As a child, Popova, born in the Ukraine, liked to dance. “But I was bored,” she said. “I wanted something different.” She got it: in 1937, at the age of 15, she joined a flying club and became a pilot, and then a flight instructor. When World War II struck, women were prohibited from being pilots to help in the war effort. “No one in the armed services wanted to give women the freedom to die,” she said decades later — until things started going badly. On Oct. 8, 1941, Joseph Stalin ordered the creation of three regiments of female pilots. Popova immediately joined one: the 588th Night Bomber Regiment. The women were hardly given good equipment: their Po-2 biplanes were built as crop-dusters, and had no guns, no radios, no radar (and the women were issued no parachutes). But each pilot was assigned a navigator with a map of Germany and a compass.
It helped that their planes were slow: their top speed was slower than a Messerschmitts’ stall speed, which made the women hard to shoot down. Each of the wood and canvas planes could carry one bomb, and they flew in groups of three: two took turns drawing enemy fire so the third could deliver their bomb — and then they switched off for the next target. Each night, each team would make around eight missions — sometimes as many as 18. The Nazis hated the women, and dubbed them “Night Witches” — which the women took as a compliment. In all, the Witches flew 30,000 missions; Popova alone piloted 852. “Almost every time we had to sail through a wall of enemy fire,” Popova remembered. She was shot down multiple times, but wasn’t seriously injured and kept going back, wanting to punish the Nazis for commandeering her family home, and killing her brother. She rose to be the deputy commander of the Night Witch Regiment, and was named Hero of the Soviet Union (the USSR’s highest honor). After the war, Popova returned to work as a flight instructor, and said she would “sometimes stare into the blackness and close my eyes. I can still imagine myself as a young girl, up there in my little bomber. And I ask myself, ‘Nadia, how did you do it?’” She died in Moscow on July 8, at 91.