Nadezhda Popova was born in 1921 in Russia and she grew up in Ukraine. At a young age she became fascinated with aviation and joined a gliding school when she was 15. When she turned 16, she completed her first parachute jump and her first solo flight. Her parents were opposed to her new passion, but she continued to pursue it anyway. She went on to the Kherson flight school where she graduated at the age of 18 and then became an instructor.
Popova felt that her skills would be useful to the military, and she tried to join as a pilot but the government barred women from combat. In October of 1941, the need for pilots was great and Stalin ordered that three regiments of female pilots to be formed. Popova joined up and was trained to be a military pilot.
She was put into a night bombing regiment that only flew at night because they were only given 1920s vintage Polikarpov PO-2 biplanes which were comprised of fabric stretched over plywood frames. The planes had no guns or parachutes and only had a weight limit that allowed for two bombs at a time. This meant that the planes would go on several runs a night. One night Popova did as many as 18.
Popova and the other women became known by the Germans as “Night Witches” because they were seemingly invisible, and their planes made a whooshing sound “like a witch’s broomstick in the night.” She continued to rise through the ranks, flying 852 missions throughout the course of the war. She was shot down more than once but never suffered serious injuries. During a relief mission to drop supplies she returned with a plane that was full of bullet holes, including in her map and helmet. After the war, she returned home to a hero’s welcome, and resumed her job as a flight instructor. She lived to be 91 years old.