By, Captain Nancy Aldrich, aviation writer

Several months ago I wrote an article about the Women’s Army Service Pilots (WASP) here in America. They were very courageous and inspirational women, but were never allowed to fly in combat. Of course, there was no combat taking place in America. However, in Europe things were much different. The war was everywhere. A very special group of young Russian women was formed in 1941, and this article is about one of those young women.  

Nadezhda ‘Nadya’ Popova was born December 17,1921(some report December 27, 1921), in Shabanovka, Russia, the daughter of a railwayman. She grew up in the coal fields, and dreamed of becoming an actress. She loved singing, dancing, jazz, and acting. She was a bit of a free spirit, and easily bored. When she saw a small airplane land in her village she became enamored of aviation. She thought only Gods could fly and found it hard to believe that a man could actually fly. At the age of 15, she decided, without telling her parents, to take flying lessons.

Originally the school refused her lessons. However, when Polina Ospipenko, the Inspector for Aviation in the Moscow Military District, recommended her, the school accepted her application and her lessons began. In 1937, she made her first solo flight and also her first parachute jump. She graduated from the Kherson Flight School at the age of 18, and began instructing. Her parents objected, but that did not seem to slow her down. She was passionate about aviation!

War was in the air, and Nayda volunteered to be a military pilot. At the time, women were barred from becoming military pilots. However, in 1941, when Germany broke their treaty with Russia, Stalin intervened and issued orders for three regiment of female pilots. They were divided into fighters, dive bombers, and night bombers. She was able to join a night bombing regiment, and rose to command the 2nd Women’s Regiment. Nayda, whose brother, Leonid, had been killed at the front, and whose home had been taken over by German forces, was eager to fight. She said, “I could see the German aircraft flying along our roads filled with people who were leaving their homes, firing at them with their machine guns. Seeing this gave me feelings inside that made me want to fight them.”

During a training mission on March 10, 1942, Nayda was leading a formation. They flew into a blizzard and two of the airplanes got lost and crashed, killing all four women aboard. These were the first casualties in her unit. She is quoted as say, “What a nightmare, poor girls, my friends, only yesterday we had slept in the bunks together.”  After her training was complete, she was sent to her home region around the Donetsk Coal Fields.

The women were flying the Polikarpov PO-2, a small two place airplane made mostly of plywood and fabric, so they were invisible to German radar. The airplane’s top speed of 94 mph was slower than the German planes could fly, making it much more maneuverable. The planes frequently flew so low to the ground that they were in the hedgerows and could not been seen from the German fighters. Frustrated, the Germans would often give up and leave the small planes alone. The planes, however, were very flammable. If hit with a tracer, it would burst into flames. Because the airplanes were flown close to the ground, and at night, they did not carry parachutes, so they would become flaming coffins.

On bombing runs, they could only carry the weight of two bombs, so they would have to make multiple runs each night. On one night, Popova made 18 bombing runs.

They flew in groups of three. When the women were close to their target, they would separate, with two flying in as decoys. As the decoys attracted the attention of the searchlights, they would maneuver wildly in different directions. Once the searchlights were distracted, the bombing pilot would idle, or kill, her engine so it could not be heard and descend to drop her bombs. After the first dropped her bombs they would regroup, and a second would become the bomber, then the third, until all the bombs were dropped. Nadya said that it took nerves of steel to be a decoy and willingly attract enemy fire, but it worked very well. Because the airplane gliding down to its target made a soft whooshing sound, and could not be seen, the Germans were reminded of flying broomsticks and began calling them “Nachthexen,” or Night Witches. That was a name the women accepted proudly!

The Germans said that the women were given special injections and pills which gave them a feline’s perfect vision at night. Nadya commented in an interview for the book “Greatest Russian War Stories, 1941-1945,” “this was nonsense, of course, what we did have were clever, educated, very talented girls.”

The Night Witches flew what is called ‘harrassment bombing’ missions. Their targets were mostly supply depots, encampments, rear base areas, etc. Because of their constant raids, the German forces got little rest, and were left feeling vulnerable and very insecure. German pilots were promised an Iron Cross if they shot down a Night Witch.

Describing their flights, she said, “When the wind was strong, it would toss the plane. In winter when you’d look out to see your target better, you got frostbite, our feet froze in our boots, but we carried on flying. If you give up, nothing is done and you are not a hero. Those who gave in were gunned down and they were burned alive in the craft as they had no parachutes.”

Popova was shot down several times during her service, but was never badly wounded. On August 2, 1942, she was on a daytime reconnaissance mission and was attacked by Luftwaffe fighters. She was forced to make an emergency landing. While returning to her unit, she joined a motorized column and met her future husband, Semyon Kharlamov, a fighter pilot.

After one night bombing run, Popova counted 42 bullet holes in her plane. She said to her navigator, “Katya, my dear, we will live long!”

During the course of WWII, the Night Witches flew more than 30,000 sorties and dropped 23,000 tons of bombs. Of the women, 30 were awarded the title, Hero of the Soviet Union, about a third of women so honored, and at least 3 fighter aces. Nadya flew 850 bombing missions, an astounding number when you stop to think that most American pilots were rotated out of combat if they survived 25 missions.

Decades after the war and the mission of the Night Witches ended, Popova said, “at night sometimes, I look up into the dark sky, close my eyes and picture myself as a girl at the controls of my bomber, and I think, ‘Nadya, how on earth did you do it?”

Nadezhda Popova passed away on July 8, 2013, at the age of 91.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych said Nadya Popova’s life was “an example of service to the Motherland. Her feats in the course of the Great Patriotic War will never be forgotten.”

It is also my hope that these brave young heros will always be remembered and honored for their incredible bravery.

The Witch is dead, but not forgotten!

By,Captain Nancy Aldrich, aviation writer,
( Winner of the 2012 prestigious Golden Yoke Aviation Writers Award )
Whoever trusts in the Lord Happy is He!   Prov 16:20

Nancy Aldrich Bkko Cover

“Flying My Dream” is a revised and expanded edition of ‘Captain Gramma’.  It contains some new stories, and makes the book more understandable and interesting for non-pilots.  This new book still tells the story of how Nancy Aldrich found herself a single mother of two teenage children, with no formal training or education with which to get a good job.  Through struggle, determination, tears and prayer, she was able to become a Captain for one of the largest airlines in the world.  This is her story.  It is a story of hope and encouragement, not just for women, but to anyone who feels like all doors have been closed.  It is a story of opening those doors and walking into your dreams.

Golden Yoke 2



16 Responses to THE WITCH IS DEAD

  1. Doyce Connell says:

    Capt. Nancy,
    I’m at a lost for words. Thank You for writing the story. It is encouraging and Touching.

    • Nancy Aldrich says:

      Thank you for your encouraging word. It helps to know people actually read my articles. God bless you and Linda – love you guys!

  2. Tommy Surles says:

    Very well done. thanks for sharing this incredible story. I had never heard of her and probably would not have except for you. Thanks a million, Tommy Surles

    • Nancy Aldrich says:

      Glad you enjoyed learning about Nadya. Like all the Night Witches, she was a very daring and brave young woman. I am awed by the things they were able to do. I find it interesting that a small group of young girls could terrorize the German forces, especially in the slow, small and fragile airplanes they were using.

  3. Frank Gallo says:

    Very interesting, well written! Thanks, Nancy.

  4. Barbara Strachan says:

    These women were amazing and sadly so unknow. Great information as usual.

  5. Nancy Aldrich says:

    Thanks for the encouragement. I agree that too many of these young women I am writing about are unknown. They were brave, daring, courageous, and amazing, but lost to history. I can just write a little in this format, but hopefully I will inspire people to find out more about them.

  6. haferaviation says:

    Nancy, learning about Nadezhda Popova and the “Night Witches” of WWII is just another fine example of why you are an award winning writer. Reading your articles I always learn something new. Your articles are not only instructive but they are interesting and entertaining as well. You have a knack for putting it all together and keeping your readers coming back for more and more. Captain Nancy you are consistent and have always been there with a new story when we have needed you and if anyone deserves awards it is you!
    In addition may I say this to all your readers, Captain Nancy does not get paid for her hard work in researching and writing all these wonderful articles that you are enjoying reading. May I ask you to go to her website and purchase her book and read her story. Those of you that have purchased her book, If you love her and want to support her, purchase another one and give it to a friend or a relative as a gift, they will appreciate it, and it will show support for Captain Nancy’s work and perhaps help her publish another book chunked full of her stories maybe…
    Keep up the your wonderful work Nancy & please give your website information
    Please continue your superb work… 🙂

  7. Nancy Aldrich says:

    Thanks, JR. I enjoy doing the research to come up with these stories of women who should be remembered.

    If you would like to go to my website, it is: You can find information about purchasing my autobiography there. Thank you!

  8. Roger Russell says:

    Excellent article. Wow, do I feel pretty inferior now. Hard to imagine the courage and commitment some people possess. While reading the article, naturally I wanted to see what the plane looked like. I was happy to see a picture at the end of the article. Thanks, Roger

  9. Nancy Aldrich says:

    Roger, I agree. Looking at that airplane and thinking about what they did, it just seems impossible. It is amazing what people will do when threatened. I am in awe of these women, just girls actually. Their ages were teens and early 20s!

  10. haferaviation says:

    To: Captain Nancy Aldrich, and Her Readers all over the world…
    Although we have been tardy in the presentation of the 2012 Golden Yoke award to Captain Nancy Aldrich she was unable to receive it at the planned (unknown to her) Sun ‘n Fun 2013 in April. she will soon formally receive it in a presentation (known to her). In the mean-time she will have the award on the website and on her articles.
    I would like for all her readers to congratulate Nancy for her outstanding research and writing, Her contribution to this magazine is the direct result of our becoming a worldwide aviation magazine with a readership in 146 countries around the world. Please help us in thanking Captain Nancy Welz Aldrich, Congratulations in earning the prestigious 2012 Golden Yoke Award.
    JR Hafer and Staff

  11. Cheryl Casillas says:

    Nancy, thanks for another remarkable history lesson of brave women in aviation! Keep them coming!

  12. Cheryl Casillas says:

    A huge congratulations on the Golden Yoke Award Nancy!

    • Nancy Aldrich says:

      Thanks for your comments, and for the congratulations! I’m learning a lot about our lost history, and finding it fascinating! Time consuming, but very interesting! Thanks, again!

  13. Pat says:

    Gus is going to love this story…I’m sorry I didn’t share with him sooner! God Bless you Nancy!

Leave a Reply