Soviet “Night Witches” and the Flying Beasts from the East


September 10th, 2011

Eastern Front Flying Day

Once again I returned to Paine Field, Everett (almost becoming my summer weekend getaway) to see the latest flying day held by the Flying Heritage Collection! Todays display was to showcase the collections Russian aircraft:

Polikarpov U-2/PO-2

A general purpose biplane mainly used as a flight trainer, built between 1928-1953. This particular example was built in 1944 and was restored from a derelict airframe found in Belarus. It is painted up in the markings of the WW2 46th “Taman” Guards Regiment.

Polikarpov U-2 Po-2 Flying Heritage Collection
U-2/PO-2 the message on the side is one of vowing revenge!

The 46th was a Soviet regiment made up entirely of female air and ground crew (when originally formed as the 588th regiment the Germans were almost at the gates of Moscow and it was all hands on deck, hence everyone including female combatants were required to fight and they became the first nation to do so).  The 46th operated from 1942 to 1945, flying thousands of missions and were the most highly decorated female regiment, receiving 23 “Hero of the Soviet Union” citations (most of these women were in their early 20’s and by wars end many of the survivors had flown 1,000 missions each)!

The regiment operated the obsolete U-2/Po-2 as a night time light bomber to harass German forces. Because the aircraft could only carry 2 bombs they would fly multiple missions each night (upto 18 per night), and although they did not always inflict a great deal of damage the highly maneuverable but slow aircraft became an unlikely thorn in the side of the Germans. It flew so slowly (it’s maximum speed was below the stall speed of  modern fighters) and so low to the ground that German aircraft had trouble intercepting them (apparently they would fly in to attack, the U-2/PO-2 would make a tight turn, the German pilot would then have to make a wide circle to come back, then the same thing would just happen again! I guess the German pilots got so sick of this they would just give up and look for another target?).

Night Witches Russia WW2
The Soviet “Night Witches”

The main tactic the Soviet pilots used in attack was to switch the engine off, glide in silently and drop their bombs (early stealth tactics)! All that could be heard was the wind whistling in the wings, but by then the bombs were being dropped! This silent attack would obviously cause chaos in a sleeping German camp or supply depot and they called these female pilots the “Nachthexen” (“Night Witches“).

The Germans came up with a tactic setting traps using searchlights and flak guns at likely targets to shoot them down, but then the “Night Witches” came up with a counter tactic. They would fly into attack with an extra aircraft that would act as a decoy, while the search lights were busy with the decoy, another aircraft would come in and drop their bombs, then it would switch place with the decoy and the same would happen again! Very brave women indeed!

Marina Raskova Night Witches Russia
Marina Raskova

The “Night Witches” were commanded by 30 year old Marina Raskova, a famous Soviet Aviatrix who set a number of long distance flight records in the 1930’s and she became the first female navigator in the Soviet air force in 1933. She was decorated as a “Hero of the Soviet Union” in 1938 along with 2 other female crew members on a record flight across the USSR (the first women to receive this award). By 1941 she was already a major in the air force. Her influence and the need for pilots helped persuade Josef Stalin to authorise the formation of 3 all female air regiments. She sadly died in an aircraft crash in 1943. Her status and regard by Stalin is highlighted by the fact she received the first state funeral of WW2 (her ashes were then placed in the wall of the Kremlin).

The success of the U-2/PO-2 was realised again when it caused trouble for UN forces in the Korean War in the 1950’s. The North Koreans used it in a very similar role to the Soviets and harassed UN forces at night (who called it “Bedcheck Charlie”). Again it was hard for aircraft to shoot it down as it flew so slow and even with radar it was hard to detect them in the first place (small target made of wood and canvas)!

Polikarpov I-16 Type 24 Rata (“Rat”)

The world’s first monoplane with a retractable landing gear, they were first built in the 1930’s with this example being from 1940. It was a tough stubby little fighter which proved quite successful in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 fighting on the side of the Republicans against General Franco, but was totally outclassed by German fighters in WW2. Droves of them were destroyed on the ground and in the air during Operation Barbarossa in 1941 (German invasion of the Soviet Union).

Polikarpov I-16 Rata Flying Heritage Collection
I-16 “Rata”

This particular airframe was restored from a wreck found in 1991 in Russia that was shot down by the Finnish in WW2. Interestingly it was rebuilt in the factory where it was originally manufactured and is one of only a few in the world that are flight capable (interestingly at one stage the New Zealand Fighter Pilots Museum in Wanaka on the South Island had all six flying examples! These have since been sold around the world. I was lucky enough to visit this museum in 2004 and see these aircraft along with their biplane predecessor the Polikarpov I-153 “Chaika”).

Finland was once a territory of Russia (conquered from Sweden in 1809), but with the outbreak of revolution in Russia in 1917 the Finns took their chance and declared independence, this resulted in the Finnish Civil War  of 1918 that eventually saw Russian forces leave the country (Finland was supported by Germany during this war). This wasn’t the end of the matter though, relations between the two nations remained tense and resulted in two wars with the Soviet Union, the Winter War 1939-1940 which ended in a peace treaty, and the Continuation War 1941-1944 where they were allied with the Germans. The Finns stopped a major Soviet offensive, an armistice was signed and then from 1944-1945 the Finns started to fight in the Lapland War to get the Germans out of Finland  (about 200,000 soldiers)!

Finland Winter War Finnish Soldiers
Finnish Troops

Finland had to cede 10% of their territory in the treaties with the Soviet Union, but they brought the vastly stronger Soviet army to a standstill, something their former allies could never achieve and they retained their democratic freedom. Tough buggers the Finns, a small population that you just don’t mess with!

In 2010 I visited the Finnish Military Museum at the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress in Helsinki. A small museum that proudly illustrates the success of the Finnish military in WW2.

Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-29UB Fulcrum B

The 2 seat version of the jet fighter which first entered Soviet service in 1983 and is still in use by many air forces in the world today (the Fulcrum  along with the Sukhoi SU-27 Flanker were built by the Soviets to counter the US F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon). This particular example was once operated by Russia and Ukraine. In 2006 it was shipped in 2 parts from the Ukraine to the US, one across the Atlantic, the other across the Pacific to avoid the possibility of terrorists getting one complete aircraft, but the fuselage was confiscated in Hong Kong as an implement of war! It took nearly 2 years of legal proceedings and a lot of money to finally get this airframe approved as a historic aircraft and released by the Hong Kong authorities!

Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-29 Fulcrum Flying Heritage Collection
MiG-29UB Fulcrum B

Flying Display

The flying display was a little different to other flying days FHC has put on in previous weeks due to the vast speed difference between the U-2/PO-2 and the I-16 (the latter is much faster and would stall if trying to fly at the very low speed of the U-2/PO-2). So they did separate passes and no formation flying, but the I-16 did do a high speed low level pass of the U-2/PO-2 while it was flying over the runway and another of the MiG-29UB while it was on the ground. Both were pretty impressive to see and a great highlight of the day! The low and slow flying and sharp turns of the U-2/PO-2 was quite impressive too!

Polikarpov I-16 Rata Flying Heritage Collection
I-16 Rata
Polikarpov U-2 Po-2 I-16 Flying Heritage Collection
I-16 passes U-2/PO-2
Polikarpov U-2 Po-2 Flying Heritage Collection
U-2/PO-2 low and slow
Polikarpov I-16 Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-29 Flying Heritage Collection
The I-16 passes over the MiG-29UB

Alas the Mig-29UB did not fly (it can though and is approved to do so by the FAA), but it did demonstrate the power of its twin engines by doing a start-up and high speed taxi on the runway which made a great noise (this is a Mach 2.2 top speed fighter)! Regardless it was great to see such a famous fighter jet in motion, rather than just static (which I have seen in many museums in Russia, other countries in Europe and the US).

The US government does own some MiG-29’s that they bought from Moldova in 1997 (the Moldovan’s wanted to sell them as they were too expensive to operate. The aircraft were nuclear weapon capable so to stop them falling in the wrong hands the US bought them. This also allowed them to study a possible frontline opponents aircraft in detail. I am not sure if any of the 21 purchased were flight capable though, and they were probably in a bad state in the first place. A number of these are displayed in US museums), but they are still a rarity to see in North America.

Moldova MiG-29C 1997.
Moldovan MiG-29C being readied for air shipment from Moldova to the United States on Oct. 17, 1997.

Another great day out at Paine Field and sadly only one more Flying Day  to go for the summer in a couple of weeks (B-25 Mitchell day where 2 will fly in formation). I heard a rumour the other day that the various aviation groups are negotiating to get a Boeing B-29 Superfortress to spend the 2012 summer flying at various shows in Washington state. I hope it becomes more than just a rumour! Bring on next summer!!!

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Por lo embrujadoras como mujeres hermosas y por lo valientes y vengadoras como pilotos comunistas, no merecieron otro nombre que el otorgado a ellas por las Nazis, como Las Brujas de la Noche

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