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A new school in Kyiv is training women to pilot drones

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Women have played a big role in Ukraine's resistance to Russia's invasion. Now a new school has opened to give Ukrainian women the chance to help their country in a different way, piloting Drones. NPR's Ashley Westerman has more from Kyiv.

ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: On a chilly, blustery day in Pyrohiv Park in southern Kyiv, Tatiana Kuznetsova (ph) is getting ready to take flight.

TATIANA KUZNETSOVA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

(SOUNDBITE OF DEVICE BEEPING)

WESTERMAN: Well, she isn't exactly, but the black and orange drone she'll be piloting is. Kuznetsova checks the battery and turns on the controller.

KUZNETSOVA: (Through interpreter) After we get the information that we are ready to go, we can take off.

WESTERMAN: The drone - only a foot across, weighing about 2 1/2 pounds - lifts off the ground, hovering for a bit at first. She then turns the drone, pointing the camera towards us. We see ourselves in the controller screen.

KUZNETSOVA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

WESTERMAN: Oh, that's us.

Kuznetsova is one of the first students at Female Pilots of Ukraine, a school that opened a couple of months ago with the mission to teach Ukrainian women to operate drones. She's here with five of her classmates, practicing.

KUZNETSOVA: (Through interpreter) We all realize that this is a war of the 21st century.

WESTERMAN: Both the Ukrainians and Russians use drones for reconnaissance and fighting. Kuznetsova, a seven-year police veteran, says she chose to take these free classes to learn new skills just in case.

KUZNETSOVA: (Through interpreter) There may be a time when women need to support and help our men on the front lines.

WESTERMAN: The military did not respond to questions about how many female drone pilots there are right now. But they're rare, according to military sources. And the school is trying to change that. It's the first of its kind to solely focus on training women, civilians as well as those already in Ukraine's security forces.

MYKYTA KOSOV: (Through interpreter) In the first lesson, I teach about why aerial reconnaissance is important and how and where intelligence is transmitted.

WESTERMAN: That's instructor Mykyta Kosov (ph). He's been piloting drones for a year and a half. And after he was called up to the military after Russia's invasion, he's been doing it for the armed forces.

KOSOV: (Speaking Ukrainian).

WESTERMAN: In a mixture of in-classroom and field training, students work in pairs, a pilot and a navigator. Kosov says a good drone pilot has to be a virtuoso in working maps.

KOSOV: (Through interpreter) He has a compass in his head. And he immediately understands, without a navigator, what he's seeing.

WESTERMAN: School founder Vitaliy Borovyk (ph) says students could take their new skills into the Ukrainian army if they want. And women from all walks of life are signing up, journalist, artists, marketing professionals.

VITALIY BOROVYK: For me, was very surprised that 80% of our students want to go to zero line.

WESTERMAN: Meaning the front line. Borovyk says the school has about 30 students now, with 40 applications pending for the next course cycle. He says his school costs more than $3,000 a month to operate, a budget that's currently coming out of his own pocket and supplemented by donations from students and their friends and families. But they could use more money for drones, instructors, equipment.

BOROVYK: Our military sector needs many, many pilots. We need it now. I hope we will win next year. But we must be prepared for many years.

WESTERMAN: Back at Pyrohiv Park, Tatiana Kuznetsova has landed her drone safely back on the ground.

KUZNETSOVA: (Through interpreter) This is a unique initiative. Women can do this.

WESTERMAN: Ashley Westerman, NPR News, Kyiv.

(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD HOUGHTEN'S "MOVING PICTURES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and NPR.org, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.