions and maneuvering wildly to shake off the searchlight operators who were trying to follow them. In the meantime the third pilot would fly in through the dark path cleared by her two teammates and hit the target virtually unopposed. She would then get out, rejoin the other two, and they would switch places until all three had delivered their payloads.”
The Night Witches lost thirty pilots during World War II. It seems fitting that Russia should revive the tradition.
Image: Wikimedia Commons / Alex Beltyukov