Unexpected Tailwinds

You don’t always realize it right away when the wind swings around on you.

A number of life’s big changes are wind shears–sudden and sometimes catastrophic. But more often, it seems to me, your journey shifts imperceptibly, a strengthening crosswind gradually changing your course.

My first Women in Aviation, International conference, a gathering of thousands of airwomen from all over the world, delivered an icy blast from a distant eastern land, directly on the tail. In 2002, the conference came to Nashville, where I live, and I headed to the Opryland Hotel armed with recorder and microphone.  I’d pitched a story about WAI to the local public radio station, my first-ever story for radio. It was the beginning of my life as a journalist.

The piece finished and filed, I settled in to enjoy the conference, an extraordinary experience for all first-timers, I’ll venture. And then, I started hearing talk of a couple of Russian pilots in attendance, one of them a WWII veteran!

My ears perked up. I’d studied Russian in college and spent a semester in Moscow during the final months of the Soviet Union.  I loved the place but hadn’t had a chance to return since 1991. For most of the mid-90s, I’d devoted my energies and finances to turning myself into a pilot and flight instructor, letting my hard-won Russian skills fall into ruin.

I quickly caught up to the Russians: one Galina Korchuganova, world aerobatic champion and founding president of Aviatrissa, a Russian women’s aviation organization; and Galina Brok-Beltsova, a navigator with the 125th Guards Dive Bomber Regiment during WWII.

I spent the rest of the weekend as assistant-host to those amazing women, struggling to resurrect my disused Russian. The whirlwind tour of Nashville culminated in an epic dinner at Mirror Restaurant, complete with the standard escalating series of effusive Russian toasts—Korchuganova in a new cowboy hat she’d just bought, Brok-Beltsova bristling with medals. (It is truly miraculous how much vodka an elderly female WWII veteran can consume and still remain not only coherent, but highly articulate.) That night reminded me of everything I loved about Russia. I felt I’d finally re-connected with the place.

In the years that followed, I stayed in touch with the women of Aviatrissa (although we sadly lost Galina Korchuganova to illness in 2004). In the summer of 2005, I learned that some friends were attending the Aviatrissa Forum that September, and I decided it was time to go back to Moscow. I called my friend Elizabeth Brock, who often sponsors and hosts the Russian pilots at WAI conferences, and asked her whether she was planning to go.

“I can’t make it,” she said, “but it’s funny you should call me. I may have a project for you.” If I’d glanced down at my life-GPS at that moment, I’d probably have noticed myself gathering groundspeed.

It turned out Elizabeth and translator Margarita Ponomaryova had been working for several years to get a memoir by one of the veterans published, but the manuscript needed some work. Would I be willing to help translate and edit it? Let’s see, a book project that united my love of Russia, writing, WWII history, aviation, and strong-and-powerful women? Could I help out with that? I certainly hoped I could.

On a crisp September day in 2005, Margarita, my husband Hal, and I climbed a musty, dark stairwell to the modest Moscow apartment of Anna Timofeyeva-Yegorova, WWII-veteran ground-attack pilot of the Ilyushin-2 “Shturmovik” and winner of the Hero of the Soviet Union award for her combat exploits. A sumptuous tableful of treats greeted us in the cheerful dining room, and Yegorova shared her astonishing life story as we took turns sipping homemade vodka out of a canteen. “Just like our rations during the war!” she laughed.

Yegorova’s eyes gleamed as she paged through old photographs, telling tales of wartime missions and comrades-in-arms. Her expression clouded as she recalled being shot down, grievously injured, and interned in a Nazi concentration camp. But when she arrived at the story of her interrogation and ill-treatment after the war at the hands of the notorious Soviet secret police, she could not go on.

Yegorova turned ninety last September*, and to this day, remembering how the Soviets treated their own soldiers who’d been POWs angers her almost to the point of tears. On that brilliant autumn afternoon in 2005, listening to Yegorova’s stories of catastrophe and personal loss, of sacrifice, unendurable pain, and death, I understood that heroism isn’t simple.  This towering woman before me was not superhuman, just a better version of a normal human—one who eyed the so-called “impossible” with deep suspicion.

At that moment, when Yegorova’s memories became too much for her, even if Margarita and I had wanted to say no to her, even if we had to admit that the rather large and intimidating task that lay before us might just be beyond our abilities, there was simply no saying, “I can’t do it” to this woman who could, and did.

The rest…is history.

*Anna Timofeyeva-Yegorova died last autumn, shortly after her 91st birthday. Her memoir, “Red Sky, Black Death: A Soviet Woman Pilot’s Memoir of the Eastern Front,” was published in spring of 2009. You can hear a BBC audio documentary featuring Yegorova and other Soviet women veterans here.

This essay originally appeared in Aviation for Women Magazine in 2009.

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