If there's one thing that the Soviet Air Force is famous for, it's getting shot out of the sky and careening to earth in a fiery inferno. It's no secret that the Russkies were plagued with their fair share of inexperienced pilots, insufficient combat training, and substandard equipment, particularly in the early years of the Second World War, but from Erich Hartmann and Hiromichi Shinohara to pretty much every 1980s military action movie ever made, if you didn't know better you'd get the idea that you couldn't release a weather balloon into the atmosphere without accidentally bringing down a MiG or two in the process.
It's beyond the scope of this article to debate the operational combat history of the Soviet Union's air forces, but I do mention this because it may come as somewhat of a surprise to you that the top-scoring female fighter pilot in history was out there flying the unfriendly skies and shredding Fascist fuselages in the name of the Motherland. Lydia Litvak, the "White Rose of Stalingrad" (she is sometimes referred to as the "White Lilly" as well, but I'm not going to argue semantics here), was out there testing her mettle against some of the most well-trained, battle-hardened, and highest-scoring fighter pilots to ever strap themselves into a cockpit, and spent some of the most critical moments of World War II making all of them her bitch.
Whenever we go to cool-ass war museums, most uneducated rubes like myself look at all the shiny knobs, gauges, and levers in a fighter cockpit and think to themselves, "how the hell are you supposed to make any goddamned sense out of this insanity?" I generally have trouble successfully operating the twelve buttons and two sticks on my Xbox controller in a way that doesn't get the Master Chief killed once every eight seconds, so with all the shit you've got going on in the pilot's seat of a fighter plan it probably goes without saying that you don't just sit down in front of the flight stick and suddenly turn into the Danica Patrick of aeronautical bloodshed. That shit takes work.
Growing up in Moscow, Lydia Litvak always knew she wanted to fly, and she wasn't going to fuck around with big dreams when she could have been out there doing awesome barrel rolls and finding out what happens when you barf while pulling a half-dozen Gs – she just went balls-out (in a manner of speaking), learned to pilot a prop plane by age fifteen, and was a flight instructor within three years. The same day that she heard our old pal Adolph Hitler had double-crossed Uncle Joe and invaded Russia in 1941, she was standing outside the military recruiting office looking to fly combat missions for the Soviet air force. The guy behind the counter told her that she wasn't eligible because she hadn't logged over 1,000 hours of flight time in her short, five-year career as a pilot, so she thanked the guy, walked up the street to the next recruiting office, filled out her paperwork, and put "1,000" in the box asking how many hours of flight time she'd logged in her career. Next thing you know, she was shipped out to boot camp.
After a pretty intensive-yet-short training camp, Lydia was assigned to a men's squadron, where she took her Yak-1 fighter into battle against a sea of pissed-off German warplanes in the skies above the raging battle of Stalingrad. The guys in Lydia's unit weren't super-keep on having some girlie flying around with her, but it wasn't long before the asskicking Amazonian ship-wrecker would prove herself to the point where pretty much every guy out there was like, "you can be my wingman any time."
It only took Lydia Litvyak two combat missions to score her first kill, shooting down a German Junkers Ju-88 bomber and becoming the first woman in military history to ever score a solo aerial victory in combat. About ten minutes later she became the first woman in military history to score two aerial victories, when she outdueled a badass motherfucker who oh yeah just so happened to be an eleven-kill fighter ace and a recipient of the Iron Cross. When this proud German officer was captured by the Russkies, he demanded to meet the pilot who finally took him out of action. Lydia walked up to him and stared him in the eyes, and of course this guy's first thought was that the Communists were fucking with him and being total dicks by playing some joke on him. It wasn't until Lydia described the entire dogfight turn-for-turn that this guy's mind was completely blown. Since he'd been completely pwnd out of hand by this chick, he got really pumped and offered her the super-expensive gold watch he always wore around his wrist. Lydia didn't even look at it. She kept her gaze straight in the dude's eyes and calmly said, "I do not accept gifts from my enemies." Then she got so pissed that she went out the very next day and shot down another German fighter plane.
For the next year, the White Rose of Stalingrad ignited enemy fuselages up and down the Eastern Front. She was transferred to a Guards Regiment, the elite of the Soviet military, and flew as a Junior Lieutenant and Flight Commander in the recently-established all-female 586th Fighter Air Regiment. She flew bomber escorts, attack missions, and was so ridiculously awesome that she was given a James Bond license to kill at will – she was assigned "Free Hunter" status, meaning that she was free to go balls-out into enemy airspace without orders to do so. Over that year she flew 66 combat missions, sometimes four or five a day, including one attack when she busted through a gauntlet of AA guns and fighters to shoot down an observation balloon that was fucking with the Red Army and helping Nazi artillery range their shells on Russian positions outside Stalingrad. So fuck those guys. She notched twelve solo kills – the most of any woman ever – and had four or five more assisted kills. Basically, she kicked some Fascist ass.
It should also be mentioned that she was flying a Yakolev Yak-1 for most of her combat actions. I was hoping to be able to put some paragraph in here about how the Yak-1 was a piece of shit that was about as maneuverable as the name "Yak" would imply, but looking through some research it doesn't seem like this is the case. It was, however, an unreliable plane that had a lower ceiling and was more lightly-armed than the Me-109s the Germans were flying, and looking at the kill totals of some of the German aces should give you some idea that when you were dealing with one-on-one attacks, the Soviet airmen and airwomen were definitely the underdogs.
Eventually, Lydia's luck ran out. In 1943, after an intense battle, the hardcore 21-year-old ace was last seen busting through enemy airspace and hauling ass towards the horizon being chased after by eight German fighter planes. One of only two female fighter aces in history (the other, Katya Budanova, was Lydia's wingman and was killed just a month before Litvyak – the two of them combined for 23 of the 38 confirmed kills of the 586th Fighter Regiment), Lydia Litvyak was never heard from again. Her body was eventually recovered in 1989, and she was posthumously awarded honors as a Heroine of the Soviet Union – the highest military award for bravery offered by the USSR.
Noggle, Anne. A Dance with Death. Texas A&M University Press, 2002.
Pennington, Reina and John Erickson. Wings, Women, and War. University of Kansas, 2007.
Sakaida, Henry. Heroines of the Soviet Union 1941-1945. Osprey, 2003.
Strebe, Amy Goodpaster. Flying for Her Country. Greenwood, 2007.