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Navy honors pioneering female aviator with first of its kind tribute

Navy honors pioneering female aviator with first of its kind tribute

As the sound of taps echoed across the cemetery and an American flag, on bended knee, was handed to a grieving husband, grief took a momentary pause. A soft rumble on the horizon took the mourner’s minds off their loss, and as the sound built, eyes shifted upward and thoughts drifted back to happier days with their fallen shipmate.

“We were so young and so wide eyed and the things we did were just so funny,” said Capt. (Ret.) Mary Louise Griffin, one of the Navy first female pilots. “We had no idea we were making history or breaking barriers, we just wanted to serve.”

The formation of F/A-18 Super Hornets screaming across the sky, high above the New Loyston Cemetery in rural Maynardville, TN. was Naval aviation’s tribute to Capt. (Ret.) Rosemary Mariner, the U.S. Navy’s first female jet pilot who died Jan. 24 following a five year fight with ovarian cancer. But unlike every previous “missing man” flyover, this one was special because it represented Mariner’s lifelong fight for gender equality in the Navy.

“This is really a testament to Capt. Mariner and her contemporaries and what they accomplished,” said Cmdr. Stacy Uttecht, Commanding Officer of Strike Fighter Squadron THIRTY TWO (VFA-32). “Of all of us participating in this flyover, none of would be here if it weren’t for what they did. This flyover is a first, but they were the true first.'”

A first for the Navy, the Maynardville flyover, which took place on Saturday, Feb. 2, was executed exclusively by women; a female squadron commanding officer, executive officer, pilots, weapons systems officers and maintainers. Even the person on the ground giving time cues to the pilots overhead was a female aviator.

“At some point in the future it’s not going to be unusual to have an all women flyover. I’ve definitely seen over the past few years the number of women growing in the community,” said Lt. Emily Rixey, an aviator assigned to Strike Fighter Weapons School Atlantic.

After completing flight training in 1974, Mariner was designated a naval aviator and received her Wings of Gold, flying the A-4E/L “Skyhawk” and the A-7E Corsair II. She went on to become the first female military aviator to achieve command of an operational air squadron, Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron Thirty-Four (VAQ-34). In addition to conquering the air, Mariner tested her skills at sea becoming one of the first women to serve aboard a U.S. Navy warship, USS Lexington, and qualifying as a Surface Warfare Officer.

Civilians, retirees, active duty and reserve; hundreds of people from across the country gathered in this small East Tennessee community to say farewell to Capt. Mariner. That outpouring of support, and the fond memories they shared, makes the loss easier to bare said Mariner’s husband and wingman of 39-years.

“She never wanted to be seen as exceptional, she just wanted to open the door and watch others march through,” said an emotional Tommy Mariner. “Mission success, Rosemary achieved her goal and I’m very proud of her.”

Following her time in the Navy, Mariner served as a mentor to female aviators, making frequent trips to Naval Air Station Ocean and actively participating in social groups advocating women in military aviation. As she did throughout her life, her passing is once again shining a spotlight on Mariner’s platform that women can do the job just as well as the men.

According to Lt.Kelly Harris of VFA-213, “Capt. Mariner really broke the proverbial glass ceilings for women, especially in the armed forces and Naval aviation, clearing the way for us to pursue big dreams and goals and prove women are strong and capable of fly fighter jets for the United States Navy.”

And that message has a strong following. On the Navy’s Facebook page, a post highlighting photos of the nine Naval aviators participating in the all-female flyover has received more than 2,000 mostly-positive comments and been shared nearly 38,000 times.

“We’re raised to be quiet professionals and to see that, yeah, it’s a big surprise. While we’re humbled to be a part of this, when it comes down to it and we’re executing the flyover, we’re just doing our job,” said Uttecht.

Mariner’s burial service lasted 30-minutes of which the all-female flyover took just :30 seconds to complete. It was a high-speed, JP-5 fueled tribute to a life well lived. Mariner’s more lasting legacy, however, are those Oceana based pilots who pledge to continue to inspire and mentor the young women who follow in their flight boots.

“When I come into the Ready Room, I’m a Pilot first, a person second and my gender isn’t even an issue,” said Lt. Amanda Lee of VFA-81. “We can thank Capt. Mariner for paving that way for us and so being a part of this flyover, for her, it is such a huge honor”

Capt. Rosemary Mariner was just 65-years old at the time of her passing.

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