Grizodubova, Valentina, Polina Osipenko, and Marina Raskova

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Grizodubova, Valentina, Polina Osipenko, and Marina Raskova

Three Soviet aviators who flew 3,717 miles nonstop from Moscow to the Soviet east coast near Japan in 1938, a journey one third longer than Amelia Earhart's 1932 solo flight, and crash landed, spending ten days in the Siberian taiga until rescued .

Grizodubova, Valentina (1910–1993). Born Valentina Stepanovna Grizodubova on January 18, 1910, in Kharkov; died on April 28, 1993, in Moscow; daughter of aviator and aircraft designer S.V. Grizodubov.

Completed flying-club training and began work in the civil air fleet (1929); assumed command of the 101st Long-Range Air Group (later the 31st Guards Bomber Group) which lent support to partisan detachments (1942); awarded the Order of Lenin, the Order of the Red Banner of Labor, the Order of the Patriotic War First class, and the Order of the Red Star.

Osipenko, Polina (1907–1939). Name variations: Paulina. Born Polina Denisovna Osipenko on October 8, 1907, in the village of Osipenko, Berdansk; died in an air crash on military duty, on May 11, 1939; buried near the Kremlin Wall in Red Square; graduated from the Kacha Aviation School, 1932.

Set five world flight records for women; awarded Two Orders of Lenin and the Order of the Red Banner of Labor.

Raskova, Marina (1912–1943). Born Marina Mikhailovna Raskova on March 28, 1912, in Moscow, Russia; died on January 4, 1943, in military combat, near Saratov; buried in the Kremlin Wall in Red Square; daughter of teachers; married with children.

Author of Notes of a Navigator (1939); began work at the air navigation laboratory of the N.E. Zhukovski Air Force Academy (1932); graduated from the Central Training Center of the Civil Air Fleet (1934); joined the Red Army (1938); commanded an air detachment for the formation of air regiments and was made commander of a women's bombardment aviation regiment (1942); awarded two Orders of Lenin and Order of the Patriotic War First Class (posthumously).

Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, the founding of the Soviet Union opened up many opportunities for women under the new regime. The value of aviation was meanwhile being proven across Europe during World War I, and, after the war ended in 1918, there were flyers of both sexes eager to conquer the skies. The next two decades became a notable era for aeronautical record-setting as Americans Charles Lindbergh flew from Long Island to Paris in 1927 and Amelia Earhart flew from Newfoundland to Ireland in 1932. Pilots inside the Soviet Union were showing a similar penchant for encroaching on new frontiers, as competitive in the air as the next generation would be in space decades later. Soviet flyers V.K. Kokkinaki set the record for altitude with a gross weight of 500 kg. in 1936; V.P. Chkalov, G.F. Baidukov, and Alexander Beliakov flew nonstop from Moscow to North America across the North Pole in 1937; and M.M. Gromov, A.B. Iumashev, and S.A. Danilin set the world distance record over a straight course in 1937. These were all men, however, and given the number of women making their way through the ranks of Soviet flyers, it is not surprising that the Soviet government was ready to sponsor a long distance flight by three women, Valentina Grizodubova, Polina Osipenko, and Marina Raskova, by September 1938. Although their flight of 3,717 miles set new records for distance flown by women, one-third longer than Earhart's had been, what grabbed the headlines at the time was the crash of their plane and the massive effort to rescue them.

Women in our… land have long ago shattered the chains of their age-old slavery and the old perverted theories of their inequality and lack of ability to do great deeds.

—Lazar Kaganovich

In the 1930s, aviation was still such a new field that almost everyone began flying in some roundabout way; the most important characteristic for gaining entrance to the cockpit appeared to be determination. Valentina Stepanovna Grizodubova was the exception to this rule, in that she grew up around planes. She was the daughter of a peasant who became an aviator after he built his own plane, inspired by a movie about the Wright brothers. A pilot at 19, Grizodubova became a member of the famous "Maxim Gorky" squadron which flew to remote areas of the USSR on educational missions. She had ten years experience by the time she was selected to pilot the historic flight of the three women. By comparison, Polina Osipenko's entry into the field was almost whimsical. Born into a poor peasant family in South Russia, she left school because of poverty, became a nurse, a weaver, and then a farm laborer. On a hot day in July 1927, she was working in a field with her family on a collective farm when an airplane made a forced landing nearby. Entranced by what she had witnessed, Osipenko began to read everything she could in the hope of being admitted to flying school. She was a waitress at an airport when her eagerness attracted the attention of pilots who helped her study; within a year, she was a full-fledged military pilot. In yet another contrast, Marina Raskova was born into the family of an opera singer and studied music before she became interested in aerial navigation. In preparation for flying, she had taught herself astronomy, meteorology, topology, and other related studies when she met a transpolar flyer, Alexander Beliakov, who helped her become a pilot.

The long-distance flight for the three women was to be nonstop from Moscow to the Soviet east coast. Grizodubova was chosen to pilot, Osipenko to co-pilot, and Raskova to navigate. Their twin-engine plane was christened Rodina or Motherland, and the flight was to symbolize the adventuresome spirit of the new Soviet nation. On the morning of September 24, 1938, the Rodina took off at 8:12 am, from the Shelkovo airport near Moscow. The crew was well rested after seven hours of sleep and had eaten enormous breakfasts. Though they took off into a mist, the Rodina was soon flying above the clouds, rising effortlessly despite a 12.5 ton load. Skies were at first clear as far as Kazan, but then the crew ran into stormy weather. Grizodubova simply took the plane higher to get above the storm, and when dusk fell that evening the plane was flying over Sverdlovsk at an altitude of 5,000 meters. The pilot had dipped over the Irtysh River so that Raskova could take exact bearings when Osipenko took the controls, and for a while the flying was smooth. As night fell, however, the flight became bumpy. Seeing ice form, Osipenko took the plane still higher, to 7,500 meters, where the air was so cold that the lubricating oil froze in the electric transformer, cutting off radio transmission, and leaving the crew with only the stars to guide them.

All night, the flying remained rough, with the three women using oxygen tanks to get air necessary at such high altitudes. Each of the crew was in a separate compartment, communicating with the others by handwritten notes sent through pneumatic tubes. When dawn broke, they watched the sun's rise reflected on snowy mountain peaks as they passed over Rukhlovo. But thick clouds lay ahead. At 7 am. Moscow time on September 25, they approached the Okhotsk Sea to the north of Japan and turned inland, setting their course for Khabarovsk. They had been in the air about 23 hours, and Grizodubova and Osipenko calculated that they had enough fuel to fly three hours more. Soon after, they noticed the confluence of the Amur and Amgun rivers, although visibility was almost down to zero with mists covering most of the terrain below. Shortly after passing over Kameka, a red light flared on the dash, signaling that fuel was running low, and the plane began to lose altitude. Over a region that was forested and swampy, with few, if any, safe landing places, it soon became clear that they would have to make an emergency landing.

The crew was familiar with emergency plans for just such an eventuality. As navigator, Raskova flew forward in a glass-covered cockpit, and was in most danger of being killed on impact. At this point, Grizodubova sent her a note, "Can you jump?" Raskova looked back at her colleague through the glass and shook her head no. But as the plane dipped lower, Grizodubova sent a second note, "Jump, jump, don't hold us up!" As a military pilot accustomed to obeying orders, Raskova grabbed some chocolate, looked out at the ground below her in search of a landing place, opened the cockpit, and jumped when the plane was at an altitude of 2,000 meters. She fell for three seconds before opening her parachute. Grizodubova nosed upward, looking to see where she had landed. Then the pilot and co-pilot retracted the landing gear, to help prevent the Rodina from sinking in a swamp, and prepared to crash land. The plane was brought down so skillfully on the soft marsh surface that the body of the plane and all its instruments remained intact. The time was 10:41 am on September 25; thus, the crew had flown for 26 hours and 29 minutes, breaking the women's long distance record in international flying. In terms of testing their endurance, however, their adventure had hardly begun.

Before launching herself out over the vast, forested, subarctic taiga below, Raskova carefully

returned the maps to a safe place and noted that the altimeter read 2,000 meters. She took very little with her when she jumped, only matches, a hunter's compass, a revolver, and a piece of chocolate. Manipulating her parachute in a high wind, she tried to note the plane's distant landing place while she looked for an open spot in the trees. As she glided toward a meadow, her parachute caught in a fir, leaving her hanging five meters above the ground; she cut herself free. In the distance, she heard the Rodina's motors roar and then fall silent. Next came the sound of a shot, and she took out her compass to note the direction. A second shot confirmed that the sound was from the southeast. But the distance was great enough that she decided to rest before setting off toward the plane.

With the plane on the ground, Grizodubova and Osipenko's primary concern was for their colleague. Jumping from the cockpit, Grizodubova fired three shots to indicate their whereabouts, but no reply came. The women then tried to establish radio contact and discovered that their transmitter was not working. Following their emergency plan, the women prepared then to wait for Raskova to locate them. At one point, they thought they heard voices, then saw a figure approaching the plane; it turned out to be a large bear. They climbed back into the plane where they spent the night. Awakened by clawing, they peered out at a lynx trying to get in. Grizodubova fired a shot to frighten it away, but more rubbing sounds indicated other animal visitors, attracted by the smell of food. Osipenko released a rocket to frighten them off. "We were in a distant, unexplored wilderness," said Grizodubova. "But we were not alone. We felt the whole people was with us, thinking of us."

Raskova, in the meantime, after hearing the shots fired and determining the direction of the plane, had fallen into an exhausted sleep. When she woke, she set off to traverse the swampy ground covered with fallen trees. Dressed in heavy fur clothes to ward off the cold, she did not find the going easy. For food, aside from the chocolate, she began to pick berries, mushrooms, and soft birch leaves. On the third morning, she was traversing a marsh covered in tall grass when it began to rain, and she suddenly sank up to her waist and then to her neck. Seizing a stick, she gradually and with great effort worked her way out of the bog, and most of that day was spent trying to dry her clothes. The next day, she spotted a snow-capped mountain that she had observed while leaping from the plane, reassuring her that she was headed in the right direction.

At the plane site, Grizodubova and Osipenko had food, and felt the main threat was a possible attack by wild animals. On the third night, however, there was a violent storm, and they began to fear that the plane might sink into the subarctic marsh. To pass the time, the women sang songs and told stories. The nights were full of sounds, and they took turns sleeping. In an attempt to keep other creatures at bay, they set off another rocket, which set off a fire in the dry grass, and leaping flames were soon moving toward the Rodina. The fliers put out the blaze with their hands and feet.

While the downed flyers spent hours over the radio trying to establish contact, a massive search had been launched to locate them. Six thousand people and 50 planes took part in the rescue mission that covered land, air, and sea. Horse, reindeer, motor boat, and parachute parties joined the search, and local hunters, familiar with the area, fanned out to locate the Rodina. Radio news bulletins and newspapers brought the Soviets news of the search. In Moscow, Marina Raskova's 12-year-old daughter Tanya went to school, where she told people confidently, "Don't worry, Mama is safe. She told me just what they would do if they were forced to land."

On the morning of October 3, Mikhail Sakharov was flying the plane that located the Rodina. Far below, he saw two small figures standing on the wing of the downed aircraft. Though he could not land, he dropped them much-needed supplies. That same day, another flyer located Raskova and tried dropping supplies, but they were out of her reach. But the good news that the women had been located was relayed to millions of waiting Soviets. Parachutists, headed by Captain Polozhayev, landed near the Rodina, and more food, medicines, clothing, and warm boots were dropped in. Osipenko cooked up a dinner with the new supplies and all seemed well except that they had not been reunited with Raskova.

Word reached the downed plane that Raskova had been spotted, and shortly afterwards Raskova and her rescuers appeared. A doctor in the party wanted to examine her, but the navigator insisted first on checking her cockpit for what had survived the crash. Ten days in the Siberian wilderness had left Raskova badly weakened, and she was carried out by stretcher on an eight-hour trek up the Amgun River. Nevertheless, Raskova wrote later about the end of her ordeal, "That evening we cooked fresh salmon chowder on the shores of the Amgun. Such delicious chowder I have never tasted in my life, and I doubt whether I ever will again."

A fleet of boats awaited the flyers carrying them to the little town of Kerbi. From there, they went to Komsomolsk, where they embarked on a triumphant journey back to Moscow, across the Siberian taiga by train. All the way back, admirers waited to cover the train with flowers, exulting in the new flying record and in the aviators' safe homecoming. On October 27, a reception was held at the Kremlin, attended by leaders of government as well as other aviators, explorers, scientists, artists, writers, and workers. "Your threshold, comrades, proved to be the Pacific Ocean," said a government leader, "and your path turned out to be 6,000 kilometers long. You have demonstrated what great things Soviet women are fitted for."

The celebration was short lived. World War II was on the horizon, and millions of Soviet women and men would soon be drawn into the struggle against Germany and its allies, with women aviators playing a crucial role. Although women were officially supposed to fly only supply routes, many in fact engaged in combat and downed Nazi planes. Throughout the war, their exploits were greatly publicized. Grizodubova commanded an air regiment of long-ranging planes, flew bombing missions, and survived attacks by German fighters. Speaking of women in combat in 1942, she said, "In my experience, girls make just as good pilots as men. You cannot judge by appearance. I know girls so quiet and apparently timid that they blush when spoken

to, yet they pilot bombers over Germany without qualm. No country at war today can afford to ignore the tremendous reservoir of woman power."

On May 11, 1939, shortly before the start of the war, Osipenko was killed in an airplane crash while on military duty. She was buried with honors in Red Square near the Kremlin wall. When Raskova was killed in action on January 4, 1943, there was a tremendous national outpouring of grief over the loss of this much-beloved figure, who was given the first state funeral of the war. Crowds passed by the coffin, paying their respects in the domed hall of the Civil Aviation Club, and the funeral oration given by General Scherbakoff was broadcast throughout Russia. While Chopin's Funeral March and the Internationale were played, banners were dipped and officers saluted, and a lone plane flew over Moscow in tribute.

Grizodubova alone survived the war. She lived until 1993, a symbol of the accomplishments of the Soviet Union's women aviators. Given how well women had proved their skill and endurance in flight, it is not surprising that the Soviet Union was quick to send them into space. And while countries in the West still debate combat roles for women in the military that threshold was crossed by Soviet women decades ago.


Campbell, D'Ann. "Women in Combat: The World War II Experience in the United States, Great Britain, Germany, and the Soviet Union," in The Journal of Military History. Vol. 57, April 1993, pp. 301–323.

"Many Nazi Planes Are the Victims of Russian Women Fighter Pilots," in The New York Times. January 17, 1944, p. 16.

Myles, Bruce. Night Witches: The Untold Story of Soviet Women in Combat. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1981.

"Noted Soviet Aviatrix and Officer Are Killed," in The New York Times. May 12, 1939, p. 13.

"Russians to the Pole," in Time. June 28, 1937, pp. 45–46.

"Russian Woman Flier Killed on Active Duty," in The New York Times. January 10, 1943, p. 7.

Smith, Jessica. "The Rodina Flies East," in Soviet Russia Today. Vol. 7, no. 9. December 1938, pp. 16–21, 32.

"State Funeral Held for Major Raskova," in The New York Times. January 13, 1943, p. 4.

"Valentina S. Grizodubova, 83, A Pioneer Aviator for the Soviets," in The New York Times. Obituaries, May 1, 1993, p. 31.

"Woman Heads Soviet Airlines," The New York Times. March 9, 1939, p. 13.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia