How Women Flyers Fight Russia's Air War

by Madelin Blitzstein

Many hurdles — of education and of opportunity — have faced the women who have contended for places in Soviet aviation. But those places definitely have been won, first in record flights and now in actual front-line sky fighting.

Despite the fact that the Russian government officially discourages their participation in combat flying, many Soviet women have, nevertheless, joined the air fight against the Nazis. And they have rung up an outstanding record in shooting the enemy from the skies, as well as in bombing many key Nazi objectives — this in addition to their excellent job of essential flying behind the front.

The striking bravery and skill of Maj Marina Raskova, pilot and Red Air Force Regiment Commander, is exemplary. Killed in air action last year, her ashes were laid, with full military honors, in the Kremlin wall not far from those of her co-flyer, Capt Paulina Ossipenko, who met her death while testing a new plane some months before the Nazi invasion. The Raskova rites comprised the first state funeral held in the Soviet Union during the present war.

Today, other women pilots are constantly in training to take the place of those who, like Raskova and Ossipenko, fall in active duty.

Now holding the important USSR post of Chief of Aeronautical Authority, Foreign Division, is Valentina Grizodubova, sole survivor of the courageous Raskova-Ossipenko-Grizodubova trio. Valentina was awarded the coveted title of Hero of the Soviet Union because, together with her two comrade flyers, she made not only national but international aviation history.

While these three Russian women pilots established new records, both as individuals and in concert, it is the biography of Valentina Grizodubova which is most closely connected with the historical development of aviation in the Soviet Union.

Before the October Revolution, Valentina's father, Stepan Grizodubov, an industrial scientist, evinced ability in both aircraft construction and flying. In 1910, he completed the design of his first aircraft — one of the initial Russian airplane designs. Like the Wrights, Grizodubov personally built the plane he had visualized, with certain aid from interested fellow workers. Meanwhile, not having a son, he saw nothing unusual about taking his daughter up into the air with him. Thus Valentina was introduced to the air at an early age.

It was in 1928 that Valentina received her pilot's license, but she was not yet satisfied with her knowledge of aeronautics. She continued her studies and, in a few years, was made an instructor in a flying school. Later, she was named pilot of the Gorky propaganda air squad.

By 1937, Pilot Grizodubova held no less than five international women's flying records. These were awarded for flying a single-seat sport plane 100 kilometers (63 mi) at an average speed of 137 mph; for flying a single-seat light seaplane the same distance at a speed of 118 mph; for flying a two-place seaplane this distance at an average speed of 124 mph; for bettering the current international altitude record for. women by making a flight to a height of 1.98 mi; and for breaking the nonstop flight record for women by flying from Moscow to Aktubinsk in Asiatic Russia, a distance of 901.5 mi.

For these and other achievements, Pilot Valentina received the Red Banner of Labor and the Order of the Red Star. Moreover, in December 1937 she was elected a deputy to the Supreme Soviet, for she was then — as she is now — interested in governmental matters. In 1938 she joined hands with Marina Raskova and Paulina Ossipenko. Each of the latter had had an individual aviation history totally different from hers.

Perhaps the most interesting life story is that of Paulina Ossipenko, born in 1907 in the Dniepropetrovsk Region. There were twelve children in Paulina's peasant household; her mother was illiterate and her father could read and write only with great difficulty.

When Paulina reached school age, her family was unable to buy her shoes, clothes, or books, hence school was ruled out; instead the little girl went into service, first as a nurse, then as a farmhand, and finally, at 17, she was working as a charwoman in a grain elevator.

When farm collectivization was introduced, Paulina got a chance to show her capabilities; she was shifted to work on a poultry run, and she served there long hours, with noteworthy conscientiousness. Due to her labors, the health of her poultry was exemplary, and as a reward the villagers elected Paulina Ossipenko to their local Soviet in 1927.

This office brought Paulina another opportunity to increase her knowledge; she went to the village school and studied grammar and mathematics. And soon she was transferred to the city of Kiev to delve into poultry science. It is to be noted that those days were doubly difficult for her because most of her fellow pupils had much more previous schooling than she. Paulina had to spend nights cramming her lessons, and she often had to have extra help from the other students. Nevertheless, she was graduated with honors and certified back to her native village as an instructor in poultry raising.

Farm life filled this girl's time and thoughts — until one day two training planes visited the village. Immediately Paulina made up her mind to become a pilot. And in spite of the open derision from the local farmers — who were certain that a chicken raiser was not fit to be an airplane pilot — Paulina, after great insistence, gained permission to enroll in an aviation school near Sevastopol. The mysteries of physics, electrical engineering, and aerodynamics accordingly were unveiled for her, and Paulina Ossipenko was graduated in 1932 with exceptional grades. When she returned to her native village dressed in flying kit, her family was rightly proud and the villagers incredulous.

Because of the ability she had displayed, Paulina was sent to serve with the air unit of the Kharkov garrison. Only two years later, she was made a flight commander, her special field becoming altitude flights. She flew to a height of 4.7 mi without oxygen, then broke all existing women's records for altitude flying by hitting the mark of 5.5 mi. In addition to these records, Paulina established (in three successive days, May 22-24, 1937) three international women's records: One for altitude without a payload, a second with half-ton payload, and the third with a one-ton payload.

Now ranked as a lieutenant, she was quickly to win additional honors: There came her election as a delegate to the All-Army Conference of Commanders' Wives in Moscow in 1936 … at the Kremlin, she delivered a speech concerning the participation of women in national defense … and the people's Commissar of Defense granted her permission to attempt a nonstop cross-continent flight from Sevastopol to Archangel.

In July of 1938, she completed this flight, with Vera Lomako and Marina Raskova as her copi1ots. For this success, Paulina Ossipenko was made a captain and awarded the Order of Lenin.

This Sevastopol-Archangel flight was Paulina's first with Marina Raskova. Let us brief the latter's background: Born in Moscow in 1912, the daughter of a music teacher, Marina, after finishing secondary school, chose to work in a factory while continuing to study. Since Marina soon became interested in aviation, she gave up her factory job and took a position as secretary to a professor in an aeronautical institute; in this way she felt she would be better able to continue learning about flying. And she did pick up much knowledge of flying instruments in the course of preparing material for the professor's classes.

At 23, Marina was graduated from flying school, where her talents as an avigator, as an organizer of people, and as a commander possessing dynamic energy brought her to the attention of her teachers. Raskova made many epic flights — from Leningrad to Moscow, from Moscow to Sevastopol, and between other key points — before she became a copilot on the Sevastopol-Archangel nonstop trip. Success of this flight later brought Capt Ossipenko and Senior Lt Raskova together for their record-making 3,669-mi nonstop flight from Moscow to a maritime village in Siberia in September 1938.

Marina, then 26, was avigator; while Valentina Grizodubova was again commander, and Paulina Ossipenko was second pilot. The three women brought their plane the Rodina (Russian word for "Motherland") to a safe landing after 26 hr 29 min in the air. The date was Sept 24, 1938. The women flyers received national honors; additionally, a special-issue postage stamp was dedicated to them.

As for bombing activities, only recently Maj Stepan Grigariev, of the Red Air Force, reported that a night-bomber outfit staffed by women under the command of a woman flyer, E Bershanskaya, had performed such valuable services in bombing enemy railroad junctions, supply trains, and ammunition dumps that grant had been made of the honorary title, "Guards Air Unit." Each of the 36 women received a distinguished service medal.

A women's fighter unit flew with signal brilliance at the battle of Stalingrad; at many other points on the long front women are combating the enemy. Nor is participation of women in the science and mechanics of aviation something new. From the very beginning, when Russia decided that its citizens should become familiar with aircraft and with parachute jumping, air-minded young women as well as young men swelled the membership of the Ossoviakhim, society for defense.

As civilian aviation increased, the number of women pilots grew larger. Mail, passengers, and cargo were soon being transported over the enormous length and breadth of Russia by air, and many of the planes were put under command of women pilots. One of them, Claudia Berezhnaya, made the long run from Moscow to Vladivostock in 53 hr, something of a record.

Planes were needed to transport fresh fish from the north to the cities in the central regions of the USSR. Fruits were brought from distant places without being spoiled. Furs arrived in time for specific sales. Sulfur was flown from the Kara-Kum Desert, and gold was delivered to the big cities in record time. For such transport jobs, women pilots were eligible, since their value in civilian aviation was acknowledged and there were no objections from any section of the population to their playing a major role in this field of Soviet life.

It was the leading woman diplomat, Madame Alexandra Kollontay, who paid tribute to civilian women aviators before World War II. Mme Kollontay (who served successively as Soviet Minister to Mexico, Norway, and now Sweden under the Commissars of Foreign Affairs Chicherin, Litvinov, and Molotov) said she experienced one of her proudest days when, at the signing of a commercial treaty for a new Moscow-Stockholm air route, she found that the director of the Russian civilian line was the very personable young Vera Lomako, graduate of the aeronautical services.

Women introduced parachute jumping as a sport in Russia, and the names of the pioneer jumpers — Kuleshova, Grokhovskaya, Chirkova, and Fyodorova — are often repeated today. Two women, Shishmareva and Pyasetkaya, made women's world record jumps of 26,158 ft without oxygen masks. Another woman, Kamneva, rang up a delayed-jump mark of 8,856 ft, and young Kouza Malinovskaya, of the Young Communist League, recently won a certificate of honor for a record parachute jump, details of which are awaited.

Such women have inspired others to follow their leads. Before the war, girls used their spare time to learn to fly at the air clubs; and when they showed sufficient skill, they were accepted as pilots. For instance, Katya Mednikova, a worker in the Calibre plant, went on to win records in brilliant speed flights. Katya is now a war flyer, as is also Russiko Zhordana, recently decorated with the Order of the Red Star and made instructor at the Tbilisi Air Club. Among other female military flyers who have distinguished themselves in the war are Podiferova, Lomako, Nesterenko, Uruzovaia, Kazarinovka, and Khomyakova.

Today, 150,000 women engineers, technicians, and mechanics — like Maria Turkova, singled out for her splendid work at Tushino Flying Field — are working throughout Russia. Women are piloting ambulance planes, and they are also flying the planes carrying medical supplies. Women pilots likewise transport blood plasma and fly surgeons from one part of the front to another for emergency operations.

Difficult terrain has not fazed the Russian women pilots. They have not hesitated to fly over snow-capped mountain peaks. On the other hand, in operating seaplanes over the broad Russian waters they perhaps hope to emulate Ekaterina Mednikova, holder of an international women's seaplane record. They can also be found crop dusting in the farmlands and giving aero-chemical battle to the malarial mosquito. On this aviation front, expert pilots like young Irene Vishnevskaya and pretty Zuleika Seid Mamedova have been in the lead.

Aviation behind the lines, in all civilian pursuits, has long been encouraged for women. In 1939, Marina Raskova aided this movement with a pointed article in Pravda in which she asked young women to study to become meteorologists, radio operators, engineers, and technicians — for she foresaw a great need for these services.

But she could not prevent others of her sex from becoming, like herself, full-fledged members of the Red Air Force. A year ago, two young women sky fighters who had seen service at Stalingrad — Lilya Litvak and Katya Budanova — were each given the Order of the Red Star. They had run up a joint score of eleven Nazi planes in one year of service. Junior Lt Litvak had accounted for three planes in single combat and two in group combat, while Lt Budanova had downed three German planes in single flights and three more in group fighting.

Lt Litvak's heroism won foremost praise. In a flight on Mar 22, 1943, she was assailed by four Messerschmitts, yet managed to down two and elude the others. She had expended all her fuel and ammunition, moreover suffered a bad leg wound; but somehow she got to safety. A few months later, however (August 1943) she was killed at the battle of Kharkov, dying without knowing that the city had been recaptured, from the enemy.

Last summer, Marina Ivanova, a 22-yr-old bomber pilot, received the Order of the Patriotic War for having successfully carried out 125 missions in 70 days. Later, she was badly injured while bombing a Nazi artillery clump.

Another receiving acclaim is the slender 28-yr-old Vera Mustakova, the mother of two children. A flyer for more than eight years, she is now a war pilot. Her husband, a night pilot, was killed in a raid; accordingly she is determined to fight harder than ever.

Among the men flyers, Russia is naturally proud of war aces like Kostilev, who has 42 enemy planes to his credit. Twice Kostilev was awarded the Order of Lenin and the Order of the Red Banner; also he was recently given the Gold Star and a medal for the defense of Leningrad.

But Russia is also proud of its women flyers, who, in the line of active fighting as well as behind the front and in plane factories are performing 'round the clock. Russia hails their heroism.

This article was originally published in the July, 1944, issue of Aviation magazine, vol 43, no 7, pp 116-117, 255, 257.
The original article includes 3 photos of women mentioned in the article.
Photos credited to Sovfoto.