Vitali Ivanovich Popkov, a native of Moscow, is one of Russia's most honored war veterans. In 194 1, upon completion of high school, Popkov volunteered for duty in the Soviet Army. After graduation from the Chuguev military aviation school in May 1941, he remained to become an instructor with the rank of sergeant. He was soon transferred to a school at Bataisk. When the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, Popkov made repeated appeals for combat duty. Finally, he was assigned to a fighting regiment supporting General Ivan Konev's forces on the Kalinin Front, 150 miles northwest of Moscow.
In December 1941, the unit was one of the first to be awarded "Guards" rank. In March 1942 during the Soviet winter counteroffensive, Popkov scored his first aerial victory over Kholm south of Lake Ilmen. In his first three months at the front, he flew over 100 combat missions and shot down four enemy aircraft. For courage and heroism in the defense of Moscow, he received his first decoration-the Order of Lenin. In late 1942, Popkov's regiment participated in the historic defense of Stalingrad. He frequently engaged in combat during the severe winter, was wounded three times and shot down twice. However, he added five Junkers transports and six Messerschmitt fighters to his record.
Popkov advanced rapidly from pilot to field-team commander and, in August 1943, took command of a fighter squadron in the 5th Guards Fighter Aviation Regiment of the 295th Fighter Air Division. Flying the Lavochkin 5, he continued to add victories, shooting down three Messerschmitts near Kharkov, and three more near Kiev. Popkov's unit became famous as the "singing squadron" and fought together as the Germans were pushed west into Poland. Eleven members of the squadron were named "Heroes of the Soviet Union," with Popkov twice earning this highest award. During the war, he fought in the epic battles of Stalingrad, the Kuban, and Kursk.
At war's end, he had flown 478 combat missions, leading 117, and had shot down 41 enemy aircraft. In the June 1945 Moscow Winners' Review, Popkov marched in the first rank of the Heroes of the Soviet Union. After the war, he stayed in the Soviet Air Force, graduating from the Air Force Academy (now Gagarin Air Force Academy) in 1951 and the Military Academy of the General Staff in 1964. He served as Inspector General of Aviation in the Ministry of Defense and, from 1981 until his retirement, was Vice Chief of the Professor Zhukovsky Air Force Engineering Academy. In a career spanning more than 40 years, Lieutenant General Popkov mastered 53 types of airplanes.
The Battle of Kursk, which began in July 1943, is known as history's largest armored battle. Not as well known is the intense battle over head between approximately 3000 Soviet Air Force (VVS) and 2000 Luftwaffe aircraft. The VVS launched a large-scale air offensive, improving their fighters' air discipline with radio control to support the army and challenge the Luftwaffe. By August, Orel, Belgorod, and Kharkov had been liberated, and the VVS gained numerical superiority while testing and proving new equipment, tactics, and training.