Alexander Pokryshkin

Second only to Ivan Kozedub in victories, Alexander Pokryshkin achieved greater fame than the highest scoring ace. Alexander Pokryshkin shot down 59 aircraft, 47 of them in the Bell P-39 Airacobra.

At the age of 15 he began his working life as a roof builder, but he yearned to be a pilot. He started his training in a glider club, like most Soviet Air Force pilots. After receiving his ticket at the Combined Flying-Technical School in Perm, he went on to maintain aircraft engines, but he still wanted to fly, so, on Sundays, he learned to fly gliders while taking a refresher course on flight mechanics in Leningrad.

Assigned to an air force unit in Krasnodar as a flight mechanic, he repeatedly filed requests for flight school, all of which were denied. Undeterred, he built his own non-flying training plane in which he sat, simulating flight maneuvers. When he graduated from the factory school, in 1933, he joined the 74th Rifle Division as a senior aviation mechanic.

He finally enrolled at the Krasnodar Flying Club where he soloed. Transferred to Kachinskaya School of aviation in Crimea, he graduated in 1939 and, as a senior lieutenant, was assigned to the 55th Fighter Regiment, where he flew a MiG-3.

When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Pokryshkin attained his first kill. Ironically he shot down a Soviet Su-2 Soviet light bomber in error. His first German victory, a Bf-109, almost resulted in his becoming a victory for a German pilot.

Pokryshkin realized early that the Soviet Air Doctrine was obsolete and began working up his own doctrine summarized as ‘Altitude, Speed, Maneuver, Fire.’ He understood the value of potential energy embodied in altitude and taught his pilots how to use altitude to advantage in combat.

Promoted to squadron commander in the 4th Air Army located in the Kuban and the Kerch Peninsula, he flew MiG 3s and Yak 1s into the summer of 1942 when the P-39 arrived. These aircraft, produced by the United States for use by the British Royal Air Force under the Lend-Lease Program, were refused by the British, and sent on to the Soviet Air Force, which used them with zeal. The Soviets appreciated the 20 mm cannon in the propeller boss.

Pokryshkin gained 10 kills between 9 and 24 April, then another each on 29 and 30 April for a total of 12 victories in one month. He drew his combat maneuvers on paper to improve his techniques and to criticized his own actions. He further used them to teach his squadron’s new pilots, and to refresh his veterans. He studied enemy tactics and discovered ways to defeat them.

Pokryshkin flew many ‘free hunts,’ operations by a pair, or four fighters flying 100 to 150 kilometers behind the front lines. During these operations they could not expect support from anyone else. On one of these ‘free hunts’, he scored his 50th victory.

The last two years of the war he spent in the Ukraine where he scored only six additional victories. His preference for foreign built aircraft ended his career after the war. Upon the death of Josef Stalin, Pokryshkin was promoted to air marshal. From 1972 to 1981 he headed the organization tasked with training civilian pilots for service in the Soviet Air Force. He died in 1985 at 72.

Sources: ‘Innovative Soviet Fighter Ace,’ Christopher J. Chlon, WW II History Magazine October, 2017, Sovereign Media, McLean, VA

The Soviet Air Force in World War II, Edited by Ray Wagner, Translated by Leland Fetzer, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, NY, 1973

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