Off Beat: Chkalov's historic flight inspired Russian women to soar

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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Last week's visit by members of the Chkalov family and other Russian dignitaries wrapped up the 75th anniversary observance of the first transpolar flight.

It also was an opportunity to differentiate between "night witches" and some other formidable female fliers inspired by Chkalov.

The delegation included Valeria Chkalova, daughter of Valery Chkalov, the Soviet flier who piloted the 1937 flight over the North Pole. Also making the trip were Chkalova's niece and the aviator's grandson.

The group presented a plaque to the Vancouver City Council on Monday, then visited the Museum of Flight in Seattle. Chkalova gave the museum a bronze bust of her father.

It is not the museum's first Chkalov bust. Ron Hobbs, the museum's public programs coordinator, recalled how the other image of Chkalov affected earlier Russian visitors.

Two women who flew dive-bombing missions for the Soviets' 587th Bomber Regiment during World War II, Galina Brok-Beltsova and Elena Kulkova, were part of a 2007 museum presentation. Hobbs wanted them to see the bust of Chkalov, donated in 1997 during the 60th anniversary of the transpolar flight.

"I naively thought that I would have to explain to them through the interpreter who Chkalov was," Hobbs said. "One of the women recognized the bust from 10 meters away and began muttering 'Chkalov.' She walked up to the bust and stroked it, continuing to chant the name.

"I found out that because of Chkalov, this woman had been inspired to become a pilot,"

She wasn't the only one. Three regiments of Soviet women flew combat missions in WWII.

The 588th Night Bomber Regiment flew biplanes with a top speed of 95 mph. Pilots idled their engines on approach so their targets couldn't hear them coming. The Germans called them "Night Witches."

During their visit to the Museum of Flight, someone called Brok-Beltsova and Kulkova "Night Witches" -- maybe thinking that all the women air crews flew at night. One of the former dive-bombers smiled, Hobbs said.

She proclaimed: "I am not a 'Night Witch.' I am a 'Day Sorcerer.'"

Off Beat lets members of The Columbian news team step back from our newspaper beats to write the story behind the story, fill in the story or just tell a story.