Fighter Aces You Probably Haven’t Heard Of

Dangerous Women edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois

Written by Carrie Vaughn

I’m trying to pick my favorite dangerous woman to write about. This is really hard. So many to choose from! I’m not even thinking about fictional dangerous women—why would I, when history is filled with them? Warriors, politicians, rulers, diplomats, pirates, rebels, spies, assassins—and fighter aces. Ah, yes, that’s what I’ll tell you about, because that’s what I wrote about for my story, “Raisa Stepanova,” included in the anthology Dangerous Women.

Lilia Litviak and Ekaterina Budanova were fighter pilots for the Soviet Union during World War II, and both flew extensive combat missions in the region of Stalingrad. Each of them claimed around a dozen kills, counting both solo and shared kills—both are designated fighter aces. One of my favorite stories about Litviak tells of a meeting between her and one of the pilots she shot down. The German ace parachuted to safety, was taken prisoner, and asked to see the pilot who had bested him. When he faced Litviak, a petite woman with pixie-like blond hair, he thought it was a joke, until she described every detail of the dogfight in which she’d beaten him. The German pilot tried to give her his pocket watch out of respect—she refused the token, because he was the enemy.

Soviet women pilots flew some 30,000 combat missions during the war. An all-woman unit of night bombers earned the nickname “Nachthexen”—Night Witches—from their German targets, who learned to be terrified of their low-level sneak attacks.

Litviak and Budanova were friends, and both were killed in action in 1943. I wrote my story for Dangerous Women to pay tribute to them and their colleagues, because I think they’re amazing, and because I want to tell everyone about them.

It’s important to talk about real-world dangerous women, because so many of them have been forgotten by history. When I describe these women, people are often surprised—women fighter aces, in World War II? Why, yes. Knowing about these women, and about all the women who’ve accomplished so much, make all the arguments that have happened in my lifetime about what women can and can’t do, what they should and shouldn’t do, seem rather ridiculous. Women have already been doing pretty much everything all along. Society has just forgotten about it. I’m here to remind you.

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3 thoughts on “Fighter Aces You Probably Haven’t Heard Of

  1. Since you are interested in woman pilots during WWII, I suggest you look into the life of Beate Uhse. Besides being a stunt pilot in pre-war Germany, and having also piloted planes during the war, she started sex-ed in Germany after the war (as she wasn’t allowed to fly anymore), and later started the first sex-shop in the world… Hers is also a truly fascinating story, and in many ways, she would also qualify as a “Dangerous Woman”…

  2. As I’ve heard the tale (from a book on women in the Soviet forces and another specifically on Soviet flyers) the Night Witches earned their name because their bombers (Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes which flew slow, but low and silent hidden by darkness) were made partially out of wood, so when shot they burned very well. The all-women crews weren’t issued parachutes, either, so these women could choose between burning in the sky or falling to the ground. Burned women = witches.

    There’s another story, too, but I can’t remember the name; a female pilot sent to a male unit because sje was unruly. She kept on being unruly, and kept on flying, and was apparently appreciated by her comrades despite this, since she was rescued from behind enemy lines several times after she’d crash-landed. Rescuing individual pilots also wasn’t standard practice in the Soviet forces… So she really must have made an impression.

    History is fascinating.

  3. I want to coment about this russian female snipper called Ludymila Pablichenko, she had 309 kills, twenty of them were germans snipers in Rusia during the second world war, she was invited to the white house by president Roosevelt and first lady Eleanor Roosebelt.

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