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No. 1002:
WW-II Soviet Women Pilots

Today, we fly with the first women's combat air units. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

My wife studies photos of 68 women in Anne Noggle's book, A Dance With Death. They're in their mid '70s, dressed in lace and silk. Their garments sag under a weight of medals for heroism. These are the surviving Soviet women combat pilots from WW-II. "What are you looking for?" I ask. "I'm trying to see who is alive and who is numb," she answers.

Well might she look for death in the faces of these women! Take the case of Anna Timofeyeva-Yegorova. She was a squadron leader in an otherwise all-male air regiment. Most women flew in one of three women's units. But a few, like Timofeyeva-Yegorova, were attached to regular groups. First she flew reconnaissance in an antique wooden biplane. She was shot down on a dangerous daylight mission and badly burned.

Later, flying a light bomber, she was shot down over German territory -- badly burned, bones broken. She somehow survived her wounds in a German prison camp. When Russians took the camp, they sent her off to a gulag. "There are no Russian prisoners, only traitors," Stalin had said. She was accused of collaboration.

When she was finally repatriated she found she'd been presumed dead and made a posthumous Hero of the Soviet Union. It was 1965 before they actually gave her the medal. Her 1992 photo shows an attractive and completely composed face.

Here's a cheerful face. It's Mariya Dolina. She holds five major medals. She flew 72 missions in dive bombers. "I was born under a lucky star," she says. Then she adds, "It is distressing to speak about the war ... we lost 47 of our girls."

My favorite face is Nina Yegorova-Arefjeva's. She smiles and tells how, when she throttled her engine back over German ground troops, she could hear them shouting "Night Witch!" at her.

During the '30s, Stalin drove Russian designers to build airplanes that could set long-distance flying records. He wanted the publicity. As a result Russia entered WW-II with an air force of light, slow-moving airplanes. Not anything you wanted to ride into combat. When Stalin realized how ill-prepared he'd left his air force, he sent his best airplane designers off to the gulags.

So the women now gather each year in Moscow. Dressed in party clothes, practical shoes, and special hairdos, they might be any women's club anywhere. They sing the old songs and toast the gallant mechanics who kept them in the air. They swap stories and take quiet pride in having helped save their country -- fighting off Hitler outside their city gates, and Stalin within them.

These gentle warriors have prevailed -- their faces are content. In the end, this seems a fine way to enter old age.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Noggle, A., A Dance With Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1994.