KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian women have played a crucial part in their country’s resistance to Russia’s full-scale invasion. Now, a new school is training women to play a vital new role.
The Female Pilots of Ukraine is the country’s first school dedicated to solely teaching women — both civilians as well as those serving in Ukraine’s security forces — how to fly drones.
Both the Ukrainian and Russian militaries have been using drones in the war in Ukraine, for reconnaissance and fighting. Ukraine has many women in the military but they rarely work as drone pilots, according to the school’s administrators.
The school, which started in Kyiv in August and is privately run, aims to change that.
“We all realize that this is a war of the 21st century,” Tatyana Kuznetsova, one of the school’s first enrollees, tells NPR during a class in Kyiv’s giant Pyrohiv Park.
The seven-year police veteran says she decided to enroll in the free classes to learn new skills “just in case.”
It helps to have a good mental compass
During their instruction, Kuznetsova and four other classmates work in pairs — a pilot and a navigator — to practice flying the drones.
They run through a checklist of steps like turning on the controller and checking the batteries. Then the small machines, each only about a foot across and weighing just around 2.5 pounds, have liftoff and zip away gaining altitude.
The drones are soon lost in the big, open gray sky but the pilot and navigator are always keeping a watchful eye on them via the controller screen.
The drones they use can fly at a speed of up to 45 miles per hour and at an altitude of around half a mile, says instructor Mykyta Kosov.
“A good drone pilot must be a virtuoso in working with maps,” he says, adding they have to have a compass in their head.
They want to go to the front line
Kosov has been piloting drones for a year and a half — eight months of that with Ukraine’s armed forces after he was called up to serve following Russia’s invasion. He says this is important training for today’s conflict.
“Using drones, we get intelligence data and can watch the situation on the front lines more effectively,” he says.
Kosov is one of the many instructors who teach classes at the school. Each class is a combination of in-classroom and field training that lasts three to four weeks depending on the level.
School founder Valeriy Borovyk says students can take their new skills into the Ukrainian military, if they want. “I was very surprised that 80% of our students want to go to [the front line],” he says.
Borovyk is the head of Alliance “New Energy of Ukraine,” a nonprofit working on energy effectiveness, but has been serving in counterintelligence for Ukraine since Russia launched its invasion. He says he recognized the need for more women drone pilots months ago after struggling to help a friend who was looking to get in touch with a female drone pilot for a feminist organization in the United Kingdom.
Women from all walks of life are signing up for classes, Borovyk says — models, journalists, artists, marketing professionals.
The school, which has already graduated 10 students, has 40 applications pending for the next course cycle, he says.
But the school costs more than $3,000 a month to operate, Borovyk says, and because it is not supported by the government and does not have any big donors, they could use more money for instructors, drones and other equipment. The budget is currently coming out of Borovyk’s own pocket and supplemented by donations from students, and their friends and families.
“Our military sector needs many, many pilots. We need it now,” he says. “I hope we will win next year, but we must be prepared for many years.”