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Interview with Olga Mikhaylovna Lisikova

by Oleg Korytov

Lieutenant Olga Lisikova, 1943

My name is Olga Mikhaylovna Lisikova. I hold the military rank of Guards Senior Lieutenant, and I am a holder of the honorary badge of the city of Saint-Petersburg.
My father was Leonid Leontevich Vlasov, a teacher; my stepfather Matvey Mikhaylovich Temin was the secretary of the Gdovsk regional party committee. Opposite the former regional council building they constructed a memorial to him. He was a partisan detachment commander and perished [in the war].
Mama, before her arrival in Leningrad, was a housewife. In Leningrad she worked in the public catering system (obshepit), and joined the Party in 1924.
In 1934, through the path of the Komsomol, approximately 12 Leningraders, I among them, traveled to Tambov civilian flight school. There were already four young girls there. And in 1936, all of the young girls from Balashov and Tambov schools transferred to Bataysk flight school, where a female squadron was being formed. It consisted of three detachments, in accordance with the year of training: first—initial training, and so on. They placed me in the 3rd Squadron from the outset.
I completed training in 1937.

Was it difficult to get to flight school?

No. For me this was no problem. Both in school, and later also in the air force, I was considered to be one of the best athletes. They created special conditions for me in Bataysk; I had my own daily schedule. Two times I was the top skier in the Soviet Union. But I was involved in many forms of sport, and quite often they took me out of training, even the terka.

This term is an abbreviation for teoreticheskoye obucheniye (theoretical instruction). This training served two purposes — to impart theory and also to round off the cadets’ rough edges.

Someone from the head office came in.
“You have to win in tennis!”
They took me out of training and I played tennis. I was a good runner, and played billiards exceptionally well. When I came to the billiard parlor, a line formed of those whose dream was to defeat me. But nothing came of their dreams, because I had, and they discovered this later, some kind of exceptionally accurate vision. I hit the ball into the precise pocket that was required. I strutted like a golden-eye, hands in pockets, as I knocked them down like a pool shark.

Did the young women have a problem with predominantly male groups?

There were no problems. They treated us surprisingly simply and properly. Many of the girls later married their instructors.
I will tell you of a very typical incident for me. One time I was leaving the stadium, and suddenly some journalists who had come to our school appealed to me with a request for assistance. “Lady,” they said. “We came here to take your photograph, and we cannot obtain jump-suits—the quartermaster store is closed.”
I ran out into the street, looked toward the quartermaster store—on the third floor, but the small ventilation window was open. I went into a nearby room, with absolute confidence removed my training pants, took off my shoes, crawled out the window, and looked around. Almost all of the cadets and journalists had run out into the street. I had to negotiate two stages. I looked down at the concrete; if I fell, goodbye to flight school. What would help me? I had just come from the stadium, was still all sweaty, and when I placed my hands on the wall, it was as if they stuck to it a little bit. I was able to make two steps. I went through the window. Again I “took aim,” but at that moment one of my feet slipped. There was no foothold there. The crowd gasped! But I got up, crawled through the ventilation window, and opened the quartermaster store from the inside.
After this the journalists did not want to photograph anyone except me. “Olga, come here! Olga, go there!”
In 1937 a film came out: Bogatyri nashey Rodiny! [Warriors of our motherland] And if you are able to see it, you would see only me, although the film was an artistic work. After that our young men could not pass by without calling out to me, “star of the screen!”

What aircraft did you fly in training?

On the U-2 for the first and second courses, and the R-5 for the last course.

Both aircraft were manufactured by Polikarpov. The U-2 was a biplane with a 100-hp radial engine. It was employed in many roles during the war, including night bomber, air ambulance, and liaison aircraft. Its loaded weight was approximately 2,000 pounds. The R-5, also a biplane, had a 680-hp V-12 engine, with a top speed in the 150 mph range and ceiling of approximately 20,000 feet. Its maximum loaded weight was 6,550 pounds. It also was used as a night bomber and liaison aircraft during the war.

You talked about a female squadron. Whom among your classmates can you remember?
Sima Motseva—she was an exceptional pilot. She was Bershanskaya’s deputy for flight activity.

Yevdokiya Bershanskaya was a commander of the famed all-female 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment.

Dina, whose last name I have forgotten, received the rank Hero of the Soviet Union in Bershanskaya’s regiment. Several young women from Leningrad were washed out for failure to progress in flight training. For example, Ogurtsova entered a medical institute and became an outstanding doctor.

How were graduates assigned out to units?

Well, perhaps they were sent where there was a shortage of pilots. I personally selected [my own assignment].
Many did not master the heavy R-5, but did master the U-2. The U-2 was broadly employed for liaison and for medical assistance. There was a medical evacuation variant of the U-2.
I completed training with distinction, and was able to choose where to go. Of course, I selected Leningrad. In Leningrad I was immediately assigned to a training detachment. At that time it was comprised only of men. Our instructor, Lebedev, checked me out on the R-5. I remind you—this was a chief pilot, who later became Zhukov’s personal pilot. But then he was an instructor. He gave me a check ride and then assigned me another task, and he himself ran off like a crazy man, it turned out, to the chief of the training detachment. I looked up, and here came the chief of the training detachment, Gosha (Grigoriy) Semenov. Now he gave me a task, I did it, everything that he ordered: zooms, various turns, stall, et cetera. Well, I did everything and then landed the airplane. He said nothing. Later they told me that he called Volodya (Vladimir) Drozdov, the commander of the 31st Detachment, which serviced the Leningrad–Moscow route, and they had the following conversation:
“I would like to recommend a pilot to you.”
“I don’t need any pilots right now.”
“Don’t you understand? I am recommending a special pilot to you. Lebedev and I checked her out and this is the first time we have encountered such a pilot. Whatever you tell her to do, she does it. Go ahead, try it. Give her an assignment.”
“This is a woman?”
“Exactly—a woman. Give her an assignment.”
Olga Mikhaylovna Vlasova (I was a Vlasova at that time) received an assignment—to execute a flight from Leningrad to Moscow and return. Then I understood why they gave me this particular assignment—in order to get me out of their hair.
I had never before flown this route, so I began to prepare for the flight. First I went to the navigational department and consulted with them; then I talked with pilots who normally flew this route. After that I went to the radio specialists. At that time, radio-navigation worked thusly: If you deviated to the right of course, you heard a “ta-a… ta-a… ta-a…” in your earphones. If you deviated to the left of course, you heard “ta, ta, ta”—short “dots.” If you were flying precisely on course, you heard this sound: “ta – ta-a, ta – ta-a.”
Radio-navigation had become very necessary during flights in overcast, and the Valday Hills were often covered in clouds.
I picked up a parachute. (Until this time, I do not understand why I needed a parachute in an R-5). I was in the forward cabin and had full controls. Drozdov (he also had a parachute) had only a stick. When I completed this flight and landed, he did not write any notes, and stated only general words: “A few good points, and also a few deficiencies; but with time, you will work them out.”
We walked up to the group, and there stood Valeriy Chkalov, Zaytsev, and Misha Gromov.

Valeriy Chkalov was a famous long-distance record pilot who, in June 1937, along with two other aviators, flew non-stop over the North Pole from Moscow to Vancouver, Washington, in a single-engine Antonov-25 monoplane. Mikhail Gromov and two other aviators flew the ANT-25 an even longer route in July 1937, landing in San Jacinto, California.

It was in essence the whole ensemble. One from Tbilisi, another from Tashkent, somehow the small clique had assembled. Drozdov greeted Chkalov (they had flown together in a fighter regiment at Gatchina), and said, while introducing me, “This is our future ‘ace,’” and pointed at me.
To me, he said, “Tomorrow you will take the moulds; you will fly alone, at 0500.”

Was he talking about the newspaper moulds?

Yes. A special “mould” flight hauled them. Early in the morning you flew out from Moscow and landed at 1000. They collected up the moulds and already by 1200 Leningrad received its newspaper, printed from these moulds. Over all this time, there was not a single day when Leningrad remained without a newspaper! Our flights absolutely did not depend on the weather. If the overcast was “milky,” they assigned the flight to an experienced pilot. So I was included in this rotation.

Why did you say that on the R-5, a parachute was not required?

Well, look; it did not climb to more than 600 meters, well, maybe a 1,000. It did not have an autopilot. The pilot had a stick. How could you climb out of it? In very rare situations it might be possible, but very rarely. A parachute was quite unnecessary.
Our detachment received the PR-5—a so-called passenger limousine. It was very well streamlined, and had greater speed than the R-5. If the R-5 could fly 160 km\h, then the PR-5 could fly 200. The PR-5 had a closed cabin that seated four, and the pilot also was enclosed in his own cabin. Why do I remember this? I was flying this aircraft, but on one occasion a telegram arrived in Leningrad. I was to immediately ferry the aircraft and turn it over to some foreigners. I flew it and turned it over to Petya (Peter) Rybin. I asked him, “What’s going on?”
“The famous aviator Charles Lindberg is flying in from London.”
At that time in the Komsomolskaya Pravda they had published a large story, “Little boy with freckles.” Lindberg, after his historic flight, received a large sum of money. Someone stole his child and demanded a large ransom for this little boy. A tragedy ensued. He became enraged at America, flew from the USA, and received British citizenship. Later they said that he married some rich Japanese woman, and traveled with her on his airplane that could do 200 km\h. My airplane could also make 200 km\h. They used it to transport an operator, cameraman, director, and a person who represented Soviet authority. The aircraft on which I had earlier flown accompanied Lindberg’s aircraft.
So I had a small break from flying. When I gave up my aircraft to Rybin, I remained without an aircraft. A second pilot was required on the K-5 for Lisikov, and I agreed to serve in that capacity.

The Kalinin K-5 was a high-wing monoplane with a Bristol-Jupiter 450-hp radial engine. It had a crew of two and could carry 8 passengers. It was used primarily in civilian service during the 1930s as a passenger aircraft.

Have you saved you flight logbook?

No, nothing remains. All my orders [decorations], everything that I had, I gave to the museum of the Aviation School in Pulkovo. My photoraphs are there, my newspaper clippings are there, and the article “Courage,” which Lugovtsov wrote in 1967, is there. It was a good article; after it was published, I was invited to speak at the philharmonic, on the occasion of Woman’s Day. The chairman congratulated the women, and they gave me ten minutes to speak. They gave only me ten minutes, longer than anyone else.
I wrote out my speech ahead of time and they checked it over. How did I construct my speech? I recalled for them the female heroes, not only in Bershanskaya’s regiment, which had to be mentioned on such occasions, but also those women who worked in the rear. I reminded them of the women whom I inserted into the enemy’s deep rear. Later, at the end, I paid homage to Leningrad, and said the following: “The word ‘heroism’ is not suitable for Leningraders, because they did more, and this will remain for the ages.”
Now I can no longer remember all the details of my speech, but the hall cried out. At that moment when the Presidium began to leave, the actor Gorbachev, who was supposed to give a speech, came up to me. He kissed my hand and said, “Actors dream that once in their life for several minutes they might capture the hall, as you held us in your grasp for an entire ten minutes.”

Were there many women in civilian aviation in the pre-war years, in 1939–40?

No, not very many. Keep in mind that during the war, many came in from Osoaviakhim [Society for assistance in defense and aviation–chemical organization]. Not so many from flight schools.
I flew in the Soviet–Finnish War of 1939–40, along with another female pilot from Petrozavodsk, in an R-5. We evacuated wounded. The winter of 1939–40 was colder, I think, than ever before, and the situation in Leningrad was critical. The temperature reached –35 to –40 degrees C. We transported not only wounded but also frostbite cases. We often flew them from our Leningrad airfield to Valaam. There was a hospital there, along with a shelter for the disabled, after the war.

What airfield were you based on in Leningrad?

On the civilian airfield, “Komendantskiy.” We brought the wounded in there, and they had ambulances standing by right at the aircraft parking area that picked up the wounded and took them to Leningrad’s civilian and military hospitals. Today’s civilian airport was then called “Shosseynyy” [highway], and we flew from there to Moscow and for other civilian purposes.

In the winter, did you fly on wheels or skis?

On skis, but we had problems even with them. We carried the wounded from unprepared landing fields. One could land on snow without particular difficulty. But in order to take off, the runway had to be packed down.

Did the presence of skis greatly affect the performance of the aircraft?

I would not say that; we simply gave it a little more throttle.

Was there a break between the Soviet–Finnish War and the Great Patriotic War when you were not flying?

There was no break. The Finnish War began in November 1939. December, January, February, March. I was already married, and I got pregnant. Our baby was born in September 1940. Everything turned out well for me. And, perhaps, not only for me but also for Leningrad. “Flights over the city” appeared. Such a flight cost 2 rubles, 50 kopecks. I flew the U-2 aircraft with a two-passenger cabin. Ten minutes over the most beautiful sights of Leningrad.
The important thing was that I had the opportunity to run home during the breaks and feed my baby, because they had built the Dom pilotov [pilots’ apartment building] right up against the airfield. They gave Lisikov and me a large apartment of three rooms. There was only one family like ours, where we were both pilots.
During this work, blind people amazed me. Their reactions in flight simply stunned me. After the flight, they got out of the airplane and literally fell on the ground out of joy. And they had actually seen nothing! But, perhaps, this vibrating and turning had such an influence on them. All the beauty of the flight had an influence on them. This happened not with just one person, but with many. The “City Center for the Blind” organized these flights.
These flights of mine ended as the war was beginning.

Tell us, how did you learn that the war had begun?

This is interesting. Lisikov and I were saving money to buy a piece of furniture that contained a radio and a phonograph of the “Radiola” type. We finally had saved up enough money, and on Sunday morning, the 22nd of June, we went out to buy it. We returned with our purchase and invited our neighbors in—to share in our joy. We turned on the radio, and… imagine our amazement when they immediately began broadcasting Molotov’s speech. We made the purchase and immediately it came in handy to learn this news. They quickly confiscated the Radiola.6

The probable rationale for authorities to confiscate privately owned radios may have been to prevent their owners from listening to enemy propaganda broadcasts. [JG]

Aeroflot was converted over to a wartime regime on the same day. Some of the pilots flew off to flight centers where they were transitioned to new equipment.

Did you begin the war on the U-2?

I began to fly on a medical-evacuation aircraft. My sister took our daughter to live with her and I went into service. They bombed our “Shosseynyy” airfield the first time on 30 August. This is Pulkovo today. They began to assign all of us out wherever suitable, which meant that we left there. Lisikov flew on assignment to Moscow and I transferred to Borovichi.
Borovichi had an enormous hospital; its chief was Professor Danishevskiy. Later he wrote an interesting book that I long sought after, but was unable to find. The problem was complex: to return to Leningraders who had endured the blockade starvation the capability to be fed. They were unable to eat—their stomachs would not accept food. Very little was known about how to treat them. They brought in six mares by airplane to a sovkhoz around Tikhvin for this purpose, and from these mares produced fermented milk (kumys). The fermented mare’s milk re-established the capability of the stomach, and many Leningraders were treated after the blockade. Danishevsky wrote his dissertation on this effort.
In connection with the hospital in Borovichi, I am reminded of my first encounter with a fascist. It was, perhaps, at the end of October. I transported two wounded from the front line and flew them to Borovichi.
I was flying to a sorting station on a U-2 (SP-2) medical evacuation airplane. It was silver in color, and had highly visible red crosses on it. When I saw that a German fighter was on my tale, I still thought that he would see the red crosses and leave me alone. I was sure that there was some kind of law that prohibited interference with the wounded. But the fighter closed up on me.
I had several seconds before my life would end. There was no way out, it seemed. He could cut through us with a single burst and nothing would remain of me and my wounded passengers. You perhaps have heard, and before this I had read somewhere, but I myself lived through this—at such moments a person’s brain goes into special regime. In a very short period of time, your entire life passes before your eyes. I was surprised, but this happened to me. My entire life came into my memory, how I played chess with my father at the age of six years, how at age three he threw me into the water and I began to swim, and how he taught me to climb trees, and I climbed upward and threw down dwarf pinecones. This was in the Far East; our papa was a teacher and director at school somewhere between Nakhodka and Amerikanka. I remembered other things—my entire life up to that time.
In such extreme circumstances, a person’s brain works in an unusual manner: I saw an overhang, and I literally thrust my airplane under this overhang. The burst that was launched by the fighter passed over my aircraft and cut into the other bank of the river. This was the Msta River. In these places it flowed between steep banks. I pressed the stick and flew lower and lower, flying directly over the water, darting back and forth with the river. I thought that the German pilot must be swearing at me up above—he could not cope with such a small “insect.”
When I made a right turn, a burst passed along my tail section. I pulled the stick this way and that way, and realized that control surfaces and control cables were not damaged (on the U-2, the control cables are outside the fuselage). I sensed a narrowing of the river and then I spotted a bridge. I had to climb. I understood that at this moment I would become a target for him. But at that moment, something began to function poorly. It was obvious—he had damaged my aircraft. Then I came upon an airfield—Verebye, and set my aircraft down without an approach. When my aircraft stopped, I looked around. People were running up to me from all sides, shouting something and waving. I did not understand. I climbed down from the cabin, looked around, and saw that the Messerschmitt was burning. It had dived on my airplane and began to pull out, but the aircraft had bottomed out. He did not have sufficient altitude for his pullout, and struck the other bank. They were pointing the airplane out to me.
For this incident I was recommended for the Order of the Red Star. But Brigade Commissar Usatyy happened to be there. In short, they decided to “bump up” my award, and instead gave me the Order of the Red Banner.

Was this a single-engine or twin-engine Messerschmitt?

Single-engine. A Bf-109, for sure.

One could say that you downed it. Did they give you the customary bounty bonus?

No, but I received the Order of the Red Banner. I consider that sufficient reward.
I had one other experience that deserves attention. Some time after this incident, I was flying with the brigade commissar. At the time, the armies of both Fedyuninskiy and Meretskov had become scattered after battles.

The probable rationale for authorities to confiscate privately owned radios may have been to prevent their owners from listening to enemy propaganda broadcasts. [JG]

The people of these formations needed to be assembled. They designated commanders and sent them back to the unit. On one occasion, the brigade commissar called my commander and said, “Get a pilot ready for 0800 tomorrow.”
My aircraft was standing by when a vehicle drove up. I recognized one of the passengers—it was Usatyy, the one who pinned on my decoration. I looked at the second person and saw two diamonds (this turned out to be Pavel Zhigarev).

Pavel Fedorovich Zhigarev (1900–1963) was the commander-in-chief of Soviet Army Air Forces from June 1941 to April 1942, when he took command of the Air Forces of the Far East Front.

He said to me, “Moscow!”
I took off in the S-2, which was one of the variants of the U-2, with an enclosed cockpit. I flew to Malaya Vishera, and the weather was horrible. The snow was wet with ice. The aircraft began to ice up and I almost crashed. The commander-in-chief [Zhigarev] said nothing at all to me, but I heard him say to his traveling companion: “No matter what happens, I must report to Stalin at 0200.”
He had been sent to determine the situation in the Leningrad and Volkhov fronts.
We landed, and almost an entire platoon of soldiers cleaned the ice from my airplane. We flew on. We made it as far as Dmitrov. My aircraft could not go on. I spotted a village and landed it. I said to the commander-in-chief, Zhigarev: “It is impossible to fly.”
He mobilized all the people in the village and they began to clean the strip.
They cleaned and they cleaned. The airplane “plowed,” but would not take off. He motioned me aside and sat in the forward cabin himself. I thought that he might be considering leaving me behind—it would be easier to lift off with a lighter load. But somehow he got it in the air. We were lucky; some kind of atmospheric layer gave us a slight lift—but we still had icing problems. Then we ran out of fuel. We got as close as 40 kilometers from Moscow. We landed. Anyway, I delivered him to Moscow. They put me up in the Metropol Hotel, which was almost on Red Square. On the next day, the 7th of November, was supposed to be a parade. I had the opportunity to witness the parade on 7 November 1941!

Where did you stand?

Closer to the History Museum, such a beautiful building.
The weather was very bad. I forgot his name—Kozhevnikov or Kryzhovnikov, I think—the commander-in-chief’s adjutant, wrote in his memoirs that on 7 November our aircraft flew and bombed. Nothing of the sort! This is not true. I remember precisely that the commander in chief of the VVS Zhigarev issued an order forbidding sorties. There were no sorties flown on 7 November. If one heard the sound of an aircraft, it would only be an enemy aircraft.
This prohibition on flights gave me the opportunity to travel to Valuevo, to the headquarters of our aviation group. There I met with friends and talked about our work and our flights. As soon as I returned with my aircraft at Borovichi, I asked my commander Savin to send me to Novosibirsk, to the center for transition to large aircraft. I was transitioned there.

When was this?

It was 1941—the end of the year and early 1942. Then I was assigned to an air group of civilian aviation.
My first flight was with the deputy regiment commander for flight operations, Kalina. I will explain how this happened. I left the office of the commander, Konstantin Aleksandrovich Bukhalov. He had learned that a woman had reported to his air group, and he had said to me, “I am categorically opposed to this! We will send you off to the Fairbanks–Yakutsk line.”

If this is a reference to the Lend-lease air route that connected Ladd Field in Fairbanks with the Soviet mainland, it is in error. That route was not established until late 1942. It is unlikely that front-line Aeroflot pilots were participants in the planning for the route. [JG]

Had I gone there, I would have been someone’s co-pilot. But I had already been appointed as an aircraft commander.
At that moment, Aleksandr Danilovich Kalina walked in. He was one of the most famous test pilots. He had tested all the aircraft from the Tupolev design bureau. They called him “sukhoy” [dry]. When they said that a test pilot was “sukhoy,” it meant that he had never damaged an aircraft. They said this about Aleksandr Danilovich Kalina.
He said, “What is this lady of ours doing here? I know her as an athlete well, but not as a pilot. Give her to me today for a night flight. I will look her over, and give you a ‘yes’ or ‘we have no use for her’.”
So I flew with him on a mission: somewhere around Kiev we dropped [parachute insertion] two scouts. I flew this mission from beginning to end. He never touched the controls. He only told me the insertion point. I spent the entire flight talking to the radio operator. He gave me the bearings-when I crossed the front line at 3,000–4,000 meters and when I dropped down to 300–400 meters. By this time the Germans already had radar and were tracking us.
Later Aleksandr Danilovich did a great deal for me, although he did not know it at the time. He put me in an airplane, gave me a crew, and said, “You will service these four points!”
These were Kuybyshev, Gorkiy, Sverdlovsk, and Chelyabinsk. We were always flying around these four places. We had to pick up something at one of them and deliver it to another. One needed girders, that place gave us ball bearings for tanks; they had to be dropped in Gorkiy, and so on. These were my first flights.
This was 1942, April perhaps. I had just begun to fly, and the commander went away. He left for England. The British crown had given us an aircraft, an Albemarle, that had to be ferried back.

The Albemarle was a twin-engine transport and bomber manufactured by Armstrong Whitworth. It was propelled by two 14-cylinder two-row radial engines of approximately 1,500 hp each. The Royal Air Forced used it exclusively as a glider tug and special transport. Approximately 10 were delivered to the USSR.

But this was not an airplane—it was a disaster. When they were ferrying them to the USSR, one aircraft blew up 500 kilometers from the English coast, and Kulikov’s aircraft exploded 200 kilometers from Murmansk.

Didn’t they give us 24 of these?

Well, as a matter of fact, we later refused them. The aircraft was a piece of garbage, but it had outstanding engines. They mounted these engines on motor boats, you understand. On ships, on small ships, the kind that laid mines. They needed good engines.
What else is there to say? Rarely is anyone interested in these things today, so that I hardly know what to talk about. I carried out eight sorties to insert intelligence agents of the Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff into the enemy’s rear area. Incidentally, in order to be permitted to fly on assignment of the intelligence directorate, one must have flown not less than 100 sorties on combat missions, and I flew mine on all fronts. Before this, we transported provisions to Leningrad and dropped cargoes to partisans. When they were evacuating Sevastopol, we flew on “Khersones lighthouse” airfield. At first it was not a big thing, but at the end they plowed up the field with bombs and shells. You had to watch in order not to loose your landing gear (in the bomb craters).
When I was flying on my second sortie for insertion of intelligence agents, the chief of intelligence—a major, crossed out the letter “a” in my last name, and reported “Lisikov.” (“Lisikov” is a male surname and “Lisikova” is a female surname. Ed.)
When I was flying on my eighth sortie, he again was on duty, and again he saw in the documents: “Lisikova.” The letter “a” was there. He called ADD (aviatsiya dalnego deistviya [long-range aviation, the major command responsible for these missions]) (we were subordinated directly to ADD).
“This is a critical mission. Have you done this in error?”
“There is no mistake. This is a woman, she is an aircraft commander, she has many hours of flight time. She has a very good reputation.”
The major reported to the chief of intelligence, and the chief of intelligence is calling Marshal Golovanov by direct line. “How is it possible to permit a woman on such a critical sortie? What if they shoot her down?”
He responded, “I know aircraft commander Lisikova very well. She is one of the division’s best aircraft commanders.”
Golovanov called our general (the chief of the GVF [grazhdanskiy vozdushnyy flot – civilian air fleet]) Astakhov. Astakhov arrived at Vnukovo airfield, where we based, by 0400. I was scheduled to return from my mission at 0500–0530.
The aircraft on which I was flying, the C-47, was one of the best aircraft of that era. We had a two-person crew. Why? Flight routes were very long, therefore we carried as much fuel as possible. There was a third person on board—a colonel or lieutenant colonel—who monitored for the accomplishment of the mission, that the cargo was dropped at the required location. I had taken off from a forward airfield in order to reduce the range of the flight. But they ordered me to return to base. I landed and stopped next to the terminal. I looked out and the regiment commander was crawling up to the cockpit. He said to me, “I will taxi your aircraft. You go and report to the general about the accomplishment of your mission.”
I left the aircraft and reported to the general concerning the accomplishment of the mission, and everything seemed normal. Gruzdin was our first to receive Hero for sorties carried out in such difficult conditions.

Aleksandr Ivanovich Gruzdin (1903–1943) joined the Soviet Army in 1923 and served for nine years in aviation maintenance. While working at an aviation school, he trained as a pilot, gaining his wings in 1934. During the Soviet–Finnish War 1939–1940 he served in a special aviation group of the GVF. During the Great Patriotic War, while assigned to the 1st Air Transport Division, Gruzdin flew 200 missions deep behind German lines, 96 of them at night. He was awarded the rank Hero of the Soviet Union on 26 November 1941. He was killed in action on 16 June 1943 while on a mission.

After his third sortie, Semen Frolovskiy became a Hero of the Soviet Union.

Semen Alekseevich Frolovskiy was born in 1906. He served in the Soviet Army from 1928–30 the GVF from 1930–1941, and joined the Soviet Army again in June 1941. As a member of the 1st Air Transport Division, Senior Lieutenant Frolovskiy by June 1943 had flown more than 500 combat sorties behine enemy lines. He moved more than 2,500 tons of various cargoes for intelligence and partisan groups; delivered more than 1,000 intelligence agents, soldiers, and commanders; and evacuated more than 300 wounded. He was awarded the rank Hero of the Soviet Union on 7 August 1943. Frolovskiy retired as a captain in 1946 and resumed his aviation career with the international group of Aeroflot.

When we arrived at the headquarters, he (the general) began to shout at the regiment commander and at everyone else. “How is it possible to entrust such complex flights to a woman?”
To me they not only did not express any thanks, but they cursed me out. This was only my eighth sortie. They withdrew me from these missions. This was in early 1944.
They gave me other assignments for two or three months. New engines for shturmoviks had to be hauled from Monino to Krasnodar. There they were refitted.
I thought about how best to organize these flights and came up with the following plan. I picked up engines in Monino and flew them to Vnukovo. I managed to complete three round trips per day from Vnukovo (this was almost 18 flight hours per day, 12 consecutive days, in every kind of weather). Then a poster was released: “Fly like aircraft commander Lisikova!” Unfortunately, I do not have a copy of this poster.
One of my school chums sent me a postcard. “Olga! I took one of your posters and wrapped it up. When I have time, I will send it to you.”
He did not send it. I don’t know what happened to him. The VVS press did not find a copy for me.
I will tell you about another unique flight. If you told this to any other pilot, he would not believe it. This flight was at the end of 1943. Fourteen aircraft took off at night. Each had its own mission. Three aircraft were going to my target, including mine. A partisan detachment had fallen into a very bad situation there. We had delivered all their provisions and, in the meantime, while they were holding the Germans in check, they had run out of armaments. Now they needed an immediate shipment of ammunition. The weather was “zero, zero.” I did not know at that time that all the other aircraft had turned back because of the weather. But my position in the division was special, both because I was a woman and because there was a poster that said, “Fly like aircraft commander Lisikova!” This poster was hung in the airports of many cities. One time in Sverdlovsk, a pilot saw this poster and said, “Well, what happened? Have men deteriorated to the point that women are teaching us how to fly?”
So my position was special. Therefore all 280 of my sorties, all of them, were executed. Not one time did I turn back; not once did I fail in my duty. Now I had to save this partisan detachment. I had about three tons of cargo on board. Several times I almost touched the ground, but everything was covered in overcast. I thought, “I need to come out at a large lake.” There not far away, five minutes, was this partisan detachment. The work of my navigator and radio operator was magnificent. The radio operator gave me a bearing literally every minute. It was also a good thing that there was no wind, and therefore no drift. The moment was very intense. It would not be possible to make a second pass. When I came out, I saw an opening, to the left a forest, and to the right the outline of the lake. I dove toward the surface of the lake and passed over it. There I made a turn and began to climb slightly. We climbed to the level necessary for me to see what the distance was from the treetops to the overcast. If there was an opening of 50–70 meters, we could continue the mission. If not, we had to return. Well, I determined that the required opening existed. Then the navigator gave us a course to the partisan detachment. We flew onward for five minutes and we spotted a fire.
So many times I executed these flights and as a rule, the fires were laid out in a “T” or an “P.” Here, there was only a single fire, but we could see where the others had been until they went out. I had earlier given the command and the co-pilot and gunner had secured themselves to the pedestal where the UBT machine gun stood.

The universalnyy Berezina (Berezin universal) machine gun was a 12.7mm (.50 caliber) aircraft machine gun that was produced in variants for synchronous firing through the propeller, wing mounting, and turret (turelnyy) mounting (UBT).

It was entirely possible for them to fly out of the open hatch. When we passed over the fire, they managed to throw out two or three containers. The difficulty lay in the fact that we still had to make a pass over this same fire again. I turned and again managed to come out at this spot. They the navigator also joined in the cargo delivery. Three of them could push out more cargo. In spite of their best efforts, we had to go around a third time. We dropped the main cargo that was intended for the partisan detachment.
When we arrived back at Vnukovo, the commander, Major General Kazmin, said: “We received confirmation from the partisan detachment. They received all the supplies. They cut off the enemy’s attack, and already are moving toward their transport. For this flight I should recommend you for Hero of the Soviet Union. However, you did not have a female crew.”
To me it had become ridiculous, because not only a female, but also a male crew would hardly have been able to accomplish such a flight. Later I learned that the first department [representative of the NKVD] had prevented such a recommendation from being accepted because at that time it was possible that my husband was a prisoner of war. They considered that once in captivity, anything was possible. In 1941, at the beginning of the war, our tanks were counterattacking the Germans in the Bryansk area. They ran out of fuel. Six Li-2 [Lisunov-2, a DC-3 built under license in the USSR with slight modifications] aircraft were sent out to resupply them. My husband’s aircraft was shot down and exploded. The entire crew was listed as missing in action, but it turned out that the cockpit fell free. The aircraft commander – Lisikov, co-pilot, and flight mechanic survived and were captured, while the gunner, radio operator, and navigator were killed. They sent the survivors to a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, where they remained until 1945. They sent me notification that my husband was missing in action, and because of this many recommendations in my name went nowhere.

Senior lietenant Lisikova. 1943

Did you Douglas have bomb hangers?

No. We never dropped any ordnance.

Could you not have hung cargo containers on bomb hangers?

No. This aircraft was intended for delivery of parachutists. It had special seats and girders for parachute lines. Perhaps you are thinking of ADD aircraft, but that is another matter entirely. We had different missions. There was a case when the Germans were moving a large number of Russian captives by train. We had to deliver a group of good, strong officers from special operations to assist them. This was a very complicated mission, because we had to drop them in a very confined space. I put the aircraft in a 70-degree banking turn so that the parachutists would fall to the same point. We had missions like this.
Because I was a Leningrader, I was most interested in missions that supported Leningrad. Our commander knew this and frequently assigned such missions. In the [unit] combat actions journal it is recorded that Lisikova flew as aircraft commander to blockaded Leningrad as many as a hundred times. This was not easy. I was flying to Leningrad from the very beginning, some of my first flights.
When the order came out to create a Moscow special purpose aviation group (MAGON), they really meant “special purpose.” Its primary purpose was not for hauling of provisions to Leningrad—it was believed they would quickly relieve the blockade. The aviation group was able to move 100 tons of cargo in a day, but I will tell you that its main purpose, the reason for creating this aviation group, was to incrementally transport 30,000 of our highly qualified workers of the tank industry. Later they used us as they needed to—as a “cork for every bottle.” They assembled aircraft from many Aeroflot subunits: Uzbek, Turkmen, Novosibirsk, Minsk, Ukraine, and so on. All these aircraft were concentrated at Vnukovo. The group consisted of the regiments of Bukharov, where I served; the regiment of Aleksey Semenkov; and the regiment of Taran. Leningrad kept a few aircraft. Zhdanov took Vasya Litvinov, and the commander-in-chief Govorov took for himself Kostya Novikov in an Li-2, a total of two aircraft.

Andrey Aleksandrovich Zhdanov (1896–1948) was the Secretary of the Communist Party in Leningrad during the war and member of the Politburo in Moscow. Leonid Aleksandrovich Govorov (1897–1955) was the military commander of Leningrad Front from April 1942.

Lisikov (my husband) flew an Li-2, and they sent him to Moscow.
Leningrad was an important center of tank and heavy artillery design and manufacture. The list of plants located there is long: “Bolshevik,” “Voroshilova,” “Kirovskiy,” “Izhorskie Zavody,” and others.
Already in August, almost all the tank production equipment had been sent to Siberia by train. In Siberia they constructed only a roof and floors so that it would be possible to install the machine tools. This was done with a great deal of thought.
I want to tell you one other important thing. Historians assert that the offensive was begun from Moscow. That was not the case at all. The offensive was begun from Leningrad. The Germans came to within six kilometers of Volkhov. Tikhvin fell on 8 November. At this time, only an air bridge connected the city with the rest of the country. The 2nd Infantry Division was very quickly rushed to General Meretskov at Tikhvin by this means. The 6th Naval Infantry Brigade was quickly moved to Novaya Ladoga. I saw these sailors. They thumped themselves on the chest with their submachine guns: “We will make it hot for the Germans!”
I remember those words—pertsu—nemtsu.

The Russian word perets means “pepper,” but in this idiomatic expression translates loosely to “We will show the Germans the heat,” or “We will make it hot for the Germans.” Pertsu (pepper or “heat”) and nemtsu (German, nominative case nemets) rhyme in the dative case.

The offensive began at Volkhov. Not only did they move the front line back somewhat from Volkhov but they also liberated Malaya Vishera. General Meretskov gathered up all his forces, captured Tikhvin, and advanced quite far. So the first offensive of the Great Patriotic War against the Germans began around Leningrad, and not around Moscow.
If these events had not occurred at Leningrad, the very strong German grouping would have very quickly advanced on Moscow. Moscow was in a very critical situation in November and barely held on. The Siberians had not yet arrived, so the situation was serious indeed. So let Moscow not pride itself that they were the first! [Leningrad and Moscow were always, and still are rival cities – and here is an example of such rivalry as asserted by Lisikova. Ed.]
What was the difficulty of flights to Leningrad? Kuznetsov forbade night flights, and we had to fly in the daytime. The issue with night flights was PVO. Had they opened the gates for us by creating flight corridors, the German bombers would have been able to fly in. Then what would have happened to our city? Therefore we were in a desperate situation. We had to fly in the light of day. That meant we had to find some tactics that would prevent the Germans from destroying this air bridge.

Did you fly in large or small groups?

There was a plan. We flew to Leningrad only at low level and in groups of not less than seven aircraft. Nine was the best number. They mounted ShKAS machine guns on our aircraft, and on top was a turret where they mounted the UBT.

The ShKAS (Shpitalnogo, Komaritskogo aviatsionnyy skorostrelnyy [rapid-firing aviation (machine gun) of Shpitalnyy and Komaritskiy]) was a 7.62mm machine gun that fired 1,800 rounds per minute (rpm) in wing- and turret-mounted versions and 1,625 rpm in a synchronous (through the propeller) mount.

Our aircraft used a flight route over Lake Ladoga, where fascist fighters patrolled. When they came down on us, our gunners commenced barrier fire. In order to hit a target, a fighter had to approach to within 400 meters, or they would miss. This barrier fire prevented the German fighters from getting that close. Although we did not shoot them down, we did not allow them to kill us at will.
Were there losses, though?
November 19, 1941 was the most difficult day for our aviation group. Rzhevka, at that time it was called Smolnyy airfield was still closed, and we were flying to Komendantskiy airfield, at Novaya Derevnya. The Germans were very close.
Fighters were escorting us, but the fighters had landed before all of our aircraft were on the ground. Two German fighters shot down Misha Zhukov, first aircraft in the landing circle, and everyone on that aircraft was killed instantly (M.Ye. Zhukov, N.V. Dzhyukaev, Y.S. Kovalev, S.I. Oleynik, and A.A. Strakhov). The aircraft of Kireev—Yevgeniy Romanovich Kireev—was second to land. He was the chief pilot for Vyacheslav Molotov [Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs], who two days later was to fly to the United States to sign the Lend-lease Agreement. He was sitting in the right seat, permitting Zhuravlev to fly the aircraft. Kireev was killed outright; the wounded flight engineer was able to lower the landing gear. He died two hours later. Seriously wounded, Zhuravlev landed the aircraft, but his entire crew was in critical condition; all of them were evacuated to a hospital. They transported Yevgeniy to Moscow and buried him there.

At that moment, after a flight to Khvoynaya, a nine-ship formation of PS-84s, led by pilot Grigoriy Golan, came in for landing. Because of thick haze, the transport aircraft made a second circle. The four fighters escorting them, not waiting for their charges and not supporting the coverage of the landing, themselves landed. When four Messerschmitts appeared over the airfield, six transport aircraft were still in the air.
Oberfeldwebel Kempf (7./JG 54) and Ostermann (3./JG 54) attacked the practically defenseless PS-84s first, at 0935. Later Feldwebel Gerhard Lautenschlager at 0936 and Unter-offizer Karl-Heinz Bornemann at 0937, both in the 3 Squadron, and also Ober-leutnant Gerhard Koall from the headquarters flight of 3./JG 54 claimed an additional three transport aircraft.
Judging by descriptions from our side, Mikhail Zhukov’s aircraft was downed by Kempf. The pilots were just able to turn their aircraft away from supply facilities and the PS-84, having fallen away from the airfield, exploded. Yevgeniy Kireev’s PS-84 was second in the glide path. The commander was killed and five crew members were wounded. In addition to the two indicated PS-84s, our sources do not report additional losses. Therefore, considering all descriptions, the pilots of III Squadron were attacking one and the same aircraft—Kireev, and Koall obviously damaged an additional transport that landed safely. [Commentary provided by A. Dikov and M. Bykov]

Later, I think during the fifth flight, two aircraft fell behind. Kostya Bukhanov was flying one of them. Under no conditions should an aircraft fall behind. They were shot down, but managed to land in damaged condition. They saved almost all of their passengers—only two died.
Then there was Ibrahim Zhanteev, on 30 November 1941. He fell back from the group that was going to Leningrad. The Germans intercepted him right away and shot him down, but he managed to turn and land on the water. But it was 200 meters to the shore, and the depth there was 8 meters. He had passengers on board—the children of the workers of “Lenenergiya” [Leningrad power utility]. There were 40–50 persons in all, and the Messers strafed those who made it out of sinking plane in several passes. Our forces did not find a single survivor. In general the fascists well knew whom we were transporting. Their reconnaissance loitered around our airfield all the time. How could one not call them child killers?

On this day, 11 PS-84s with evacuees on board, led by pilot Dmitriy Kuznetsov, took off without fighter escort from Leningrad to Khvoynaya. The group was left without escort because of low overcast and snow. They supposed that an escort was not necessary. But along the route over Ladoga, the weather suddenly improved, and the aircraft were attacked by a flight of Messerschmitts from 3./JG 54. Feldwebel Lautenschlager added two victories to his score in the first attacks (14:42 and 14:44), however the Germans were not able to break up the formation of transports.
Only one aircraft—pilot I.U. Zhantiev—fell behind because of damage inflicted, and as a consequence was lost, apparently to Ostermann, who counted a Douglas to his score at 1445. This airplane was carrying children of workers and staff of the plant “Elektrosil” from blockaded Leningrad—a typical load on an Li-2 at that time was 30–40 persons. All these children perished.
Of these aircraft, one that was damaged made a forced landing (commander N.P. Chervyakov), and two other damaged aircraft safely landed at their own airfield. [Commentary by A. Dikov and M. Bykov]

One time I showed some young boys from the Palace of Pioneers the flight route where our aircraft traveled. We were held to the northern side because the Finns flew very little, and the Germans launched primarily from Shlisselburg. These boys, of ninth grade, were diving in that area. In the third year, they found an aircraft. Later the divers reported on the find. For a very long time the Unified Council of the VVS attempted to provide assistance from the Navy to raise the aircraft. But, in the opinion of specialists, this was a very complex operation—the aircraft was almost not visible, buried in the sand. I do not know if they ever brought it up or not. [They did not. Ed.]

Boris Tikhomolov writes in his memoirs regarding Zhanteev that they flew together in Kazakhstan. Did you know Boris Tikhomolov?

Perhaps I knew him. He, perhaps, knew me well.

Did fighters always escort you?

Generally speaking, the situation with fighters was poor. They gave us fighters, but it might be just one or two fighters. But what are two fighters to escort nine transports? This is nonsense! I don’t want to demean the fighter pilots, but we often said to them, “Please, hold closer to us, because if you get separated from us, a battle will erupt and it won’t be good for you; and we also can provide some cover for you.” But what was an I-16 in comparison to a Bf-109?

Do you know the number of the fighter regiment that covered you?

The 127th (commanded by Puzeykin) and 154th later 29th Guards) Fighter Air Regiments. I also knew Puzeykin and Mineev, his chief of staff, very well. I knew all those who flew cover for us.

How many years during the war did you fly in the Li-2, and when did you begin to fly the C-47?

I flew the Li-2 for perhaps one year altogether, and the remainder of the time I flew the C-47. I was the only female pilot and, of course, they gave me the C-47 first. As soon as the Lend-lease agreement was concluded, we almost immediately received the C-47, because it was accomplishing a very critical mission.

What is the correct nomenclature for the aircraft—Li-2 or PS-84?

The PS-84 was the passenger version of the aircraft. We received it back in 1939. We purchased the license for production and began to assemble them in a plant in Tashkent. They began to install our M-62 engines.

This is a reference to the Shvetsov ASh-62 radial engine, which in various versions was also used in the I-16, I-153, and Antonov An-2 biplane. Horsepower ratings ranged from 900 in early versions to 1,000 in later versions, less than the standard Pratt and Whitney R-1830’s 1200 h.p.

In unofficial situations, they called it the Douglas, and not the PS-84. They began to call this airplane the Li-2 only in 1943. But no one called it the Li-2; it remained the Douglas until the end of the war. Pilots began to be accustomed to calling it the Li-2 only later.

In what ways, in your opinion, did the Douglas differ from the C-47?

It was like day and night. Was there some similarity—yes. But when you sat in the C-47, you knew it immediately. In the first place, it had an enormous number of new instruments. One compass (magnetic), a second (gyro) compass, and a third compass (radio).
Second, the Li-2’s ASh-62 engines did not have great power. The Pratt and Whitney engines were very powerful. When I was flying to Leningrad, I was able to carry four tons—four tons! Four tons was forty paratroops with their full armament!
But take the Li-2—if you hauled 1.5 tons, it was a good thing. When we went to Leningrad, we even carried up to 2.5 tons. This is when we were flying from Novaya Ladoga—a short distance; it was possible to carry 2.5 tons. But I should say, this was not an easy thing to do. If we flew, for example, from Khvoynaya, we took much less.
The C-47 had automatic anti-icing equipment. This system worked wonderfully both on the wings and the propeller blades. Ice often formed on the propellers.

Was it heat- or alcohol-based de-icing system?

It was heat. Once I was flying for two and a half hours in ice build-up conditions and did not feel anything. Everything was cleared-up, including the empennage.
The C-47 was equipped with such good lights that field illumination was not required for landing.
I flew one time on a special mission to the North. This was in 1945. I will tell you the exact dates—from the 15th of January to the 15th of April. We spent three months on this government assignment. An enormous amount of fur pelts and salmon had been collected, and this was as it were our second gold. We were to pay for something with it. I had to land the airplane at Pechora, at the mouth of the Pechora River. It was in Naryan-Mar. They radioed to me, “You can land your airplane with confidence—the ice landing field is in excellent condition.”
But it was very difficult to land the airplane. First, they indeed had an ice landing field, and everything was lit up [the field could not be distinguished from the surrounding terrain because of light conditions]. There were no references with which to compare our altitude. The huts were far away, along the Northern Dvina River. Somehow I managed to land. My God! I had never experienced anything like this in my life—I could not use the brakes.

Reverse pitch on the propellers? Did you have variable props?

This had no effect. As soon as I changed the pitch, immediately everything swirled around us so that I could see absolutely nothing. When I had already lost hope, up ahead we saw some ice hummocks and snowdrifts. Now I pressed on the brakes. With axes and hooks, and with whatever we could find, they hacked out a runway among the ice hummocks, in order to make it suitable for flights. The factory was not far away, and we had to transport out the salmon, but how? There was no traction on the strip. Nearby was a sovkhoz [state-owned farm] where they processed the hides. Tons of already absolutely finished production, excellent pelts, lay there. I ferried them to Naryan-Mar, where they were further processed, and later were moved to Arkhangelsk and then by train to Moscow.

Did you fly with one crew? Or with various crews?

With a single crew. My crew consisted of Zhorzh Morozov—my radio operator, and Viktor Smirnov—flight mechanic. My co-pilot and navigator were changed out, and so was my gunner.

Only your radio operator and flight mechanic were permanently with you?

It was the same for all aircraft commanders.

How did you learn of the victory [9 May 1945]?

At that moment I was in Moscow. I had flown to the central airfield and spent the night with my girl-friend Tanya Donkovaya. She was the secretary for our General Astakhov. This was somewhere around 0400. The telephone rang and the general said, “Tatyana Ivanovna, I am sending a vehicle around for you. Today is victory day. I am sending a car. Aleksey Semenkov took off from Berlin. He is bringing the peace agreement [capitulation document]. Interesting fact – officially war between Germany and USSR was over in mid 1950-s, since there were two German states, and there was a problem with signing peace documents with FRG! You are to take this opportunity, while it’s still quiet in Moscow, to drive around the city.
So we got in the car and drove around, perhaps for two or three hours. The city was still sleeping; doormen were already hanging Victory flags.

After the war, did you fly for very long?

No. I did not fly long. Because When I was flying in the North, the fact of the matter is that in the north I almost killed myself. Have you read Saint-Exupery’s Night Flight? There is a moment in that account. Already at an altitude of 2,000 meters, he put on his oxygen mask. I flew from Naryan-Mar back to my airfield at 5,000 meters. Our aircraft was not fully pressurized. The Americans did not give us that capability. Second, they did not provide us with oxygen masks and corresponding equipment. They did not give it to us. They removed everything. They did not install an altimeter that determined our true altitude. We all determined our altitude from the moment of takeoff according to a barometric altimeter. I flew my last flights in 1946 while opening the air routes Leningrad–Riga, Leningrad–Vilnius, and Leningrad–Tallinn in the C-47.
On the 50th anniversary of the Victory, the chairman of our Society of Councils of Veterans called me. They had just returned from Poklonnaya gora [a place in Moscow where the Museum of the Great PatrioticWar is located and many celebrations of Victory Day occur – Ed.] and he said, “Olga! We all congratulate you. Finally, justice is served—your portrait is hanging among the most celebrated pilots who fought in this war.”
You know, I simply cried.

Text of poster:
Large print: 280 combat sorties
Small print: The 280 combat sorties of Olga Lisikova saved the lives of hundreds of wounded soldiers and officers of the Red Army. This brave pilot has flown on all fronts from the Barents to the Black Sea; she has delivered to the firing line scores of tons of ammunition, medications, and provisions. Four government awards adorn the chest of this aircraft commander of the civil air fleet, Olga Lisikova.

Interview was conducted by Oleg Korytov and Konstantin Chirkin © in St. Petersburg, Russia
Transcribed and edited by Igor Zhidov ©
English translation by James F. Gebhardt ©
Translation edited by Ilya Grinberg ©

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