By Captain Mary Louise Griffin, USN (Ret.), Captain Barbara Bell ’83, USN (Ret.), E.d.D.
and Captain Allison Webster ’84, USN (Ret.), E.d.D.

Two significant milestones in naval aviation were marked this year: 50 years of women aviators and 30 years since Congress repealed the combat exclusion laws. It has been a challenging, culture-changing journey. Women now fly unrestricted in all services.

The 1970s presented our country with challenges. Social upheaval, technology advancing with the speed of a moonshot and the potential ending of the draft, created a personnel crisis for the Navy: Recruitment was way down. Young men no longer needed an alternative to the draft.

Newly appointed Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo Zumwalt ’43, USN (Ret.), stepped in. Perhaps stirred by the anticipated passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, he moved forward with ways to attract young people to his new Navy. He said, “Not enough men … bring on women!” And, he meant for more than administrative help—far more.

Zumwalt unleashed a flurry of messages; surprising many with what he conveyed in his “Z-Grams.” In August 1972, Z-Gram 116, “Equal Rights and Opportunities for Women in the Navy” was the beginning of women in naval aviation. In a larger sense, it was the beginning of Navy women—officers and enlisted—reaching into all aspects of naval operations.

Eight women began Navy flight training in March 1973. The eight primary selectees were reduced to six with the voluntary withdrawal of two women. The six remaining student aviators quickly completed training and received their Wings of Gold in 1974: Lieutenant Junior Grade Barbara Allen, Lieutenant Junior Grade Judy Neuffer, Ensign Jane Skiles, Ensign Joellen Drag, Ensign Ana-Maria Scott and Ensign Rosemary Conatser.

Based on the success of the first six women, Zumwalt declared there would be a second class. Eight more women began flight training in 1975 and eight more again in 1976. Then it was 15 per year; there was no turning back. The wave of change had begun.

Initially women were limited to flying helicopters (although not off ships) and propeller aircraft. Women were specifically prohibited from serving in combat aircraft and from entering the jet training pipeline. However, women such as Lieutenant Junior Grade Chris Giza were given the opportunity to transition to T-39 and C-9 jet transport aircraft.

With more women seeking to joint their male counterparts flying fighter jets, it became necessary to mount a legal challenge. Helicopter pilot Lieutenant Joellen Drag braved the anticipated stigma and potential career downside to join a successful class-action lawsuit challenging, among other things, restrictions on the right for women to perform the same mission as men and land on Navy ships.

Meanwhile, by 1975, the Navy’s Composite and Logistics Support squadrons (VC and VRC) had a handful of women flying C-1 Carrier Onboard Delivery aircraft, from land bases only. However, the lifespan of the old, noisy, radial-engine-folding-wing warrior came to an end. In Lieutenant Junior Grade Rosemary Conatser’s VC-2 squadron, the C-1 was replaced with the A-4 Skyhawk, a single-seat tactical jet aircraft. Conatser’s skipper was perhaps the bravest man in the Navy when he said, “she transitions just like the guys!”

Conatser, an exceptional aviator and dedicated officer, proved beyond doubt, “women can fly jets.” With a few more women in the limited jet transport transition, Lieutenant Junior Grade Mary Louise Jorgensen, of the second class, immediately upon winging, was detailed to VC-7 at NAS Miramar. She completed the jet transition syllabus with the exception of carrier qualification. Women entered the jet pipeline.

In 1975, a significant piece of legislation was passed when President Gerald Ford signed PL 94-106, opening service academies to women in 1976. With the Naval Academy graduating the first women in 1980, the Navy was pressured to accommodate the highly qualified women; more jobs opened for women in aviation, surface warfare and staff corps. The success of women Naval Academy, NROTC and Officer Candidate School graduates made the presence of women a force for change.

Chris Lewis Campbell ’80 was drawn to aviation watching her Marine Corps test pilot father exchange sea stories with his fellow pilots. Her father’s assignments included Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave desert.

“Even as a little kid I watched dad shoot the breeze with fellow pilots on the back porch and was mesmerized by the exciting storie—lies—they told and how happy they seemed to be in aviation,” she said. “The pride and pleasure and thrill they displayed had everything to do with my lifelong desire to be a military pilot.”

Her arrival at the Academy nearly coincided with the entrance of women into the naval aviation community. Campbell’s Navy career included flying the A-4E Skyhawk in support of U.S. fleet training and Western Pacific foreign navy training and serving as a flight instructor, specializing in the “out of control” or Spin Recovery program.

“The thrill and fun were real,” Campbell said. “Just as in sports, if you work hard and are reasonably good you are always welcome on the team. The physicality of operating an aircraft combined with the mental demands were challenging and very rewarding … These factors also honed one’s ability to honestly critique oneself and heavily rely on a sense of humor.

After leaving naval service, she accumulated more than 10,000 flight hours as a line pilot for Delta Air Lines.

Captain Wendy Lawrence ’81, USN (Ret.), served 11 years as a helicopter pilot, making more than 800 shipboard landings during her naval aviation service. She was one of the first two women helicopter pilots to make a long deployment to the Indian Ocean as part of a carrier battle group while stationed at Helicopter Combat Support Squadron (HC) 6. In 1995, she became the first Naval Academy alumna to go to space.

"I’m very grateful to the commanding officers at HC-6, my first operational squadron,” said Lawrence, who earned more than 1,500 hours of flight time in six types of helicopters. “Thanks to their efforts, I was able to go on several shipboard deployments, just like my male colleagues.”

Naval Academy alumnae kept track of one another in their careers—especially in the early years. We watched as the women from 1980, including Rear Admiral Sandy Daniels ’80, USNR (Ret.), Marjorie Morley Bachmann ’80, Commander Kathy Karlson Ozimek ’80, USN (Ret.), and Suzanne Grubbs ’80. took to the skies. Then quickly followed Rear Admiral Peg Deluca Klein ’81, USN (Ret.), and Captain Kay Hire ’81, USN (Ret.). Women were helping women navigate careers, family and new opportunities. And many male allies helped as well.

In many ways women aviators were still “building the aircraft as we were flying it” in terms of creating career paths that did not yet exist for women. Women filled in every aviation community that allowed them, always pushing for change.

In post-Gulf War 1991, political debate began. What combat roles should women aviators hold? Women had flown in the Gulf War, but only in support roles; in reality, women were in combat. They flew support aircraft carrying supplies to the front lines, but their aircraft could not be armed. Essentially, women could be shot at, but could not shoot back; time for change.

As debate grew, women military aviators including Academy alumnae Captain Barbara Bell ’83, USN (Ret.), Captain Allison Webster ’84, USN (Ret.), and Commander Nancy Dykoff Fechtig ’86, USN, all of whom are Navy Test Pilot School graduates, raised a strong, professional voice in Washington, DC; they joined the network, Women Military Aviators (WMA), and began efforts to repeal the combat exclusion laws. Captain Rosemary (Conatser) Mariner spearheaded the charge. Active duty and reserve women of WMA joined forces with the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), the National Organization of Women (NOW) and the Women’s Research Education Institute (WREI).

Military women traversed the halls of Congress educating everyone on the combat aviation roles women were qualified to fill. Women attended strategy meetings and hearings, met with members of Congress, were interviewed on television and wrote articles for The Washington Post. These advocates showed Congress that women military aviators had the skills, confidence and mettle to fly combat aircraft.

Greeting a group in his office, one senator came face to face with a young woman aviator he had appointed to the Naval Academy years before. Her passion welled up as she said, “You appointed me to the United States Naval Academy in 1979. It is now time that you give me equal opportunity in the Navy, sir.” It is uncertain if the senator remembers, but Bell will remember it for the rest of her life. In the halls of Congress, the girl from a small town in Michigan, now a naval officer, speaking her truth; she had come a long way. All women aviators had come a long way.

Many senators and representatives listened. The FY92 Defense Authorization Bill repealed combat exclusions, allowing women to fly combat aircraft and to serve on combatant ships. In 1993, assignments became unlimited.

Vice Admiral Sara A. Joyner ’89, USN, serves as director, Force Structure, Resources and Assessment, J8, Joint Staff. She flew F/18 Hornets and commanded units including the Strike Fighter Squadron 105 “Gunslingers.” As part of the first wave of women in combat, she served on deployments in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.

She said her time in combat provided vital experience that proved invaluable as her Navy career progressed.
“If I were a naval aviator with a Hornet background and I hadn’t been into combat, then I would be incomplete,” she told Shipmate for an October 2020 story. “I would not be somebody that could represent our community appropriately at higher levels. I would have not been fully qualified in the eyes of anybody in my community.”

Lieutenant Commander Catherine E. Gillies ’89, USN (Ret.), earned her Wings of Gold in 1991. Her initial career goal was to be a surface warfare officer. However, she returned from her first-class summer cruise seeking another community. She and a classmate were the only two women on board and they were subjugated to unwanted attention.

About a week into their tour, a call went out for volunteers to go to Helicopter Control Officer School. Gillies jumped at the opportunity.
“I knew the minute I walked through the hangar door that I had found my place,” Gillies said. “They smiled. They liked each other. They loved their jobs.

I decided that helos would be a good fit for me because I could still go to sea, but that I would be able to get off the ship when I had had enough.

“Helicopters worked out beautifully for me and I couldn’t believe I got paid to do that every day. The flying was awesome, and I got the opportunity to open a few doors for women behind me.”

Gillies served on seven different aircraft carriers. She and a fellow women pilot in her first squadron were the first women pilots to be attached to Kitty Hawk.

“When the Combat Exclusion Law was lifted, I became the first woman pilot to fly in a Marine Corps squadron (as a Sailor),” she said. “I retired from the Navy after 20 years, and I loved almost every minute of my career.”

Commander Kristin Barnes ’92, USN (Ret.), served in several combat zones as an F14 Radar Intercept Officer. She accumulated nearly 3,000 hours with 703 arrested carrier landings during her career.

Barnes was unable to meet the requirements to enter the Navy diving community, so she chose aviation in 1992.
“I had no idea of what was to come only one year later when the combat exclusion was repealed in ’93,” she said. “That path set me up to be in a F14 Tomcat back seat until we retired the platform in 2006.

“It’s very difficult to describe that mindset shift that happened in ’93—it was a huge shift in agency over my life from ‘where am I allowed to go?’ to ‘where do I want to go?’ That simple shift has made the difference in every choice I’ve made since then. I guess in a very profound way, I found my adventure after all. Finding my way to naval aviation at that time in U.S. Naval history helped me find the courage to make my own path in life instead of being told what to do.”

Today, women in the military fly everything men fly, and they are increasingly more visible. Women have risen to the ranks of captain, colonel, admiral and general. Surface warfare officer Admiral Michelle Howard ’82, USN (Ret.), became the first woman four-star; she served as vice chief of Naval Operations (VCNO), and, as the commander, Naval Forces Europe. Rear Admiral Amy Bauernschmidt ’94, USN, commanded Abraham Lincoln and now serves as deputy commander, U.S. 7th Fleet.

Commander Becky Calder ’98, USNR, is grateful for the courage, resilience and determination of the women who came before her. In 2004, Calder was selected to attend the U.S. Navy’s Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN). She became the first female pilot to graduate from the program. She flew the F/18 Hornet for 15 years, including in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Calder credits her predecessors for paving the path in naval aviation. She said it’s important that she and her contemporaries assist future generations.

“Their collective service and sacrifice bravely opened doors, shattered glass ceilings and made it possible for me to pursue my dream,” Calder said. “We all share in the responsibility to assist and mentor the next generation. As leaders in the military, one of the most important things we can do is train our replacement. We need to encourage, empower and enable everyone that comes after us to be better than we were.”

During her career in the cockpit, Calder said she focused on being the best F/18 pilot she could be and taking advantage of the opportunity to serve.

“Our country was at war, and being the ‘first’ was never part of it for me,” she said. “The jet truly does not care about gender—all that matters is credibility and capability. There was an incredible naval flight officer who went through TOPGUN before me, Commander Elizabeth Malecha ’94, USNR, and she was instrumental in showing me what was possible.

“As I have gotten older, and especially since becoming a parent, I realize the importance of representation and I am honored and humbled to share in the collective legacy of opening doors for others to go through. While I may have been the first pilot to go through TOPGUN, I most certainly am not the last and that is what truly matters.”

Lieutenant Colonel Jeannette Haynie ’98, USMCR, was determined to fly Marine Corps Cobras. Ignoring the naysayers, she earned her seat in the attack helicopter. She flew while pregnant with all three of her children and cherishes her time as a pilot.

“(The Cobras) looked tough and intimidating, the community was not friendly to women, and the mission was such a unique one,” Haynie said. “After repeatedly being told that women couldn’t or shouldn’t fly attack helicopters, it was a clear choice. It ended up being a hard but worthwhile choice, too.”

Thanks to the pioneering women aviators who made those hard but worthwhile choices, opportunities for women continued to unfold. Women aviators and submariners became astronauts. The U.S. Congress has a record number of women serving, several are military aviators, Navy veterans and Naval Academy graduates.

The first wave of women naval aviators and women Naval Academy graduates were not an experiment to be proven wrong; they were given the opportunity to change the world. Success was often a bumpy road traveled alone. Today, the naval aviation family is all encompassing.

Ensign Samantha Chapen ’23, USN, said she was drawn to the naval aviation community by the people. She said she was lucky to have numerous inspiring aviation mentors who were eager to share their passion for their craft with the next generations.

Chapen said her summer cruise in Jacksonville, FL, with Helicopter Maritime Strike-74 sealed her decision.

“Flying with the squadron showed me firsthand the aviation community holds one of the most exciting, but imperative jobs in the Navy,” she said. “Pilots specifically exhibited qualities like courage, ambition and passion. I felt my personality and interests meshed the most with people from the aviation community … I am very excited to enter such a thrilling career of flying, while doing it alongside amazing people with an even bigger purpose.”

Elements of this article were previously published in Wings of Gold magazine 2023. CAPT Griffin is a retired captain from American Airlines. CAPT Bell is a adjunct professor of leadership at the Naval Academy. CAPT Webster is dean of American University of Iraq-Baghdad’s college of education and human development.