Monday, October 12

The Night Witches + Women in Aviation

Night Witches tells the story of sixteen year old Valya, who joins a brigade of all-female pilots.  This often-untold chapter of World War 2 history shows the horrors of war and valor of these young ladies.  Throughout aviation history, brave women have broken barriers, and they continue to do so today...

The unit text focuses on World War 2, while the research portion focuses on all of aviation history.

Night Witches
The all-female 588th Night Bomber Regiment was a crucial Soviet asset in winning WW2. The Germans nicknamed them the Nachthexen, or “night witches,” because the whooshing noise their wooden planes made resembled that of a sweeping broom. This sound was the only warning the Germans had. The planes didn’t show up on radar, and they never used radios.

In October 1941, Stalin ordered all-female air force units to fly missions, drop bombs, and engage in combat. Unprepared for women to join the ranks, the military gave them hand-me-down uniforms, oversized boots, and outdated planes that were never made for combat. Flying at night, pilots endured freezing temperatures, wind, and frostbite. In the harsh Soviet winters, the planes became so cold that just touching them would rip off bare skin.

Due to both the planes’ limited weight capacity and the military’s limited funds, the women were given rulers, stopwatches, flashlights, pencils, and compasses rather than true equipment like the men. They had no parachutes (which were too heavy to carry), radar, guns, or radios. When coming under enemy fire, pilots had to duck by sending their planes into dives (almost none of the planes carried defense ammunition. The planes could only carry two bombs at a time, so the regiment sent out up to 40 two-person crews a night. Each would execute eight to eighteen missions every night, flying back to re-arm between runs. The weight of the bombs forced them to fly at lower altitudes, making them a much easier target—hence their night-only missions.

The planes, each with a pilot upfront and a navigator in back, traveled in packs: The first planes would go in as bait, attracting German spotlights, which provided much needed illumination. These planes, which rarely had ammunition to defend themselves, would release a flare to light up the intended target. The last plane would idle its engines and glide in darkness to the bombing area. It was this “stealth mode” that created their signature witch’s broom sound. Altogether these daredevil heroines flew more than 30,000 missions in total, or about 800 per pilot and navigator. They lost 30 pilots, and 24 of the flyers were awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union.

As American pilots went overseas to fight in WW2, many began to see that the demand for pilots in WW2 would increase dramatically. An argument was made that placing female pilots in non-combat roles would free up their male counterparts for combat missions. In 1941, a group of qualified female pilots went to Britain to learn more from the Air Transport Auxiliary of the Royal Air Force, which had already begun employing female pilots.

In Jul 1943, two programs (Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron and Women’s Flying Training Detachment) merged together to form the Women Airforce Service Pilots, "WASP.” Although administered by the US Army, WASP was a civil service branch. A year later, uniforms were finally ordered for WASP pilots. The uniform consisted of a blue blouse with three buttons, a matching skirt, and a white shirt with black necktie. Many of the women also wore leather flight jackets over their uniforms when performing ferrying missions.

WASP training was held in Sweetwater, Texas, and trained pilots were deployed to 120 various air bases within the United States. By the end of the WASP program in Dec 1944, over 1,000 pilots were trained, who flew more than 60,000,000 miles of operational flights, including the ferrying of aircraft from factories to bases, towing targets for live anti-aircraft artillery practice, simulated strafing missions, and transporting cargo. Speaking specifically of the ferrying missions, pilots of WASP delivered over 50% of combat aircraft built in the United States during this era.

Forces of Flight
An aircraft in straight and level flight is acted upon by four forces: lift, gravity, thrust, and drag. The opposing forces balance each other; lift equals gravity and thrust equals drag. Any inequality between thrust and drag, while maintaining straight and level flight, will result in acceleration and deceleration until the two forces become balanced.
  • Drag: The air resistance that tends to slow the forward movement of an airplane.
  • Gravity: The force that pulls all objects towards the earth.
  • Lift: The upward force that is created by the movement of air above and below a wing. Air flows faster above the wing and slower below the wing, creating a difference in pressure that tends to keep an airplane flying.
  • Thrust: The force that moves a plane forward through the air. Thrust is created by a propeller or a jet engine.

    • 16-year-old Valya knows what it feels like to fly. She's a pilot who's always felt more at home soaring through the sky than down on earth. But since the Germans surrounded Stalingrad, Valya's been forced to stay on the ground and watch her city crumble.When her mother is killed during the siege, Valya is left with one burning desire: to join up with her older sister, a member of the famous and feared Night Witches-a brigade of young female pilots.Using all her wits, Valya manages to get past the German blockade and find the Night Witches' base . . . and that's when the REAL danger starts. The women have been assigned a critical mission. If they succeed, they'll inflict serious damage on the Nazis. If they fail, they'll face death . . . or even worse horrors.Historical fiction master Lasky sheds light on the war's unsung heroes-daredevil girls who took to the skies to fight for their country-in an action-packed thrill ride that'll leave you electrified and breathless.
  • Zephyr Takes Flight
  • Lighter Than Air: Sophie Blanchard, the First Woman Pilot
  • Who Was Amelia Earhart?
  • Flygirl
  • Talkin Bout Bessie
  • Sky High: The True Story of Maggie Gee
  • Code Name Verity
Make / Do
  • Pick a female aviator and write her biography – include at least one illustration depicting an important moment in her life.
  • Crossword puzzle fun!
  • Using a slingshot glider, explore the forces of flight.
    • Launch the glider using two different amounts of thrust (two separate flights).  First, pull the nose halfway to your elbow.  Then pull the nose as far back as you can.
      • Does the amount of thrust affect the glider’s flight?
      • What other factors affect how your flyer flew?
      • Cut the wings flaps and ailerons into the back of the foam wings, and observe the changes in flight
      • Alter the weight of the flyer, and observe the changes in flight by adding weight behind the wings with tape or paper clips.
      • How differently did the glider fly after modifications were made to the ailerons, flaps, stabilizers, or rudder? 
  • 1784 - Elisabeth Thible becomes the first woman to fly -- in a hot air balloon
  • 1809 - Marie Madeleine Sophie Blanchard becomes the first woman to lose her life while flying - she was watching fireworks in her hydrogen balloon
  • 1903 - Aida de Acosta is the first woman to solo in a dirigible (a motorized aircraft)
  • 1908 - Madame Therese Peltier is the first woman to fly an airplane solo
  • 1908 - Edith Berg is the first woman airplane passenger (she was a European business manager for the Wright Brothers)
  • 1910 - Baroness Raymonde de la Roche obtains a license from the Aero Club of France, the first woman in the world to earn a pilot's license
  • 1911 - August 11 - Harriet Quimby becomes the first American woman licensed pilot, with flight license number 37 from the Aero Club of America
  • 1921 - Bessie Coleman becomes the first African American, male or female, to earn a pilot's license
  • 1929 - Amelia Earhart becomes the first president of the Ninety-Nines, an organization of women pilots
  • 1930 - Anne Morrow Lindbergh becomes the first woman to earn a glider pilot license
  • 1932 - May 20-21 - Amelia Earhart is the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic
  • 1937 - July 2 - Amelia Earhart lost over Pacific
  • 1941 - Marina Raskova appointed by Soviet Union high command to organize regiments of women pilots, one of which is later called the Night Witches
  • 1943 - Women Airforce Service Pilots flew more than 60 million miles before the program ended in December 1944
  • 1953 - Jacqueline (Jackie) Cochran becomes the first woman to break the sound barrier
  • 1963 - Valentina Tereshkova becomes the first woman in space when she flies Vostok 6, spending more time in space than all of the previous Mercury flights combined.
  • 1983 - Dr. Sally Ride, NASA astronaut, becomes the first American woman in space
  • 1984 - Svetlana Savitskaya is the first woman to walk in space
  • 1986 - US astronauts Christa McAuliffe and Judith Resnik are killed in the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger, the first women to die during a space mission
  • 1995 - Eileen Collins is the first woman to pilot a space shuttle
  • 1999 - Eileen Collins is the first woman to command a space shuttle
  • 2020 – Jessica Meir and Christina Koch perform the first all-female spacewalk.
  • aerodynamics
  • hypersonic
  • regimes of flight
  • sound waves
  • speed of sound
  • subsonic
  • supersonic
  • transonic
  • assumption
  • precaution
  • inundated
  • restrictive
  • exhibition
  • prevailing
Why am I important in aviation history?
  • Explain the significance of women’s roles during World War II and how women’s roles changed since World War II to the present time.  What kind of bias did the women of WW2 face that modern women do not?
  • In 1937 Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan disappeared trying to fly around the world. No one has ever found a trace of their plane. Tell the story of what you think happened on this flight.

Access more world history in the World History Novel Studies Bundle!

Includes seven unit studies (plus a bonus!) covering World History. Each unit addresses a new topic, spanning from Pompeii to World War 2.  Each unit has introductory text, which will give the student basic background information about the topic at hand.

  • There are photographs and illustrations, and we have also included primary documents when available.
  • After this text, there are featured videos, which augment the background information and help make the topic more accessible for more visual students.
  • You will also find a short list of reading books, including a featured novel that the unit builds upon.
  • There are vocabulary words, places, and people to identify.
  • Reading comprehension, critical thinking questions, and writing assignments are included.
  • We add fun with hands-on activities and extra videos to watch that will bring the era to life.

Product samples:   The Night Witches & Women in Aviation   &   The Lookout Tree & the Great Acadian Upheaval

These studies are directed toward upper grades students, but some have resources for younger students so that the whole family can work together. Our family has used unit studies as curriculum for many years, and we hope that your family will enjoy these, too!

Get the entire World War 2 Bundle!


  • The Book Thief
  • We Were There at the Battle of Britain
  • Number the Stars
  • The Winged Watchmen
  • We Were There at Pearl Harbor
  • We Were There at the Battle of Bataan
  • Island War
  • Red Stars
  • The Night Witches
  • Mare’s War
  • We Were There at the Normandy Invasion
  • Code Talkers
  • We Were There at the Battle of the Bulge
  • The Light Between Us
  • We Were There at the Open of the Atomic Era
  • A Merry 1940s Christmas

Product samples:


  1. What a delightful "lesson"! Marie Marvingt (1875-1963) was the third woman in the world to get her pilot's license, and set the first world records in aviation for women. She also invented the ambulance airplane, is the most decorated person in the world, and ... has been largely forgotten! If you want a fresh new pilot to learn about, see the first, comprehensive, English-language biography of "Marie Marvingt, Fiancée of Danger" (Rosalie Maggio, McFarland Publishing, 2019, 302 pp.) -- she was described as "the most incredible woman since Joan of Arc." You'll want to know why she was so extraordinary ... and why she was forgotten ...

    1. Great addition! I didn't know she had invented the medi-evac!


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