Air Marshal Ivan Kozhedub was one of only two Soviet fighter pilots to be awarded the Gold Star of a Hero of the Soviet Union three times during World War II. The other, Aleksandr Pokryshkin, had flown from the German invasion in the summer of 1941 through the end of the war, during which time he scored 59 aerial victories in MiG3s, Bell Airacobras, Lavochkin La-5s and Yakovlev Yak-9Us.
Ironically prevented from fighting because his skill as a pilot made him more useful as an instructor, Kozhedub did not fly his first combat mission until March 26, 1943. On February 19, 1945, he became the only Soviet pilot to shoot down a Messerschmitt Me-262 jet fighter and, on April 19, 1945, he downed two Focke-Wulf Fw-190s to bring his final tally to 62–the top Allied ace of the war.
In contrast to Aleksandr Pokryshkin, Ivan Kozhedub is associated with a single fighter type, the series of radialengine, wooden aircraft designed by Semyen Lavochkin. The last of them, La-7 No. 27, has, like its pilot, survived to graceful retirement-in the airplane’s case at the Monino Air Museum.
AH: Could you share with us something of your youth and education?
Kozhedub: I was born on June 8, 1920, in the village of Obrazheyevska, Shostka district of the Sumy region in the Ukraine. I was the youngest of five children in our family. I had a hard time when I was a child and never had enough to eat as a teen-ager. I had to work all the time back then. My only toys were handmade stilts, a rag ball and skis made of barrel planks.
In 1934, I finished a seven-year school. At first, I wanted to go to art school in Leningrad, but realized that I’d hardly get through. For two years, I attended a school for young workers. In 1940, I graduated from the Shostka chemical technical school.
AH: When, then, did you develop an interest in aviation?
Kozhedub: A craving for the skies, which I could not identify as such at the time, was probably born in my heart when I was around 15. It was then that airplanes from a local flying club began to crisscross the sky over the village of Obrazheyevska. Later on, no matter what I might be doing–solving a difficult math problem or playing at ball–I would forget instantly about everything as soon as I heard the rumble of an aircraft motor.
AH: A lot of people are fascinated by aviation, but what caused you to take the big step from enthusiast to participant?
Kozhedub: In the 1930s, the Komsomol (Young Communist League) was a patron of aviation and, naturally enough, we were all crazy about flying. I remember well the words of my school teacher: ‘Choose the life of an outstanding man as a model, and try to follow his example in everything.’ For me, a boy of 16, and for thousands of other Soviet teen-agers, the famous pilot Valery Chkalov was such a man. The whole world admired his bold long distance flights in the Tupolev ANT-25, such as his 1936 flight from Moscow to Udd Island, Kamchatka–9,374 kilometers in 56 hours, 20 minutes–or his shorter but more hazardous flight of 8,504 km in 63 hours, 16 minutes from Moscow to Vancouver, Wash., via the North Pole, on June 18-20, 1937. He was also a fearless test pilot, and it was during a test flight that he lost his life on December 15, 1938.
Realizing full well that it would be difficult to attend a technical school and learn to fly at the same time, I still filed an application at the local club. That was in 1938, when the Japanese violated the Soviet frontier near Lake Khasan. That fact strengthened my desire to receive a second profession that would be needed in the event of war.
AH: Can you describe your training? How many flying hours did it take to qualify as a pilot? Was your training typical for a Soviet pilot, civil or military?
Kozhedub: At the beginning of 1940, 1 was admitted to the Chuguyev military aviation school. It was the beginning of a new life for me. At the flying club, we had just been working on the ABCs, whereas at the school, serious training was buttressed by tough military discipline. At our school, to become a pilot you had to fulfill a flying quota of about 100 hours.
AH: What was your perception of the state of Soviet aviation and general military preparedness prior to and in the months following the German invasion?
Kozhedub: Of course, we were young at the time. We believed that our country was absolutely ready to rebuff any aggression. Any fighting on our own territory was considered unthinkable. Everything we read or heard over the radio about the war to the west seemed very remote to us. Needless to say, at that time we did not know that more than 40,000 of the most talented military leaders had been killed by Stalin’s purges a few years earlier. We realized what had happened much later. Every report about the retreat of our troops made our hearts bleed.
AH: Did the Soviet Army Air Force (VVS-RKKA) undergo any changes in structure, philosophy or strategy during the war years? If so, what changes did you notice?
Kozhedub: The experience of hostilities in the early months of the war required a change in the tactics and organizational structure of fighter aviation. The famous formula of air-to-air combat was: ‘Altitude-speed-maneuver-fire.’ A flight of two fighters became a permanent combat tactical unit in fighter aviation. Correspondingly, a flight of three planes was replaced with a flight of four planes. The formations of squadrons came to include several groups, each of which had its own tactical mission (assault, protection, suppression, air defense, etc.). The massive use of aviation, its increasing influence on the course of combat and operations, required that its efforts be concentrated in those major specialties.
Fighter air corps making up part of air armies were set up for that purpose. Hundreds of fighters took part in crucial tactical and strategic operations. Quite often, air-to-air combat developed into a virtual air battle. The arsenal of combat methods used by Soviet fighter aces came to include vertical maneuvers, multilayered formations and others. Out of the 44,000 aircraft lost by Germany on the Soviet-German front, 90 percent were downed by fighters.
AH: Did you request a transfer to the front as a combat flier, or were you given such duty by your commanders?
Kozhedub: I requested a transfer to the front more than once. But the front required well-trained fliers. While training them for future battles, I was also training myself. At the same time, it felt good to hear of their exploits at the front. In late 1942, I was sent to learn to fly a new plane, the Lavochkin LaG-5. After March 1943, I was finally in active service.
AH: What was your first impression of the LaG-5, your first combat aircraft? Did it have any special quirks or idiosyncrasies?
Kozhedub: I got LaG-5 No. 75. Like other aircraft of our regiment, it had the words ‘Named after Valery Chkalov’ inscribed on its fuselage. Those planes were built on donations from Soviet people. But my plane was different. Other fliers had aircraft with three fuel tanks, which were lighter and more maneuverable, whereas my fivetank aircraft was heavier. But for a start its potential was quite enough for me, a budding flier. Later on, I had many occasions to admire the strength and staying power of this plane. It had excellent structural mounting points and an ingenious fire-fighting system, which diverted the exhaust gases into the fuel tanks, and once saved me from what seemed certain death.
AH: Did you know anything of the less-successful predecessor of the LaG-5, the LaGG-3? Did you ever fly that plane and, if so, how did it compare with the later Lavochkins?
Kozhedub: All those planes were one family. So naturally enough, every new generation flew higher and farther. However, I did not fly the LaGG-3 myself. I know this plane was designed by Lavochkin together with his colleagues, Gorbunov and Gudkov, in 1940. It had a water-cooled engine, and like all early models, was not faultless. Its successors, the La-5 and La-7, accumulated combat experience. They had air-cooled engines and were much more reliable.
AH: To what unit were you first assigned? How were you received by the men of the regiment?
Kozhedub: My first appointment was to the 240th Fighter Air Regiment (Istrebitelsky Aviatsy Polk, or IAP), which began combat operations on the first day of the war, on the Leningrad front. Since many graduates of the Chuguyev school served there, I did not feel out of place, not even at the beginning. Our pilot personnel included people of many nationalities. There were Belorussians, Tartars, Georgians, Russians and Ukrainians. We were all like one big family.
AH: What was the typical strength and organization of a Soviet VVS regiment (Polk) or squadron (Eskadril) during World War II?
Kozhedub: Since the war was teaching us its bitter lessons, we had to change tactics as we went along. Thus, considering the experience of the first battles, the Air Force went over from 60-plane regiments, which appeared to be too heavy, to regiments consisting of 30 fighters (three squadrons). Practice showed that this structure was better, both because it made the commander’s job easier and because it ensured higher flexibility in repelling attacks.
AH: Your first week of combat was over the Kharkov sector, during the last great Soviet defeat prior to the decisive battle of Kursk. Allegedly, you yourself were badly shot-up during your first combat by German fighters. What was the state of morale among you and your comrades at this time?
Kozhedub: In my first combat, I did not get a single scratch, but my plane was badly damaged. My commander said, with good reason, ‘Make haste only when catching fleas.’ I did not heed his advice. It seemed to me I could down at least two or three enemy planes at one go. Carried away by the attack, I did not notice an umbrella of Messerschmitt Bf-110s approaching me from behind. Of course, that was a bitter experience and a serious lesson for me.
Despite general failures, our morale was quite high. Many, like myself, had their families in Nazi-occupied territory. We were all thirsting for revenge.
AH: What was your impression of the skill and courage of your Luftwaffe opponents at this time–and later? Did you perceive any changes in their skill and élan between 1943 and 1945?
Kozhedub: The sinister colors of the German Messerschmitt Bf-109s and Focke-Wulf Fw-190s with the drawings of cats, aces, arrows and skulls on their sides, were designed to scare Soviet pilots witless. But I didnt pay much attention to them, trying to guess as soon as possible the plans and methods of my enemy, and find weak spots in his tactics. However, I always respected the courage of the German aces. It would have been stupid to underrate the enemy, especially at the start of the war.
After August 1943, the supremacy in the air finally went over to the Soviet pilots and, by the end of the war, we were locking horns with hastily trained youths more and more often. The onetime conceit of invincibility claimed by Göring’s aces had gone up in smoke.
AH: How did Soviet and German aircraft compare throughout the war? What type of enemy aircraft did you have a particular respect for?
Kozhedub: In combat potential, the Yak-3, La-7 and La-9 fighters were indisputably superior to the Bf-109s and Fw-190s. But, as they say, no matter how good the violin may be, much depends on the violinist. I always felt respect for an enemy pilot whose plane I failed to down.
AH: Describe a typical ‘day’s work’ for a Soviet fighter pilot. How many sorties did you normally fly per day?
Kozhedub: The phrase ‘day’s work’ does not fit in here, for we had to fly all day long. I myself was surprised at the potential endurance of the human body in an emergency. Three to four sorties a day during an offensive was quite routine. True, one sortie would be very different from the next.
AH: Your first success was over Kursk on July 6, 1943. What were the circumstances of that victory’?
Kozhedub: We were ordered to attack a group of Junkers Ju-87 dive bombers. I chose a ‘victim’ and came in quite close to it. The main thing was to fire in time. Everything happened in a twinkling. It was only on the ground, among my friends, that I recalled the details of this battle. Caution is all-important and you have to turn your head 360 degrees all the time. The victory belonged to those who knew their planes and weapons inside out and had the initiative. On July 7, I downed a second plane and, on July 8, I destroyed another two Bf-109 fighters.
AH: The Battle of Kursk involved thousands of aircraft in a mammoth struggle for tactical control over the battlefield. What role did you and your comrades play toward the Soviet victory?
Kozhedub: In actual fact, I had my true baptism of fire near Kursk. We escorted bombers, fought enemy fighters and neutralized air defense batteries. The battle for Kursk was a landmark in the development of the forms and methods for operational and tactical use of Soviet aviation in the war years. In its first defensive stage, our airmen flew 70,219 sorties. Tactical aviation accounted for 76 percent of the total, long-range aviation for 18 percent, and air defense fighters for six percent. During that period, they destroyed 1,500 enemy planes. Our losses were 1,000 aircraft. During the counteroffensive, our flyers made 90,000 sorties, about 50 percent of which were designed to support attacking troops, and 31 percent to achieve supremacy in the air. The enemy lost up to 2,200 planes in that time.
AH: To what do you attribute your growing success thereafter?
Kozhedub: Young pilots often ask how they can learn to fly a fighter quickly; I came to the conclusion that the main thing is to master the technique of pilotage and firing. If a fighter pilot can control his plane automatically, he can correctly carry out a maneuver, quickly approach an enemy, aim at his plane precisely and destroy him. It is also important to be resourceful in any situation. At the first stage of combat skill, I dreamt of downing an enemy plane–the tactics of an air battle were theory to me. The second stage began with the training at the front before the Battle of Kursk. The fighting near the Kursk bulge was a new stage. The battle for the Dnieper was yet another.
Having become the commander of a squadron, I began to lead groups of planes and direct the actions of pilots during combat. The next stage was called lone-wolf operations. Being deputy commander of the regiment from the 1st Belorussian Front, I flew together with another pilot to the front lines in search of targets. There were many more stages like these. It is never too late to learn.
AH: On May 2, 1944, you received an La-5FN specially dedicated ‘In the name of Hero of the Soviet Union Lt.Col. N. Koniyev.’ You allegedly scored eight victories in seven days flying this aircraft. How much of an improvement over the La-5 was that La-5FN?
Kozhedub: It was, practically speaking, a simplified version of the La-5 developed in the same year, 1942. It had a boosted engine with direct fuel injection But it was important to me for different reasons. Vasily Koniyev, a beekeeper from the Bolshevik collective farm (Budarin district, Stalingrad region), bought it with his own money and asked that it be named after the nephew of the famous Marshal Vasily Konev, killed at the beginning of the war. Indeed, this plane was a lucky one for me. Out of the eight Nazi aircraft I destroyed while flying it, five were the much-vaunted Fw-190s.
AH: In July 1944, you were posted to the 1st Belorussian Front as vice commander to the 176th Guards Fighter Regiment, and received La-7 No. 27, in which you would score your final 17 victories. What were your command responsibilities; did they effect your flying habits?
Kozhedub: At first, I was upset by my new appointment but only until I found out that I could fly with aces who went on lone-wolf operations. Day in and day out, we would fly in the morning and analyze our sorties back at the squadrons at noon. At 9 p.m., we used to gather in the canteen, where the commander gave an account of the results of the day. In this regiment, I also began to team up with Dmitry Titarenko.
The 176th Guards Fighter Regiment carried out 9,450 combat missions, of which 4,016 were lone-wolf operations; it conducted 750 air battles, in which 389 enemy aircraft were shot down.
AH: How did the La-7 compare with its La-5-series predecessors?
Kozhedub: The La-7 had top-notch flying characteristics. It was a very obedient plane, which attained a high speed by the standards of those days. I must say that the La-7, the La-9 and Yak-3 were perfect planes. Their characteristics virtually reached the ceiling for piston-engine planes.
AH: For a wooden airplane, La-7 No. 27 must have been a sturdy and reliable airplane to serve you faithfully over 10 months of combat. What was the key to the robustness of these aircraft?
Kozhedub: The Lavochkins were simple, reliable aircraft. I met with their designer, Semyon Lavochkin, and visited plants where they were built. He always listened attentively to all remarks. The margin of safety was so great that, while pursuing the enemy, I exceeded the estimated loads without thinking twice. I was certain that the plane wouldn’t let me down. I reached speeds of 700 kilometers per hour (434 mph) and even more on it. The La-7 was an upgraded version of the quite good La-5FN, which had the M-82FN engine. Lavochkin modified the design of the airfoil, changed the locations of the aircooling intakes, and upgraded the design of the central part of the wings.AH: What were the circumstances of your success over the Me-262?
Kozhedub: On February 19, 1945, 1 was on a lone-wolf operation together with Dmitry Titorenko to the north of Frankfurt. I noticed a plane at an altitude of 350 meters (2,170 feet). It was flying along the Oder at a speed that was marginal for my plane. I made a quick about-face and started pursuing it at full throttle, coming down so as to approach it from under the ‘belly.’ My wingman opened fire, and the Me-262 (which was a jet, as I had already realized) began turning left, over to my side, losing speed in the process. That was the end of it. I would never have overtaken it if it had flown in a straight line. The main thing was to attack enemy planes during turns, ascents or descents, and not to lose precious seconds.
AH: What of your last combat, with Lieutenant Titorenko on April 19, 1945?
Kozhedub: On the evening of April 17, we went on a lone-wolf operation over the suburbs of Berlin. All of a sudden we saw a group of 40 Fw-190s with bomb loads, flying at an altitude of 3,500 meters in our direction. We climbed to the left and flew behind them under the cover of clouds. The odds were obviously not in our favor, but we still decided to attack since the enemy aircraft were heading for our troops. At maximum speed, we approached the tail of the formation, out of the sun. I opened fire almost point-blank at the wingman of the last pair of aircraft. The first Fw-190 fell into the suburbs of the city. Several planes turned to the west, while others continued their flight.
We decided to drive a wedge into the combat formation and break it up. Making a steep dive, we swept past enemy planes. As often happened in such cases, the Nazis thought that there were a lot of us. Confused, they started jettisoning bombs. Then they formed a defensive circle–each fighter covering the tail of the one in front of him–and began to attack us. Titorenko skillfully downed the plane that followed me. At that point, we saw our fighters and we turned for home. But suddenly, we saw yet another Fw-190 with a bomb. Apparently, the pilot had received a warning, for he made a quick dive and jettisoned his bomb over the suburbs of Berlin. But I still reached him on the recovery from his dive. The plane literally burst in the air. We made a good landing but our fuel tanks were completely empty. After that battle, I brought my personal score of downed Nazi planes to a total of 62.
AH: What were the highlights of your career in the VVS after August 18, 1945, when you were awarded your third Gold Star?
Kozhedub: After graduating from the Academy, I occupied several different high posts. But I always considered the training of young pilots my chief responsibility. It gave me a kind of satisfaction that could possibly only compare with one more gold star.
AH: Have you any comment on the present state of the art of Soviet aviation, military or civil?
Kozhedub: The Air Force is equipped with powerful and reliable aircraft, and a new generation of airliners is coming to civil aviation. That is beyond doubt. But still the main role is played by the person who is in charge of this perfect hardware–the pilot.
AH: In retrospect, which did you consider the better Soviet fighter design–the La-5 series or the Yak9 series?
Kozhedub: I always preferred the La-5s and always considered them the best ones. When I was a bit younger, I often went to Monino, about 25 miles northeast of Moscow, where my La-7 is on display at the National Air Museum. I would sit in its cabin, and life would seem more cheerful. For me, it is the time machine that takes me back to my youth, to the formidable ’40s.
AH: What do you consider to have been the best fighter airplane–regardless of nationality–of World War II?
Kozhedub: The La-7. I hope you understand why.
AH: As a flier, if you had a choice of any airplane in the world, old or new, which one would you most like to fly?
Kozhedub: My choice is the Buran–the Soviet space shuttle. I don’t know a better plane. This wonder plane was developed in the last decade, literally before my very eyes. Aviation is said to be the cradle of cosmonautics, and with good reason.
AH: Have you any final comments?
Kozhedub: Yes. I’m glad that perestroika in my country is paving the road to a time when all threatening combat hardware will be stored in the Monino museum.