Whirlybirds and Witches

Whirlybirds and Witches

February 17, 2010

Making the Chapter:

The science of flight and Ukraine have had a love affair for more than a century. Many will already be familiar with the names of Sikorsky and Antonov, whose agile helicopters and big birds, respectively, have served us equally in peace time and war.

Fewer will be familiar with other ingredients that I weave into the story of Whirlybirds and Witches. They include the remarkable people who conquered aircraft spin, designers who were decades ahead of their time, and pilots you would not want to encounter in a dog fight.  Only a few, perhaps, are aware of the remarkable role played by Ukrainian women in this story of flight. In war time, women pilots harried the occupying German troops invoking constant restlessness and in peacetime they broke numerous flight records. They clearly provoked something in Stalin; he is rumoured to have been the lover of one woman pilot, and he was the pallbearer to another.


Undaunted by the experience, Valentina followed her father’s footsteps and went on to become the country’s first woman instructor, teaching hundreds of men to fly at Tula Institute.

Valentina’s co-pilot, Polina Osipenko, shared a similar ambition but had a very different upbringing. Osipenko was head of a chicken farm near Kyiv when she fell in love with a military pilot working at the Kacha Flight School. She enrolled at the school and started out by working in the canteen making breakfast for the pilots, but before long had inveigled her way into the pilot training programme. She excelled at training and was transferred to Kharkiv where she married Alexander Osipenko, who later became a famous general and Hero of the Soviet Union.

Over the next three years, in flying with fellow navigator and pilot, Russian-born Maria Raskova, Grizodubova and Osipenko set several new women’s distance world records and were awarded The Order of Lenin. (Nowadays, it seems somewhat quaint to be awarded a medal for making a four-hour flight, but then it had all sorts of implications for military supremacy.) The three women enjoyed working together, and with Stalin’s support — it is thought that Raskova may have been his mistress — they embarked on a flight across the Soviet Union.

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