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Women Aviators Finally Fill Cockpits of Military Aircraft

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 19, 2003 – Since Wilbur and Orville Wright took flight on Dec. 17, 1903, women have made significant contributions to aviation in the United States and around the world.

However, women didn't start flying until 1908 and nearly all were restricted to general aviation, such as private planes or support service jobs. They've now gained full access to military and commercial cockpits.

In 1943, the first group of young women pilots became pioneers, heroines and role models as members of the Women's Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs. The first women trained to fly American military aircraft, they paved the way for today's Air Force women, who now comprise 19 percent of the force and work in 99 percent of all Air Force career fields.

WASPs were not considered military pilots until 1977, when Congress declared that they were indeed veterans of World War II. Women began entering Air Force pilot training in 1976 and fighter pilot training in 1993.

So it took more than 30 years to get women back into the cockpit after World War II and another 17 years for them to fly combat missions.

Ironically, even though 1,074 WASPs flew more than 60 million miles across the nation in every type of plane the Army Air Forces owned during World War II, they were still not called the first military women pilots. Perhaps that's because WASPs only flew missions such as ferrying, towing targets in gunnery schools for ground and aerial gunners, instructing and aerial mapping.

Consequently, women who were trained to fly helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft supporting troops and, now, combat aircraft, are considered military pilots.

The distinction of being the Army's first female military pilot goes to 2nd Lt. Sally D. Woolfolk, who received her wings to fly UH-1 Huey helicopters on June 4, 1974.

Woolfolk entered the Army in January 1973, a month after receiving a master's degree in history from Kansas State College of Pittsburg, Kan. She attended an 11-week orientation course for women officers at Fort McClellan, Ala., and then went to Fort Huachuca, Ariz., for the Military Intelligence Officer Basic Course.

Meanwhile, the Army opened its flight training program to women. She applied and was accepted.

After pinning on her wings, she was asked if she would recommend flight school for other women, Woolfolk said, "I definitely encourage women to apply for it, if they are interested in doing something out of the ordinary.

"Of course, one of the main objections to such training has been the opinion held by many that women cannot be used tactically by the service," she said in 1974. "Well, I don't want to fight wars. But I joined the Army, and if they feel that I should go, I will go."

The late Lt. Cmdr. Barbara Allen Rainey became the Navy's first woman pilot when she earned her gold wings on Feb. 22, 1974. A graduate of the Navy Officer Candidate School in Newport, R.I., she was commissioned in December 1970. She followed in the footsteps of her Marine Corps aviator brother, Bill Allen, by applying for U.S. Naval Flight Training School.

Married to John C. Rainey, whom she met in flight training, she became pregnant with her first daughter and resigned her commission in November 1977. She returned to active duty in the Naval Reserve and while pregnant with her second daughter, qualified to fly the C-118 transport.

Recalled to active duty in 1981 as a flight instructor flying the T-34C Mentor, she was killed in a crash on July 13, 1982, while practicing touch-and-go landings at Middleton Field near Evergreen, Ala. She was 34.

The Navy's first female F-14 Tomcat combat pilot, Lt. Kara Spears Hultgreen, was the first female pilot killed after the Department of Defense risk rule was rescinded. She was killed on Oct. 25, 1994, at age 29 when the left engine of her F-14 stalled as she attempted to land on the USS Abraham Lincoln about 50 miles off the coast of San Diego.

The pioneer female fighter pilot was buried with full military honors in Section 60 of Arlington (Va.) National Cemetery. In March 1999, the Texas State Senate paid tribute to Hultgreen's life and service to her country during National Women's History Month and Texas Women Veteran's Day.

Marine Corps Maj. Sarah M. Deal made history in April 1995 when she became the first female pilot in Marine Corps history.

A graduate of Kent State University's aerospace flight technology program, Deal was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps in 1991. At the time, there was a ban on women in combat units, so, instead of applying for flight school, she attended air traffic control school.

Still hankering to fly, Deal continued to fly privately and took the aptitude test for Marine flight school, just in case the ban was lifted. Her chance came when the secretary of defense lifted the ban on women serving as pilots of combat aircraft in 1993.

She became the first woman selected to attend flight school in Pensacola, Fla. Deal flies the military's largest helicopter, the CH-53E Super Stallion, to support and supply ground troops.

The aviation pioneer was inducted into the Ohio Women's Hall of Fame in 1999.

She's currently serving as adjutant for the commanding officer of the Marine Aircraft Group 16 at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego.

Deal was featured in "Gender Wars," a Learning Channel television documentary. She also was featured on "Flight Line," which aired on the Discovery Channel and has received several awards, including the Kent State University Young Alumni Special Achievement Award and recognition as one of "350 Women Who Changed the World, 1976-1996," in Working Woman magazine.

Capt. Connie Engle, an Air Force nurse turned pilot, is touted in some circles as the Air Force's first woman pilot, but that's a matter of conjecture. She graduated in a class of 10 women pilots on Sept. 2, 1977, at Williams Air Force Base, Ariz. Engle, however, does hold some firsts among Air Force women pilots: She was the first to solo in the T-41 Mescalero and T-37 Tweet aircraft and was also the first woman to lead a two-ship formation.

The other women in Class 77-08 were: Capts. Kathy La Sauce, Mary Donahue, Susan Rogers and Christine Schott; 1st Lts. Sandra Scott and Victoria Crawford; and 2nd Lts. Mary Livingston, Carol Scherer and Kathleen Rambo.

In 1977, women were allowed into undergraduate navigator training at Mather Air Force Base, Calif.

In 1991, Congress lifted the ban on women flying in combat aircraft. By 1994, the first female Air Force pilot graduated from F-15E Strike Eagle combat crew training at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz.

Today, women can enroll in Air Force pilot or navigator training and learn to operate any aircraft in the inventory.

In January 1978, the Air National Guard claimed its first female pilot when 2nd Lt. Marilyn Koon of Arizona's 161st Air Refueling Group pinned on her silver wings.

There isn't much information about the Coast Guard's first woman aviator, except that her name is Janna Lambine and she graduated from naval aviation training at NAS Whiting Field, Milton, Fla., on March 4, 1977.

Lambine's first assignment was as a helicopter pilot at Air Station Astoria, Ore., where she flew search and rescue missions, as well as pollution and fisheries surveillance.

Web sites that contain more information about women in aviation include, and

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