The Bulgarian Nurse Who Made History in the Skies

During the First Balkan War in 1912, a 15-year-old Bulgarian volunteer nurse became the first woman in the world to participate in a combat flight. Despite enormous risks and a lack of training, Rayna Kasabova threw propaganda leaflets over Edirne, in today’s Turkey, making history along the way.

Albatros, a Bulgarian military aircraft, 1912-13. First Balkan War, Bulgaria.
Albatros, a Bulgarian military aircraft, 1912-13. First Balkan War, Bulgaria. Photo: DeAgostini / Getty Images

Born in 1897, the young woman came to the war’s frontlines as a nurse in a field hospital in the southern Bulgarian town of Svilengrad. Due to its strategic location, the town served as a war command center with a combat airfield in the First Balkan War (1912-1913) which pitched the armies of the Kingdoms of Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, and Montenegro against the Ottoman Empire. Coming from a family with deep connections to the liberation movement of Bulgaria, Kasabova found herself among trained pilots gearing up for important missions.

When not attending to patients in the field hospital, together with her colleagues, Kasabova would often visit the airport. In conversations with pilots, she would share with them her readiness to fly. Turns out, her pilot friends were listening all along. While preparing for take-off for another mission in the skies, Flight Lieutenant Stefan Kalinov asked the young woman, jokingly, “Do you want to fly over Edirne to scare the Turks away?” Kasabova agreed on the spot.

Dreams do come true

The pilot was taken by surprise but made Kasabova’s dream come true. Seated behind the pilot, Kasabova was assigned the task of throwing leaflets over the city. She was made aware of the risks she was about to undertake. To begin with, the planes had a weak design, and in strong winds and massive shelling, the likelihood of falling to the ground was more than certain. That didn’t deter her. Dressed in an aviator’s coat and wearing goggles, Rayna Kasabova was up to the challenge. With enemy bullets raining down on the rickety plane, Kasabova completed her task and distributed fliers calling on the enemy to surrender to avoid unnecessary casualties.  

Safely back on the ground, Kasabova excitedly told her parents about the flight. She shared that she didn’t feel any fear, even for a moment. On the contrary, she told her parents that she only felt infinitely happy that she had coped with the combat task. “We follow the flights of our brave pilots with special interest. They make us feel proud. I was infected by their example,” she wrote in her letter.

Raina Kasabova, flying under the radar

“Raina Kasabova achieved much as a military aviator, although she was a volunteer nurse. During that short flight, she was voted absolute trust regardless of the fact that she lacked prior experience. It is a pity, but few people in Bulgaria know about her,” military historian Misho Yordanov, former lecturer at the “Vasil Levski” National Military University, tells 3Seas Europe.

Later in her life, in her thirties, Raina Kasabova won a beauty contest in Varna. In 1963, when Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to travel in space, visited Bulgaria, she expressed the desire to meet another pioneer, Raina Kasabova, the first woman to fly a combat aircraft. Tereshkova went to Kasabova’s hometown of Karlovo in central Bulgaria, though details of this unique meeting are not known. Raina Kasabova died in 1969 at the age of 72. In 2009, a glacier on Davis Coast in Graham Land on the Antarctic Peninsula was named after the young Bulgarian woman who came to the battlefield as a nurse and left as a military pilot.

Galina Ganeva

a journalist with experience working for some of the most influential Bulgarian publications. She mostly writes about the intersection of society and culture

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