‘Madame MiG’: The bizarre story of supersonic pilot and UFO hunter Marina Popovich

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Born Marina Lavrentievna Vasiliyeva in 1931, the aptly monikered ‘Madame MiG’ lived her 86 years on and above planet Earth to the full.

So often overlooked as an icon of female aviation history, Marina set an astonishing 102 world records in over 40 types of aircraft – including becoming the first soviet woman to break the sound barrier. She earned not only the Orders of the Red Banner, Red Star and Badge of Honour, and the Honoured Master of Sports, but also won the FAI Great Air Medal for as she had “contributed greatly to the development of aeronautics.” 

A steep trajectory
Marina had learned to fly as a child, but the Soviet Union barred women from serving as military pilots following World War II. Undeterred from her self-appointed destiny, she wrote to Soviet Marshall Kliment Voroshilov and persuaded her way into the Novosibirsk Aviation Technicum, She graduated in 1951, aged just 20. Four years earlier she’d told Voroshilov she was 22.

She joined the first female cosmonaut programme in 1961, but lasted only two months. Redirecting her indefatigable ambition, she had become a Soviet air force pilot by 1963. By 1964 she was a military test pilot, and was first to break the sound barrier in a MiG 21. In the meantime, husband Pavel Popovich was no slacker, becoming the eighth person to go into space, aboard Vostok 4 (he was also among the tiny amount of people to win an FAI Gold Medal).

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A record-breaking 80s
Marina became a formidable go-to test pilot for the Soviet air force, thanks to her unrivalled skills and insights, and her willingness to push boundaries in pursuit of continuous aeronautical advance. Entering the military reserves in 1978, she then joined the Antonov design Bureau as a test pilot. She set ten of her world records – most for speed – in the Antonov An-22, which remains the world’s largest turboprop and is still in service.

An otherworldly talent
On ‘retiring’ in 1984 at the height of her game, Marina wrote prolifically, authoring nine books and two screenplays. She also spoke openly about her experience of UFOs during her flying career – in her writing, and in person through public lectures and interviews. She claimed Soviet military and civilian pilots had confirmed 3,000 UFO sightings, and that the Soviet Air Force and KGB had recovered fragments of five UFOs from sites at Tunguska, Novosibirsk, Tallinn, Ordzhonikidze and Dalnegorsk. She also claimed to have met a yeti.

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In 2007, Vladimir Putin awarded Madame MiG the Order of Courage. She passed away on November 30, 2017, and was buried with full military honours at the federal military memorial cemetery, north of Moscow.

— George Caveney

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