I have had the privilege of knowing many heroes of our glorious, dead Soviet Union. I flew with Katya Budanova, and sweet Lilya, that the soldiers called the “White Rose.” Marina Raskova herself brought me to the unit, when I only was a crop-duster over the kolkhozes in the central Ukraine. In the Soviet Union, women were expected to be equal citizens, the burdens fell upon us all. I was proud to be a Party member. And I grieve for its passing, though it was time, for the USSR had become fat and corrupt. And I have flown many of its fighter aircraft, and those of Western nations. I will tell you of my very favorite of them all, and you may be surprised. Most are, who find out.
In 1943, the agency you called “Lend Lease” was in full swing. This would bring the incomparable Pokryshkin his Airacobra, itself a plane with few equals. And it was then that I was detailed for a time to the Moscow PVO. You know, of course, that Russia has two air forces.
The air-defense air force, called PVO, and the military air force, called VVS. Shoura’s Regiment came to this Georgian hell-hole from the Moscow PVO, detailed to the VVS, which is why they traded their interceptors for the MiG frontline fighters. And in 1943, the Moscow PVO was receiving a new interceptor. The British “Spitfire,” Mark V. This marvelous interceptor had served with distinction in the air war over Britain. And I was one of those selected to meet the British in Iraq, at Basra, and take delivery of Spitfires for our air force. Four of them came with us, in secret, to our base in the East. We would try them in combat, under field conditions. By now, all of us had left our parent unit, the beloved 586th, and Marina our leader was also dead — killed in action. I was detailed to the Moscow PVO, as my granddaughter would be. But now, I and Galina my wing, and another section of the new Spitfire fighters, would join the 296th Regiment for a combat tour over the besieged City.
This day, four of us would perform the combat air patrol. Galina and I would fly our wonderful new Spitfires, 1 White and 2 White. We would be escorted by Yakovlev fighters of the 296th IAP. The first, in 23 White, was Lidiia Vladimirovna, the “White Rose” herself, only months before her death. She would save all our lives this day. Tamara Kazarinova took her wing in 6 Red. We flew west, toward the setting sun, toward the Germans. We intended merely to exercise the Spitfires, we wanted to see what the British saw in them. Our formation was loose, combat spread, though Galina held close to me. I heard the call come from Tamara, over the radio, aircraft close. Twelve o’clock, straight ahead. I squinted into the sun, we should have been smarter.
“I see them, lead!”
“Second section, separate to the south pair. Tamara and I will take the north pair.”
Lilya bore in on the advancing Germans. They flew the hated Bf-109. She sighted in on the wingman, and they played a deadly game of what the Americans call “chicken.” But Lilya was faster, and the German erupted into flames as they passed.
I heard her call the victory on the radio, as the German section Galina and I were after swept over my head and I raked the Spitfire into a hard right bank to follow.
The German leader, in a grey-painted 109 with a big red heart on it, bore in on Tamara. We heard her cry out, her Yak-1 was hit, not mortally, but badly enough, with a fuel leak beginning. Lilya frantically pulled the nose of her Yak onto the German pilot.