2. Lilya Litvyak
Fictional heroine Ace Carroway loves to fly and faces danger with grit. Real past and present pilots have that same love and that same courage. I’d like to pay some homage to a few of them in this blog.
Soviet World War 2 flying ace Lilya Litvyak developed a fearsome reputation among German pilots. It is said that she had a love of wildflowers, and painted a white lily on each side of the fuselage of her Yak-1 fighter plane. When a German pilot saw the white flower, it is said, he would prefer to flee than engage in a dogfight.
Her full name was Liliya Vladimirovna Litvyak, “Lilya” (Lily) being a slightly contracted nickname. In true Ace Carroway fashion, she was smitten with airplanes and flying at a tender age. She covertly began learning to fly with the local flying club at age 14. She became a flight instructor and by the time war broke out in the Soviet Union in 1941, she had trained 45 students.
She tried repeatedly to enlist as a pilot in the war effort, but she was only successful when an all-female fighter unit was created, the 586th Fighter Regiment. Her flying skills were exemplary. Whenever she scored a mock or real kill, she would do a victory roll before landing.
Lilya was part of a squadron of eight from the 586th assigned to the front lines at Stalingrad in September, 1942. Legend has it that on the 13th of the month, Lilya was wingman to the regiment commander. They spotted a group of German bombers escorted by fighters, and the commander and peeled off to attack a trio of Junkers Ju-88s, twin engine fast bombers. The commander downed one, and Lilya down another, making history in that moment by scoring the first kill by a female pilot (if this legend is true).
The legend continues that Lilya saw her friend Raya Belyaeva in pursuit of a German Messerschmidt Bf-109, and joined in the chase as Raya ran out of ammunition. Lilya was able to shoot down the Messerschmidt. The pilot was German ace Erwin Meyer. That last part, at least, is true. Whether Ju-88s were present or if it was Lilya that shot down Meyer are debatable.
Lilya was herself shot down twice and injured three times. She was killed* while outnumbered during a dogfight on Aug 1, 1943. She is credited with 12 solo kills and 3 shared kills (again, beware exaggeration), and was promoted to Senior Lieutenant before her death. She was 21 years old for the entirety of her short but spectacular military career. She would have turned 22 on the 18th of August. Her body was long missing, which prevented her from receiving the highest of honors, but in 1990 she was proclaimed as an official Hero of the Soviet Union by Mikhail Gorbachev.
Unlike the United States or Britain, the Soviet Union sent female pilots on military missions in World War II. Uncertainties aside, it is absolutely true that Lilya and the rest of the pilots in the 586th Fighter Regiment were highly skilled in combat. The courage to face death in the air is truly extraordinary.
*Note: Historian K. Jean Cottam cites strong evidence that Lilya was shot down, but survived the crash, was a prisoner of war for a time, and might have emigrated to Switzerland.