Vitaly Popkov

La-5FN (tactical number 01), 5th Guards Fighter Regiment, personal aircraft of Vitaly Popkov that he flew on the 1st Ukrainian Front in summer and autumn 1944. Number of air victory stars (33) matches the personal victory tally from August 13, 1944 to February 9, 1945. The aircraft carries standard late war camouflage in two shades of grey, lower fuselage is painted light blue, late war Soviet stars in 6 positions.  White spinner and forward fuselage are a tactical marking of the 5th Guards Fighter Regiment.

La-5FN Unit: 5th GvIAP, 11th GvIAD, 2nd GvShAK, 1st Ukrainian Front Pilot – Gv.Cpt.V.I.Popkov.

Born in 1922. Fought the Great Patriotic War from May 1942 to May 1945 in the 5th Guards Fighter Regiment. He scored his first documented victory on June 10, 1942, downing a Junkers Ju 88.  Captain at the end of the war. Flew a LaGG-3, La-5, La-7, completed 345 missions, scored 40 personal air victories. Twice Hero of the Soviet Union. (08.09.1943, 27.06.1945)

Combat record: 41 personal victories, 1 fractional credit, 300+ sorties, 117 encounters plus 7 more kills disallowed by order of General Zhukov; 3 aerial victories in Korea 1950-53. Decorations: 1st Gold Star of Hero of the Soviet Union on September 8, 1943 in recognition of 17 kills, 168 sorties, 45 encounters as of August, 1943,2nd Gold Star on June 27, 1945 for 36 victories, 1 fractional credit, 325 sorties – 124 of which were ground force Cover, 75 escorts, 17 ground attacks, 37 free hunts, 52 reconnaissance- 83 air combats as of February, 1945; the Orders of Lenin (3), the Red Banner (2), Aleksandr Nevskij, the Patriotic War 1st Class (2), the Patriotic War 2nd Class, the Red Star.

Popkov, one of the greatest aces of them all, was born in Moscow on May 1, 1922 and began his distinguished military career on September 15, 1940. He won his pilot wings at Chuguyev military flying school a year later and in 1942 attended Batajsk military flying school. Intent on aviation from boyhood, Popkov was eager to become a fighter pilot. In April, 1942 he was posted as a Serzhant to the 5 GIAP flying LaGG- 3s. He saw action for the first time in May, getting a Ju 88 near Kholm soon after to draw first blood. He then flew Il-2 and Pe- 2 escorts in the Rzhev and Velikiye Luki areas and was wingman for Ivan Lavejkin on many occasions. By August he had logged 45 sorties qualifying him for the award of the Order of Lenin on the 26th. On August 5 he had been successful in racking up his fifth victory with a Bf 109 near Rzhev and was promoted flight leader. Once the regiment had converted to the nimble and speedy Lavochkin La-5, it deployed to Stalingrad. Popkov added a number of victories during the Course of this dramatic battle, including a Bf 109F in the vicinity of Gartmashevka on January 16, 1943, but STAVKA representative General Zhukov on an unrecorded date nullified the combat records attained by the fighter arm in this front sector in enforcing disciplinary action. In consequence, Popkov’s tally of seven kills chalked up at Stalingrad was never officially allowed. On April 10, 1943 he caught a Bf 109 in its landing approach near Kramatorsk, fired a quick burst whereupon the enemy fighter crashed. On May 23 he was awarded the Order of the Patriotic War 1st Class for four victories fighting at Millerovo and Kantemirovka. On July 23 he reported the destruction of two Bf 109G-2s while participating in the battles of Byelgorod-Kharkov and seven days later was decorated with the Order of the Red Banner in recognition of five victories. On August 3 he became embroiled in a dogfight with two Bf 109s and shot down one but was in turn hit hard by the other, forcing him to bail out at 3,000 meters sustaining serious bums. Upon his recovery he took over as leader of 1st Eskadrilya. Popkov by now had become one of Russia’s hot test aerial fighters and was to make a big name for himself in the months to follow. He had developed a distinctive style of his own, tearing into the enemy at high speed and getting as close as possible before firing. Popkov once nailed Wilhelm Batz, high scoring ace of JG 52 in a wild melee near Izyum. He is almost certain that this particular encounter had taken place in August, 1943, when Batz was still having problems in finding his range. Batz fell into Russian hands and during his interrogation had a meeting with Popkov before he managed to escape to eventually run up a most amazing combat record. On August 28 Popkov had the distinction of scoring the regiment’s 499th aerial victory claiming another single later that same day. Further combats over Zaporozhye, Dnyepropetrovsk and Krivoj Rog took his bag to 30 confirmed in early 1944. He next put up a good performance during the Lemberg-Sandomierz and Oder-Vistula campaigns being slightly wounded by flak on June 16, 1944. On August 17 he received the Order of Aleksandr Nevskij for 14 kills. He destroyed a Fw 190 near Sprottau on February 11, 1945 while leading five La-5s to take on 10 Luftwaffe fighters, his squadron mates bringing the day’s tally to four. Five days later two Ju 87s and another 190 fell to his guns in an action over Glogau. By February 27, when he was recommended for his second title of Hero of the Soviet Union by Podpolkovnik Rulin, the regiment commander, his squadron had run up 27 kills during 562 sorties. On April 16, while flying a sweep out to the Cottbus area, he caught a Fw 190 taking-off, attacked and saw it crash onto the perimeter of the airfield. The following day he successfully rammed a Ju 88 right over Berlin-Tempelhof airport and although being wounded in the process he managed to nurse his plane in safely at his own airfield. He was in action again on the 18th leading six of his squadron on an escort for 11-2s when they engaged 16 Fw 190s. In the ensuing scrap, Popkov, Glinkin and Belyakov all claimed singles. He closed out his scoring with another 190 in the vicinity of Berlin on May 1 and flew his last wartime mission out to Prague on the 12th, coming out of World War II as the regiment’s ranking ace. He is best remembered by his comrades for his lightning reactions and his brilliant leadership. His regard for the safety of his squadron mates evoked confidence and devotion among those who fought with him. He next was put in command of the 739 IAP and served with the postwar VVS attaining high rank. He again proved his skills at blasting enemy aircraft in the skies above Korea while sewing as deputy commander of the 324 IAD, adding one each B-29, RB-26 and F-86 to his impressive record. He attended the Air Force Academy and in 1964 graduated from General Staff Academy. Four years later he was promoted General Lejtenant and in 1980 became a lecturer at the Soviet Air Force Academy. When he eventually returned to civilian life, he had flown 53 types of aircraft.

The LaGG-3 symbolized best the mixed characteristics of Soviet combat aircraft in 1941. With its wooden construction, the LaGG-3 bespoke another era in aviation. While sturdy, the Soviet fighter demonstrated a unique and devastating blend of sluggishness and poor maneuverability. Even with a boosted M-105PF liquid-cooled, 12-cylinder engine with slightly over 1,200 hp, the overweight LaGG-3 displayed little advance over the prewar I-16 in acceleration; it was also short in range and fearfully unpredictable in handling. The LaGG-3’s low performance quickly produced a reputation for odds-on-death in the minds of many Soviet fighter pilots. Its highly polished skinning (wood impregnated with plastic) suggested to these wary pilots, using the acronym “LaGG,” that the new fighter was a lakirovanny garantirovanny grab, or a `Varnished guaranteed coffin.”

In combat, the LaGG-3 endured a high loss rate, a fact aggravated by the inadequate conversion training provided in the chaotic war conditions of 1941. Soviet pilots found the plexiglass canopy, once closed, so opaque that it drastically reduced vision, and in emergencies it proved to be extremely difficult to open. For safety’s sake, they flew with the canopy open, which penalized performance. Some skilled pilots, however, mastered the LaGG-3’s built-in adversity and went on to score impressive victory tallies. V. I. Popkov, later to emerge as the WS’s fifteenth-ranking ace, scored his initial victories in a LaGG-3. Gapt. G. A. Grigoryev, also in a LaGG-3, reportedly downed fifteen enemy aircraft in the first six months of the war. These pilots, however, were exceptional and in no way suggest in their combat records the typical script for the LaGG-3.

If lacking in agility and power as a fighter, the LaGG-3 was resilient. The fact that it could absorb punishment led to the decision to use it increasingly in a ground-attack role. Consequently, some LaGG-3s saw action in 1941-42 as fighter bombers armed with RS-82 rockets and/or bombs.

During its short combat life, the LaGG-3 underwent several modifications in powerplant and armament-but the Messerschmitt Bf 109G outclassed it in almost all respects. Rather than totally abandon the LaGG-3 under the severe wartime conditions for a newly designed fighter, the decision was made to retain the airframe and wed it to the ASh-82 air-cooled engine.

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