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Continuing Legacy: Female Pilots Represent Future of Naval Aviation
Story by PO3 Mark Mahmod on 02/11/2019
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. Projecting the U.S. Navy’s aviation power in attack, reconnaissance, and sea control missions, naval aviators have a significant role in defending the United States and its allies. Since 1974, when the first women earned their “Wings of Gold” and became naval aviators, women have become an expanding demographic within the profession.
Following the Jan. 24 death of retired Navy Capt. Rosemary Mariner, one of the first females to earn her “wings” and the first woman to command a U.S. Navy aviation squadron, eight female aviators from strike fighter squadrons on board Naval Air Station Oceana participated in the first ever all-female “missing man” flyover to honor her. The missing man formation is an aircraft maneuver typically used as a salute to honor a fallen pilot or service member. The maneuver features four aircraft flying in formation above a funeral service as one of the aircraft leaves the formation and climbs vertically into the sky. The flyover was conducted during Mariner’s funeral service Feb. 2 in Maynardville, Tennessee, as a final salute to the former aviator who fought a years-long battle with cancer.
Mariner retired from the U.S. Navy in 1997 after obtaining the rank of captain and logging seventeen carrier arrested landings and completing over 3,500 flight hours in 15 different aircraft.
Due to the accomplishments of Mariner and the other pioneering females of naval aviation, women are able to fill an important role in accomplishing the U.S. Navy’s mission.
“It’s always important to learn about the history of your organization or what happened that allows you to achieve your goals” said Cmdr. Leslie Mintz, executive officer of the “Blacklions” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 213 and one of the women to participate in the historic flyover. “Because of Capt. Mariner’s accomplishments, we no longer have to think about someone as being a female aviator or look at someone based on their gender, ethnicity or race.”
Mintz, originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, received her commission from the Reserve Officer Training Corps in May 2000 as she graduated from the University of Virginia. She said she didn’t know much about the military before she started ROTC, but through the various training opportunities, she became fascinated with aviation. After commissioning, Mintz attended Naval Flight Officer training and received her “Wings of Gold” in Feb. 2002.
“In flight school, there were other women in my classes,” said Mintz. “Cmdr. Uttecht and I went through flight school around the same time, so we knew each other since early in our careers.”
Cmdr. Stacy L. Uttecht, commanding officer of the “Fighting Swordsmen” of VFA-32 and another participant of the first all-female flyover, earned her “Wings” in June 2002. Originally from Lubbock, Texas, Uttecht received her commission through ROTC at Virginia Tech in 2000. Uttecht said flying in a small Cessna with her father at a young age and hearing her grandfather’s stories of flying the North American F-86 Sabre jet during the Korean War were the contributing factors that inspired her to become a pilot. By the age of 11 or 12, Uttecht knew she wanted to fly for the military.
Uttecht said she’s seen more and more women taking to the skies since she became a naval aviator almost 17 years ago.
“Specifically in the jet community, we now see more female pilots,” said Uttecht, a Naval Flight Officer, or a commissioned officer who typically rides as “co-pilot” and specializes in airborne weapons systems, electronic warfare, or a number of other specialties. “When I joined my first squadron in 2003, there were definitely a lot of female NFOs, but not many pilots. Being able to put together a team of women for this fly-over shows that there has definitely been an increase in female pilots since I’ve joined the Navy.”
Though women have been flying for the Navy since 1974, there have been policy changes that may have improved recruitment and retention.
Until 1993, female naval aviators were limited to training and other non-combat jobs. Partly because of the proven success of the Navy’s first women aviators, former Defense Secretary Les Aspin authorized women to fly combat missions and serve aboard warships.
“I remember hearing it on the news, and at the time, I didn’t understand how much of an impact that specific policy change was,” said Uttecht. “Now, every single female on this flight line is a combat veteran and has been on a combat deployment.”
Mintz said the 1993 policy change showed the public, who may have previously had a skewed perception of women in the military, that women are able to accomplish the same combat missions as men.
“It was the first glimpse of the public seeing that women can serve in combat, and do so heroically, with the same abilities as men,” said Mintz. “One of the reasons I chose to pursue naval aviation was because I would be able to serve on the front lines. I could serve at the tip of the spear.”
Women being permitted to serve in the same capacity as men is one of the Navy’s prime examples of women’s equality.
“The bad guys don’t care if you’re male or female,” said Uttecht. “The jets don’t know if you’re male or female. The only thing that now matters is that you’re a person with wings on your chest who knows how to operate the weapons systems.”
Still, Mintz said she’s sometimes surprised to see the occasional reactions of female enlisted sailors when they first learn that their executive officer is a woman. Being a female boss allows her to be more relatable to the young women who work in VFA-213.
“It’s important, whether it’s gender, race or ethnicity, for people to see their bosses are like them,” said Mintz. “There are women airmen in this squadron who I think really love the fact that they could see my accomplishments, and realize they could do the same.”
Though many female pilots may not actively think about the impact they have, they serve as role models to young women, both junior Sailors and civilians, demonstrating they have the power to accomplish their dreams.
In July 2018, after hearing the story of 12-year-old Julianne Speyer, an Ohio Girl Scout who made headlines after her “letter to the editor” response to a 4th of July parade announcer’s comments, Uttecht felt compelled to reach out to Speyer. In Speyer’s letter published in the Geauga County Maple Leaf, she commented on the announcer labeling the Boy Scouts as the “future leaders of America” and said the Girl Scouts were “just having fun.” Uttecht watched as Speyer’s story grew popular and made a video response, saying, “Julianne, you were right when you said women could be anything they want to be, so keep being the leader you are, and continue to be the change that we need.”
Closing the video with, “Someday, when you’re older, we want you on our team. Fly Navy,” Uttecht sent an important message to Speyer and other young women and girls across the country.
By doing this, Uttecht supported the effort to increase awareness that aviation is a job anyone can do regardless of the demographic they belong to, and this is partly because of Capt. Mariner and the other pioneering women in military aviation.
Uttecht said Mariner and her contemporaries started the trend of seeing someone as being a warfighter, rather than seeing them as a male or female.
“It is important to recognize and honor those who have made contributions to society by breaking down barriers,” said Uttecht. “Capt. Mariner was one of the first to show that people shouldn’t be limited to what they are allowed to do based on their gender.”