During World War II, the Soviet military deployed a trio of all-female air regiments. The most famous of these, the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, flew precision bombing and harassment bombing missions from 1942 until the end of the war. Nadezhda Popova, who was one of the first to join the regiments, died July 8th at the age of 91.
Nadezhda first became interested in flying when a pilot landed near her home early in the war. She joined a flight club when she was 15 and made her first parachute jump and solo flight a year later.
At the age of 19, Ukrainian Nadezhda Popova joined the 588th to help defend against German invaders. The pilots of the 588th wore hand-me-down uniforms from male pilots and flew 1920s era Polikarpov two-seater biplanes. The planes had only rudimentary instruments and a body constructed of fabric stretched over a plywood frame. They navigated using stopwatches and maps and had no guns to defend themselves against attackers. The planes could only handle the weight of two bombs, so pilots would often have to make several sorties a night. Nadezhda once flew 18 times in a single night.
The planes were extremely vulnerable, but, they also had surprising advantages. For safety, they only flew at night and targeted sleeping German military encampments and supply depots. Because they were delicate and flew close to the ground, they were nearly invisible to radar. The female pilots would approach a target, then cut their engines and glide in silently to release the bombs. The Germans began calling the authors of the unsettling attacks the Night Witches.
Nadezhda was one of the best pilots in the 588th, and one of the luckiest. She flew 852 mission. While she was shot down or forced to land on several occasions, she was never injured.
After the war, Nadezhda returned to her hometown of Shabanovka and received a hero’s welcome. She married, and had a son who graduated from the Air Academy and is now a general in Belarus. Nadezhda herself continued to share her love of flight and taught others her craft as a flight instructor for almost two decades before she retired.