Natalya “Natassia” Vinokurova was born in Yoshkar-Ola and spent most of her childhood and youth there. Her parents both dedicated their lives to aviation and her sister Olga became a flight attendant. Natassia always knew she wanted to become a pilot and her first steps in aviation were taken in her hometown where she made her solo-flight in a Yak-18. She could have become a good sports pilot, but she wanted to fly big jets.
During that time, the USSR did not accept women in flying schools. Aviation was her passion and she was so persistent that she was eventually allowed to attend school for basic flight training.
As an aviation club graduate, she was met the Minister of Civil Aviation. He felt very positive about women in aviation and made sure that Natassia and forty other women were accepted into Kremenchug flying school.
After her training, Natassia started her flying career in Yoshkar-Ola as a co-pilot and then moved up to captain of an Antonov-2. She was skilled in landings in the most extreme circumstances and became well-known for this.
Natassia continued her education and training in the Civil Academy in Leningrad. She wanted to fly more sophisticated aircraft and retrained on the Antonov-24 for Magadan Civil Aviation Department. During the Bridge of Wings Commemorative Flight, Natassia was employed as a First Officer for Mavial Airlines on a Tupolev-154.
Natassia is well-respected in the International aviation community and was fortunate to have spent time with Valentina Grizodubova, one of the original three Soviet women of the 1938 flight. The meetings she had with Valentina are forever etched in her memory and she felt very fortunate to be chosen to represent the Russian women in the Bridge of Wings flight.
Natassia is retired and lives in Minsk, Belarus.
Khalide Makagonova was born in Moscow and had dreamed of flying since she was a child. She started flying gliders and on one flight in a Blanik sailplane, she realized her calling was in the sky. She quickly became anxious about learning to fly powered aircraft but soon exhibited an ability for aerobatics and started flying the Yak-18a.
In 1975, she was invited to join the USSR aerobatics team. She embarked on intensive training with the world’s best pilots and participated in international competitions. In 1984, Khalide became the absolute world champion. She also took Manifold World and Europe Championships. Khalide took part in International airshows in England, Emirates, France, Germany, Australia and other countries. She also trained aerobatic pilots around the world.
Khalide is well-known in the international aviation world and was a perfect choice for the Bridge of Wings flight. She currently lives in Moscow.
As a child, Nikki Mitchell was captivated by the stories of two people: her father and an East African doctor. Her father was a C-130 flight engineer with a 23 year career, and did four tours in Vietnam and more than 550 combat missions. The second was a “flying doctor” who came to the U.S. from East Africa to upgrade her aircraft ratings. The doctor lived above Nikki’s grandmother’s home and told stories of her adventures. Because of these two influences, Nikki dreamt of flying and earned her pilot’s license in Abilene, Texas in 1978.
Nikki moved from Abilene to Nashville, TN and started a career in the music industry, warming up the audience for the Crook and Chase Show. She began working for Waylon Jennings and eventually became the president of his company. Waylon and his wife Jessi Colter loved Nikki and treated her like family. She returned the feelings and worked for them for 22 years.
While researching the WWII Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), Nikki noticed a few Russian names that kept popping up. Marina Roskova was one of the first names that caught her eye. Marina was instrumental in convincing Stalin to start an all-women regiment of combat pilots in WWII. These women became known as The Night Witches and were feared by the German troops. Marina and two Soviet women completed a record-breaking flight in 1938 and captured the respect of the Soviet Union. That flight was called “The Flight of the Rodina.” Nikki’s chance meeting with fellow pilot Rhonda Miles set the stage for the recreation of that historical flight.
In an interview in 1998 Nikki said, “In the summer of 1996, I saw a girl come out of a hangar carrying an iron and a 12” needle. She had been patching some damage on her J3 Cub. I knew she was the real deal. Her name was Rhonda Miles and she was exactly the instructor that I needed to make the transition as a pilot in my newly purchased Maule M-5. The Maule has a wheel in the back (a taildragger) instead of what I was used to with the wheel in the front (a tricycle gear). Since that time, we have been flying together and preparing for the 1998 flight.”
Over twelve years after the 1998 flight, Nikki was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Rhonda committed to be her caregiver and was with her when she passed away on July 9, 2013, after a 31 month battle with the disease.
Rhonda Miles’ love affair with flying began at home. Her dad was a crop-duster in Arkansas and introduced her to flying in a Cessna 195at just three months old. Some of her early memories of aviation are when her dad put her in the chemical hopper of the ag-planes and flew her to the fields he worked on. When she was able to walk a straight line, carry a 6 foot flag, count and dodge airplanes at the same time, he put her in the field “flagging” for the crop dusters. At the age of 16, Rhonda soloed a plane with her dad as her instructor.
Rhonda’s first child was nearly born in an airplane in 1977. She was 5 1/2 weeks overdue when she and her dad decided to fly and do some aerobatics. Two hours later, she was in labor and underwent an emergency caesarean.
After the death of her brother in a plane crash, Rhonda moved home to help her parents with their business, even trying her hand at some ag flying. She starting obtaining all her flight ratings and became involved in other aspects of aviation, such as searching for the remains of a crashed WWII pilot in the South Pacific jungles of Vanuatu, in 1990 and 1991.
In 1992, Rhonda moved to Nashville, obtained her flight instructor’s rating, bought a 1946 Piper J3 Cub and started teaching tailwheel flying. This uncommon type of instructing led to her meeting Nikki Mitchell, who came to her for instruction. While teaching Nikki, Rhonda also flew jet aircraft, Hawkers, for a restaurant company based at the airport, and was a contract corporate pilot for country musicians Reba McEntire and Hank Williams Jr.
Rhonda is certified as captain on 3 different aircrafts: Hawkers, LearJets, and KingAirs. She holds an ATP rating, along with the certified flight instructor, Seaplane, and glider. She owns a Cessna 180 Skywagon named Jezebel and her husband flies for Delta Airlines. Rhonda currently resides in Chattanooga and Nashville, TN and retired as a corporate pilot and started the Nikki Mitchell Foundation.