The first time 14-year old Marina Popovich tried to join a flying club, she was rejected for being too short. “Someone get me a block,” she shouted as she struggled to reach a plane’s pedals. The response: “Should we get you a doll?”
Popovich, who has died aged 86, had no time for dolls. Born Marina Lavrentievna Vasiliyeva in the village of Leonenki in Smollensk, her childhood was marked by Nazi violence. She later explained that her decision to become a pilot rose out of a need for vengeance.
Popovich went to extreme measures to achieve her ambitions. After her rejection by the flying club, she asked friends to hang her upside down by the feet in an attempt to stretch herself to the right height.
She succeeded, growing 11cm in one year. A little later, she added six years to her age in order to enter the Soviet Air Force Academy. The USSR was not recruiting female test pilots but Popovich secured a personal reference from prominent military figure Kliment Voroshilov to help change the recruiters’ minds.
By 1964, Popovich was a military test pilot. During her career, she tested more than 50 aeroplanes and broke more than a 100 aviation world-endurance records; including the longest ever flight by a female pilot. She was the first woman to break the sound barrier in a MiG-21, earning her the nickname “Madam Mig”. Ten of her record-breaking flights were undertaken alone in the Soviet Antonov An-22, the world’s heaviest turboprop plane (an aircraft whose propellers are driven by a turboprop engine).
She was decorated dozens of times over. During the Soviet era she was awarded Hero of Socialist Labour. She bore the Order of the Red Banner, the Order of the Red Star, the Order of the Badge of Honour and the Order of the Gold Star. In 2007, she was given the Order of Courage by Vladimir Putin. She was an honorary citizen of Samarkand.
Having retired from flying, Popovich turned to writing. She authored 18 books, including one of poetry, a biography of her first husband Cosmonaut Pavel Popovich, and two screenplays. Most famous are her books on extra-terrestrial life. In her 2003 tome UFO Glasnost, she said military and civilian pilots from the USSR had reported more than 3,000 UFO sightings. In addition, she wrote, Moscow is in possession fragments of five separate UFOs.
In 1990, the then Colonel Popovich held a press conference at the Russian Consulate in San Francisco, at which she showed photographs of a cigar-shaped alien craft measuring 15 miles long. She also claimed to have seen photographs of alien/human hybrid children.
As recently as 2014, Popovich was planning to lobby the US government to lift its embargo on the reporting of UFO sightings by its own astronauts, believing there are valuable insights to be shared. In a book co-authored with Drs Victoria Popova and Lidia Andrianova, Popovich wrote: “Extra-terrestrial civilisations (ETC) warn: the weakening of Earth's magnetic field has reached a critical value, and threatens the life of mankind. ETC’s instructions in crop circles indicate how to escape from global cataclysms which will begin very soon.”
Popovich was buried with full military honours in the Federal Military Memorial Cemetery in Moscow. Married twice, she had two daughters with Pavel Popovich. She later married Boris Alexandrovich Zhikhorev, a retired Russian Airforce Major General. She had three grandchildren.
A star in the constellation of Cancer bears her name.
Marina Popovich, born 20 July 1931, died 30 November 2017