January 4 marks the 60th anniversary of the death of Marina Raskova, one of the most venerated and best-loved women aviators of Soviet Russia. Largely unknown in the West, Raskova is admired for her achievements in aviation in the same way Amelia Earhart is in the United States.
Founder of the world's first women's air regiments during the Great Patriotic War (WWII), Raskova rose to the rank of major and became the first woman navigator in the USSR, as well as commanding officer of the 587th Dive Bomber Regiment, which was subsequently renamed the 125th M.M. Raskova Borisov Guards Dive Bomber Regiment after her death.
One of the first women to earn the coveted title Hero of the Soviet Union, Raskova served as a role model for her fellow aviators, male and female, for not only her tremendous skill and personal courage, but her ability to make decisions and lead her regiment under often very difficult circumstances.
Marina Mikhaiovna Malinina was born on March 28, 1912 in Moscow. Long before her aspirations would take her to the skies, Raskova dreamed of becoming an opera singer. At the age of six she began attending the Pushkin School of Music. At 10, she was accepted into a conservatory and later transferred to a technical school of music. In addition to her singing lessons, her favorite subjects in school were biology and chemistry.
A middle-ear infection at the age of 15 cut Raskova's music studies short and pushed her life down a different path. She chose to pursue a career in the field of chemistry and, following graduation in 1929, became an apprentice at the Butyrsky Aniline Dye Plant. Half a year later she landed a job as a laboratory technician. During this time she met and married Sergey Raskov, an engineer working at the plant. The couple divorced in October 1935, five years after Raskova gave birth to their only child, Tanya.
Following her resignation from the plant to care for her infant daughter, Raskova soon sought new challenges outside the home. In October 1931, she was offered a position as a draughtswoman in the Navigation Laboratory of the N. Ye. Zhukovsky Air Force Engineering Academy. It was the first step in her aviation career. By the end of the year Raskova was promoted and became a teaching and laboratory assistant. While learning the theory of air navigation, Raskova also studied extramurally mathematics, physics, geometry and mechanical engineering at the Aviation Institute in Leningrad. The director of the laboratory, A.V. Belyakov, who in 1937 was the navigator of a pioneer flight from Moscow to the United States via the North Pole, became her mentor.
Having mastered the theory of navigation, Raskova had an opportunity for practical training when she accompanied Belyakov aboard a three-engine aircraft where she was allowed to fly as navigator. In the fall of 1933, a new Odessa-Batumi passenger air service was planned and the airport sites needed to be chosen. Raskova took part in the Academy's expedition for this purpose and flew over the entire Crimea, the Caucasian shore and the Azov Sea. She became the first woman in the Soviet Union to earn the diploma of professional air navigator, going on to become an instructor at the Academy.
As an instructor, Raskova taught military navigation to male officers, who though initially skeptical of her knowledge and abilities, would later admit that they were now convinced, based on her performance, of women's capabilities in aviation. The Academy rewarded Raskova by sending her to the Central Flying Club at Tushino, near Moscow, for flying lessons, which she completed in August 1935. Afterwards, she became an instrument flying instructor and taught advanced navigation for command personnel.
By the mid-1930s, Raskova became involved in an increasing number of important aviation-related events, and in August 1935 she made her first independent flight as a pilot. It was a group flight from Leningrad to Moscow of six women pilots, each with a female passenger, organized by the Experimental Aviation Institute. …