The Explainer General
Russian pilot Marina Raskova was famous for her long-distance flying records. In WW II, she gathered the Soviet Army’s first female pilots into the 588th Women’s Night Bombardment Regiment. They wore hand-me-down pilots’ uniforms and, even worse, they had to cut their long hair to a regulation two inches.
Major Raskova worried about her girls. “Don’t you know the Germans will shoot at you?” she asked her new regiment. A woman yelled from the back, “Not if we shoot them first, Major Raskova!”
They flew Polikarpov U-2’s, fabric-covered wood and wire biplanes. The only way they could carry a load of six 50 pound bombs was to leave the weight of their parachutes behind.
They attacked in threes, cutting their engines and gliding down over German camps before dropping the bombs, only restarting their engines to head for home. The sleepless ground soldiers were especially upset when they learned that they were being bombed by women! The gliding whoosh just before the bombs reminded Germans of broom-sweeping, so they called them Nachthexen, “night witches.”
A German captain said, “We simply couldn't grasp that the Soviet airmen that caused us the greatest trouble were in fact women. These women feared nothing. They … wouldn't give us any sleep at all.”
The Luftwaffe was ordered to shoot the Night Witches down. Not easily done. The PoU2s flew slower than German fighters could fly without crashing. The cloth-and-wood biplanes didn’t appear clearly on radar, and they could maneuver more quickly than fast fighters.
Ground troops surrounded their camps with searchlights and antiaircraft cannon but the Witches outwitted them. Two PoU2s roared in under power to attract the searchlights and cannon, then separated, turning and jinking to escape, while the third biplane glided in quietly— bombs away! The Witches would join up and switch places until all three Witches had dropped their loads. They were persistent witches: they sometimes flew 18 missions every night.
Twenty-three of the brave women of the 588th received the USSR’s highest medal: Hero of the Soviet Union. A more tender award of flowers was given to them by admiring Free French pilots who flew from their airfields. The French pilots said:
Even if it were possible to gather and place at your feet all the flowers on earth, this would not constitute sufficient tribute to your valour
Jan Adkins is a superb storyteller as well as a talented illustrator and he is now available for classroom visits throughout the country. He is a member of INK's Authors on Call which uses Field Trip Zoom, a technology that requires only a computer, wifi, a webcam, and a roomful of enthusiastic children. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Adkins, Jan. "The Night Witches: Dangerous Women." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think
Tank, 24 May 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
The Master Chef of Kids' Hands-on Science
Think you might like to be a helicopter pilot? If so, here’s what the U.S. Flight Aptitude Selection Test for helicopter pilots says: “Helicopter pilots must pass some of the most demanding physical tests of any job in the military. To be accepted for pilot training, applicants must have excellent vision and be in top physical condition. They must have very good eye-hand-foot coordination and have quick reflexes.”
A sense of balance is also extremely important because sometimes instruments alone are not enough to keep a helicopter oriented properly in the air. Pilots may have to make very subtle corrections. So here’s a test for balance. Be forewarned. Not many people can do this, maybe one in twenty.
1. Stand at attention.
2. Make two fists and extend your arms straight down by your sides. Point your index fingers to the ground.
3. Close your eyes.
4. Bend one leg back at the knee so that your lower leg is parallel to the floor and you are standing on one foot. Don’t let your foot droop. You must maintain your knee at a right angle.
5. Keep your eyes closed and hold this position for ninety seconds.
6. Try not to shake.
I learned about this from a Scotsman who told me about this test to qualify for the British Royal Air Force. He couldn't pass it, nor could I. In fact, no one I knew could rise to the helicopter pilot challenge except a Navy pilot in my family. He held the position perfectly for two minutes. Solid like a rock. No problem.
It’s clear that when it comes to certain skills not everyone is equal. Some people are not even close. So very few people are in the running to become helicopter pilots. You're probably not one of them but this may change with training.
Vicki Cobb is a former science teacher with a M.A. in secondary school science. She is also the founder and president of iNK Think Tank, the group that is producing The Nonfiction Minute. Thanks, Vicki!
Check out How Could We Harness a Hurricane?. To find out more about this book and other books that Vicki has written, click here.
Vicki Cobb is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 CItation
Cobb, Vicki. "Take the Helicopter Pilot Challenge." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 4 Jan. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/ Take-the-Helicopter-Pilot-Challenge.
Stories About Regular Folks Doing Remarkable Things
I learned about the Caterpillar Club when I interviewed some flying WASPs—not the kind that buzz around on tiny wings. These WASPs were airplane pilots, the first women to fly for the United States military. They served during World War II: the Women Airforce Service Pilots (or WASP, for short).
The Caterpillar Club they told me about was named for silkworm caterpillars that helped save pilots’ lives. If a plane developed engine trouble in midair, pilots could float to safety by using a parachute made from silk, a lightweight cloth that silkworm caterpillars help create. These caterpillars use a spit-like substance in their mouths to spin a long silk thread that they wrap around themselves, forming a cocoon that they live in for several weeks until they become moths. Those long silk threads can then be unwound from the cocoons and woven together to make silk cloth.
About twenty years before World War II, a parachute company started the Caterpillar Club for people whose lives were saved by using a parachute to escape from a disabled plane. People could write to the company about their parachute rescue, pay a membership fee, and the company would send them a little caterpillar pin.
However, the WASP pilots I spoke with said that some pilots liked to feel they were part of the Caterpillar Club even if it wasn’t an aircraft’s fault that led them to use a parachute. During World War II, pilots—both men and women—trained to fly military aircraft for the Army in small open planes. The planes didn’t have a roof. If a nervous pilot-in-training forgot to buckle the seat belt and the plane tipped over, the pilot could fall out! Fortunately, they always wore a parachute. Landing safely—thanks to the parachute—not only let them feel part of the Caterpillar Club, but also helped the students remember to never, ever forget to buckle up again.
However, by World War II, many parachutes used by U.S. pilots weren’t made of silk. The silk-producing areas of the world were controlled then by Japan, which the U.S. was fighting in this war. Because U.S. companies could no longer get silk cloth, they began making parachutes from a new material scientists had just invented—nylon. Most parachutes are made of nylon today. Even so, the Caterpillar Club lives on.
Click here for source notes on this article.
If you are interested in finding out more about the WASPs, Amy Nathan has written a book on the subject. Through firsthand accounts, she tells how these early pilots they test-flew newly repaired aircraft, dragged banners behind their planes so male trainees could practice shooting moving targets with live ammunition (!), and ferried all kinds of aircraft from factories to military bases.
Yankee Doodle Gals will give you a new look at World War II and show you just how dramatically society has changed since then. Click here for more information.
MLA 8 Citation
Nathan, Amy. "Caterpillars to the Rescue." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 20
Mar. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Bessie Coleman, better known as Queen Bess, was America’s first black woman pilot. Born in Texas in 1892, into a world of extreme poverty and deepening racial discrimination, her dream to “amount to something one day” was fought against overwhelming odds. Working as a manicurist in a Chicago barbershop, she read about World War I pilots. She decided that she wanted to become a pilot. But she was met with the reaction: “You, a Negro and a woman—you must be joking.”
Undeterred, Bessie sought the advice of a valued customer in the barbershop. “Go to France,” he said. “The French are much more accepting of both women and blacks— but first learn the language.”
That same day, Bessie began taking French lessons. A few months later, she sailed for France, and signed up with an aviation school. Her training included everything from banked turns and looping-the-loop to airplane maintenance. In 1921, she became the first black woman to earn a pilot’s license.
Back in the U.S., an African-American woman pilot was big news. Thunderous applause and a rousing rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” greeted Bessie at her first airshow in New York. Memphis and Chicago followed. Bessie’s future never looked brighter. She managed to buy an old Curtis Jenny, a favorite plane among barnstormers. She was heading for a performance in Los Angeles, when the engine stalled; she crashed onto the street below, was knocked unconscious, broke one leg, and fractured several ribs.
Distraught over having disappointed her fans, she sent a telegram to the local newspaper: AS SOON AS I CAN WALK I’M GOING TO FLY! Seven months later, she was back in a borrowed plane, performing to upbeat crowds in Ohio, Texas, and Florida.
Bessie loved flying and accepted its risks, but her real ambition was to open a flight school. Sadly, she didn’t live to see her dream realized. In 1926, her old, run-down plane went into a spin. Bessie was thrown out of her seat, and fell to her death.
At her funeral, thousands paid their respects to the brave young aviator. With her pluck and determination, Bessie Coleman had set an example for many black people.
Shortly thereafter, the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in Los Angeles became a reality, introducing young blacks to the world of aviation. Among those inspired by Bessie was Dr. Mae Jemison, the first woman African-American astronaut.
As you can see, Roxie Munro is a talented illustrator as well as a writer. She has a new series of nine desktop two-sided fold-out wordless nonfiction books called KIWiStorybooks Jr.. They come with a stand-up "play figure" and a free interactive app loaded with games and puzzles, fascinating facts in a Q&A format, sounds, and more. OCEAN has a Coral Reef on one side and a Research Ship Laboratory on the other.
Roxie is also a member of Authors on Call. You can read more about how you can have her visit your classroom with interactive videoconferencing here.
MLA 8 Citation
Munro, Roxie. "Bessie Coleman." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 16 Feb. 2018,
For Vicki Cobb's BLOG (nonfiction book reviews, info on education, more), click here: Vicki's Blog
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