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'Free Hunters': How Soviet Ace Pilots Fought During WWII (PHOTOS)

© Sputnik / Fedor / Go to the mediabankIL-2 attacking
IL-2 attacking - Sputnik International
Many think that when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, the country had no airmen capable of fighting on par with the aces at Hitler’s Luftwaffe. Right? Wrong!

By June 1942, some of the Red Army’s Air Force pilots had all the experience in the world having shot down hundreds of enemy warplanes during the 1936-1939 Civil War in Spain.

First Victory

Just as German and Finnish reconnaissance planes were on the lookout for Soviet air defense batteries and airfields around Leningrad in the fall of 1941, Lieutenant Dmitry Titorenko took his I-16 fighter plane 13,000 feet into the sky and shot down a German Junkers-88D spy plane on a reconnaissance mission outside the city.

© SputnikSoviet fighters flying above the Peter and Paul fortress in Leningrad. (File)
Soviet fighters flying above the Peter and Paul fortress in Leningrad. (File) - Sputnik International
Soviet fighters flying above the Peter and Paul fortress in Leningrad. (File)

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Titorenko’s feat prevented the almost imminent destruction of dozens of Soviet fighter planes and bombers on the ground that fought valiantly defending the skies over Leningrad against the advancing enemy.

First Hunters

In 1944, the pilots of the 19th Air Regiment became the first in the Air Force to master the tactic of "free hunting."

By then, Soviet pilots had finally secured their supremacy in the air. In order to maintain it, they used a tactic previously used by the Germans.

Once airborne, the "free hunters" independently searched for enemy aircraft and felt free to decide whether to engage the enemy or not.

The legendary Soviet ace Alexander Pokryshkin described “free hunting" as the highest form of aerial combat.

© SputnikA Yak 3 fighter aircraft. (File)
A Yak 3 fighter aircraft. (File) - Sputnik International
A Yak 3 fighter aircraft. (File)

On April 19, 1945, Alexander Kumanichkin and Sergei Kramarenko (both Heroes of the Soviet Union) attacked two "quads" of German Focke-Wulf FW 190 fighters.

The outcome of the dogfight was decided in a few short seconds after Kumanichkin shot down one “quad’’ leader and Kramarenko knocked down the commander of the other.

The Germans realized that they were being attacked by "free hunters," only after two of their plane exploded in mid-air. The pilots of the remaining six fighters panicked and beat a hasty retreat.

The internationally acclaimed "Swifts" and "Russian Knights" aerobatic teams are direct descendants of the Soviet "free hunters.”

In August 1945, the 176th Air Regiment was moved to an airfield just outside Moscow. The pilots practiced group and single aerobatics, took part in air parades over Moscow.

They also learned to fly the brand-new MiG-15 jet fighters which they later put to good use shooting down 107 US Air Force Sabers during the war in Korea.

© AP PhotoU.S. Air Force F-86 Sabre jets flyong over North Korea. (File)
U.S. Air Force F-86 Sabre jets flyong over North Korea. (File) - Sputnik International
U.S. Air Force F-86 Sabre jets flyong over North Korea. (File)

READ MORE: Pilots Prepare to Fete US-Soviet Warplane Program

It was the "free hunters" of the former 176th Air Regiment who had the honor of providing the air escort for Yuri Gagarin and many other Soviet cosmonauts.

In August 1967, they were sent on a friendly visit to Sweden and have since been welcome guests at all major international air shows.

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