In 1995, now-retired Air Force Col. Martha McSally became the first female U.S. pilot to fly a combat mission, when she patrolled Iraqi airspace as part of an operation to prevent Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from attacking his own people.
But McSally wasn't the first woman to fly under fire, not by a long shot. A Turkish woman pilot, Sabiha Gökçen, became the first to fly in combat back in 1937, when she bombed rebellious Kurds in eastern Turkey. And in 1942, more than a half a century before McSally took to the air, Soviet Major Marina Raskova formed three combat air regiments composed entirely of female pilots, to aid in the desperate fight to repel the German invasion of the Soviet Union.
The most renowned of these units was the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, nicknamed the Night Witches, who flew 30,000 missions during the war, dropping 23,000 tons (20,865 metric tons) of bombs on the German forces, according to this 2013 Atlantic article. All the more amazingly, the women of the 588th did all that while flying slow, flimsy wood-and-canvas biplanes that once had served as civilian crop dusters and trainers. The aircraft were such easy targets that the women could only risk flying under cover of darkness.
Even so, "they flew low to the ground, and didn't have the air speed, so they were vulnerable to ground fire," explains Reina Pennington, a former U.S. Air Force intelligence officer who is now a history professor at Norwich University in Vermont and author of the 2007 book "Wings, Women, and War: Soviet Airwomen in World War II Combat." (She also wrote this 2014 article for Air Force magazine on the Night Witches.) "Even soldiers with rifles could hit them. And [the planes] could catch on fire easily."
Flying Without Parachutes
To make things even more perilous, "early in the war, most of the pilots didn't carry parachutes," Pennington says. "Most of them figured that because of their low altitude, they wouldn't be able to parachute out anyway."
While the male pilots in the Soviet air force flew similarly repurposed civilian aircraft on the same sorts of missions, what's significant is that the women pilots stepped up and took on the same job, and faced the same risks, according to Pennington.
"There was no allowance made for them," she says.
"Anybody flying these planes, because they had short range, flew sometimes eight to 10 missions a night," Pennington says. "They might be in the air for 12 to 14 hours a night, in an open-air cockpit in the Russian winter."
Soviet women were able to become military pilots because the Soviet Union — though it was brutally repressive in other ways — embraced equality of the genders, Pennington explains. "Women had the same rights as men. There were no legal barriers."
Avoiding Enemy Fire
As this 2013 New York Times obituary of Night Witches pilot Nadezhda Popova describes, the female pilots used clever tactics to avoid enemy fire. They flew in formations of three, with two of the aircraft suddenly veering off in opposite directions to confuse anti-aircraft gunners, while the third plane slipped through the darkness to attack the target with the single bomb that each plane carried. Then they regrouped and switched places, until all three had dropped their bombs.
Popova, who signed up for a flying club at age 15 because she was looking for something exciting to do, was motivated to fly bombing missions both by patriotism and a desire for revenge. Her brother had been killed by the Germans at the beginning of their invasion of Russia in June 1941, when they had commandeered the family home.
Popova was just 19 when she started flying in combat. On her first mission, two aircraft crashed and four of her comrades were killed when the pilots became disoriented in a snowstorm. "It was a tragic lesson for us," she recalled in Anne Noggle's book, "A Dance With Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II."
Popova eventually flew 852 combat missions and became a squadron commander. That meant surviving being shot down on several occasions and making forced landings at other times. But miraculously, she was never even wounded. "My friends used to say that I was born under a lucky star," she explained in Noggle's book.
She was lucky in more ways than one. As this article in the Telegraph, a British newspaper, explains, when Popova was shot down in action over the North Caucasus in 1942, she joined a retreating Soviet infantry unit, and met a male Soviet pilot, Semyon Kharlamov, who also had been shot down. The two pilots, who both were awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union medal in 1945, fell in love and married, and were together until Kharlamov's death in 1990.