Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Katya Budanova - brave young role model

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Yekaterina "Katya" Budanova, one of the remarkable Soviet female fighter aces from World War II. For all of the terrible faults of the Soviet Union, one cannot find much to complain about when it came to offering opportunities for women outside of traditional gender roles. Katya's life, even before she took to the skies as a fighter pilot, is a testament to that.

Katya was born into a peasant family in rural western Russia. She was a bright girl who did quite well in school, graduating elementary school with the highest grades. Unfortunately, after the death of her father, she was forced to leave school to earn money to help support her family. She worked as a nanny for several years until, at the age of 13, her mother sent her to live with her sister in Moscow. It was there, working as a carpenter in an aircraft factory, where she began to show an interest in flying.

The factory had an aeroclub, and Katya, always the brave one, joined the parachute team. In 1934, at the age 18, she earned her flying license, and in 1937, she graduated to flight instructor. She was hooked! She would regularly volunteer to join air shows and "flying parades," taking to the skies in the single-seater Yakovlev UT-1.

When Hitler's forces attacked the USSR, like many of her compatriots, she rushed to enlist in the military. She was assigned to the all-female 586th Fighter Regiment, led by the infamous Marina Raskova. With the war raging all along the western border, her regiment was called in to take the place of male fighters. In May 1942, they were sent to defend the rail-lines near Saratov. Katya flew her first combat missions, each one spectacularly successful. In fact, the Soviet Commanders were so impressed with the women pilots the began to mix them in with male squads.

In September 1942, Katya was assigned to the same mission as fellow flying aces Lydia Litvyak, Maria M. Kuznetsova and Raisa Beliaeva. While flying together, they showed exceptional skill at combining forces to bring down enemy fighters. They were equally impressive during their solo missions. Over the course of the next year, Katya showed extreme bravery and skill, defending her country by shooting down enemy planes of all types, earning the Order of the Red Star, the Order of the Patriotic War, and the title of Hero of the Russian Federation (posthumously).

On July 19, 1943, she took off from Novokrasnovka as part of an escort mission. Doing her job, when she spotted three enemy fighters attacking a group of Soviet bombers, she attempted to draw them off. She managed to destroy one, and send another limping away, but in the process her own plane had been badly damaged and was on fire. She managed to extinguish the fire and land her plane safely in a field, but by the time the local farmers reached she was dead.

What I find the most interesting about her story is not that she was a pilot, but that she was a fighter pilot, who willingly put herself in danger to protect and defend her country. Typically this type of wartime hero story is limited to the patriotism and bravery of men. The stories of women's efforts in fighting are too often forgotten after the battles are done and everyone goes back to "normal."

It's as if societies need to believe that women only fight when they're threatened individually, never as an expression of their love of country. And that's a shame. We need female heroes like Katya Budanova -- roles models of bravery in the fight for the greater good, despite immediate personal danger. Women have always fought. Isn't it about time we started to tell their stories as well?

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