50 Years of Women Flying in the US Navy

Text and Photography by Claude La Frenière
The year 2023 marked a special milestone for the US Navy, celebrating 50 years since women first joined its aviation ranks.
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This 50th anniversary commemorated women's participation in naval aviation, acknowledging their lasting impact. It highlighted the journey from the pioneering "First Six" women, who began flight school in 1973 and earned their Wings of Gold in 1974, to the many female aviators who followed.

Over the past five decades, women's roles in naval aviation have evolved significantly, expanding from terrestrial-based pilots to key players in diverse and critical global missions. These missions range from strike operations and safeguarding the nuclear triad to logistical cargo transport and executing high-stakes rescue operations.
Today, the U.S. Naval Aviation is renowned for its leadership in naval power, with an increasing presence of female leaders and experts since 1973. Currently, women make up a significant 15% of the Naval Aviation workforce and 22% of the Navy overall.

The United States Navy, with a total force of 440,000 personnel (active and reserve), holds a leading position in global military operations. Its capabilities include 299 operational combat ships and around 4,012 operational aircraft, operating across 11 aircraft carriers, 10 active air wings, and 280 squadrons stationed at 12 global bases.
Among its 7,000 pilots and flight officers, nearly 1,636 women serve as active-duty pilots or navigation officers, along with 49 full-time reservists in these roles. These skilled women not only pilot aircraft but also command aircraft carriers, lead air wings and squadrons, and participate in space missions. Their progress and inspiring stories pave the way for future aviators, promoting inclusivity and diversity in naval aviation.

The integration of women pilots has seen a steady increase in their numbers within the fleet, marked by significant achievements such as women commanding squadrons and actively participating in tactical and combat deployment missions.
The journey of female naval aviators, from Donna Lyn Spruill, the first woman to qualify on an aircraft carrier, to Madeline Swegle, the first black female tactical aircraft pilot, exemplifies resilience and success. They pave the path for future leaders like Capt. Amy Bauernschmidt, the first woman to command an aircraft carrier, and Lt. Amanda Lee, a trailblazer as the first Blue Angels F/18 Demo pilot. Despite these advances, challenges remain, including balancing family life with a competitive aviation career.

Celebrating the fundamental role of women in naval aviation is indeed a powerful initiative. The air show at the Oceana base honored these pioneering female aviators, recognizing their remarkable contributions with commemorative plaques. This symbolic act not only honors past achievements but also underscores the significance of the next generation of women in naval aviation. Such recognition provides visibility to their dedication, expertise, and leadership, inspiring others to pursue careers in aviation and thrive in this field.
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Captain Mary Louise Griffin (Ret.)

Captain Mary Louise Griffin stands as a trailblazer in naval aviation, having broken barriers and set precedents for women in the field. Her journey is a testament to her unwavering determination and exceptional skill in a male-dominated domain.

Earning the Golden Wings as the 12th woman and the second to be assigned to a tactical aircraft, amidst the constraints faced by women in military aviation, highlighted her extraordinary talent and resilience. With over 3,000 flight hours on the A-4 Skyhawk series, her career showcased not just her flying prowess but also her versatility in various missions, weapons, and leadership roles within the Navy.

Her commitment to representing and acknowledging her fellow female pioneers in aviation indicates deep respect and admiration for those who paved the way. Her insights on the seamless integration of women into operations alongside men reflect the evolving landscape of gender roles in the military, offering inspiration for future female aviators.

Captain Griffin's legacy continues to inspire aspiring women in naval aviation, demonstrating that determination, skill, and dedication can break down barriers and pave the way for future generations.
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Commander Stacy Uttecht (Ret.) - VFA-32 Strike Fighter Squadron Commander

Commander Stacy Uttecht, as the first female naval flight officer to lead an F/A-18 squadron, has indeed carved a path of excellence and broken barriers in naval aviation. Her impressive career includes over 3,600 flight hours, with significant combat missions totaling 1,200 hours.

Her transition from the F-14 Tomcat to the F/A-18 Super Hornet showcased her adaptability and skill in evolving aircraft platforms. Her combat deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria underscore her dedication and operational prowess in high-stakes environments.

Commanding VFA-32, the Fighting Swordsmen, represents the pinnacle of her achievements, emphasizing her outstanding leadership and substantial contributions to naval aviation. Her involvement in commemorative events, such as the flyover in honor of Captain Rosemary Mariner, highlights her respect for aviation pioneers and her commitment to honoring their legacies.

Her role in historic moments within naval aviation indeed underscores Commander Uttecht's expertise, dedication, and unwavering commitment to operational excellence. Her legacy serves as an enduring source of inspiration for future pilots and military leaders, demonstrating that with determination, skill, and leadership, one can transcend boundaries and leave a lasting impact on naval aviation.
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Commander Amy Peterson (Ret.) - VQ4 Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron Pilot

CMD Peterson's illustrious career as a C-130 pilot with VQ-4, stationed at Oceana from 1988 to 1992, where she piloted the TC-4, is noteworthy. Her aviation expertise continued beyond her retirement from the reserves, leading her to a second career as an airline pilot operating large aircraft.

Her family's deep connection to Navy service is remarkable. Her daughter, currently a deployed helicopter pilot, and her son, following a similar path, exemplify this legacy. Additionally, her husband, a bombardier navigator, contributes to this remarkable family narrative. Although her father couldn't pin her pilot's wings, it was a source of immense pride for CMD Peterson to pin the wings on her two children, continuing the family's legacy of service.
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Jillian Edwards (Ret.) - VFA-103 Strike Fighter Squadron Petty Officer

Jillian Edwards started her Navy journey in 2001 at the age of 17 with VF-103 Jolly Rogers. Over eight years, she distinguished herself by attaining a plane captain rating on the F-14B Tomcat. Assigned to CAG-17, her deployments included support for Operation Enduring Freedom on CVN-73 in 2002 and Operation Iraqi Freedom on CV-67 in 2004. Transitioning to land service with VFA-106 Gladiators, she qualified on the F/A-18 Super Hornet. Later, as a civilian contractor, she expanded her expertise to include the F/A-18 Legacy Hornet.

Her role in streamlining the training program as one of three civilians was significant, certifying numerous adept aircraft captains. Working alongside talented women on powerful fighter jets has been a source of pride and satisfaction for Jillian, fostering a supportive and valuable environment.
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Morgan A. Silberman - Aviation Machinist’s Mate 3rd Class

Morgan A. Silberman's commitment to serving as an aviation machinist in the Navy since 2021 reflects her dedication to the field of aircraft maintenance. Her responsibilities involve servicing, maintaining, and troubleshooting aircraft engines and fuel systems.

Her interest in the Navy, driven by the opportunity to travel and explore new environments, indicates her enthusiasm for learning and embracing challenges in aircraft maintenance. Her aspiration to develop leadership skills shows her ambition to excel and potentially take on leadership roles in the future.

Morgan A. Silberman's dedication to her career in aircraft maintenance and her eagerness to learn and grow within the Navy signify a promising commitment to continual improvement and advancement in her field.
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Daisy Estrada - VFA-103 Strike Fighter Squadron Aviation Ordnanceman 3rd Class

Enlisting in the United States Navy in 2020, Daisy Estrada assumed the role of an Aviation Ordnanceman at VFA-103. Her position consistently presents her with challenges, but she embraces adversity and setbacks as integral parts of her job. Daisy's daily endeavor involves tackling these challenges head-on, transforming every setback into a learning opportunity. Drawing inspiration from Bessie Coleman, an American civil aviation pioneer, Daisy adopts an attitude of persistent determination, refusing to accept rejection or failure. This steadfast approach exemplifies her exceptional dedication to her service in the Navy.
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Jesenia Feggins - HSC-5 Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron Aircrew Survival Equipmentman 3rd Class

Originally from Orange Park, Florida, Jesenia Feggins enlisted in the Navy in 2021. Serving as a crew survival equipment technician with Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron Five (HSC-5), she is part of the "night divers." Jesenia's crucial responsibilities include examining, maintaining, and repairing aviation life support systems, such as aviator flight gear and aircraft rescue equipment. Embracing the Navy's opportunities for global exploration, she indulges in her passion for discovering new locations worldwide. Committed to both personal and professional growth, Jesenia aspires to demonstrate outstanding leadership daily. Her dedication reflects the ethos of HSC-5, captured in the principles of "Save, Protect, Deliver," and she fully embodies the unit's public relations motto: "The last to let you down."
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Arianna Richardson - HSC-26 Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron Aviation Ordnanceman 2nd Class

Arianna Richardson, born in Columbia, Maryland, has completed nine years of distinguished naval service. Her career path includes service on two aircraft carriers and three helicopter squadrons, where she currently serves with Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron Two Six (HSC-26). As an HSC-26 Loader, she deployed to the Fifth Fleet, supporting CTF-51 and CTF-53, playing an integral role in the success of multiple campaigns. Her military journey serves as an exemplary model for many Sailors, showcasing exceptional dedication and leadership. Richardson skillfully balances her service commitments with raising her two children, who support her dedication and sacrifices.
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Stephanie Higgins - HSC-2 Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron Hospital Corpsman First Class

Stephanie Higgins is one of the seven female search and rescue medical technicians in the U.S. Navy. Her career began at VX-31 in China Lake, California, where she led numerous civilian rescue missions in challenging desert and mountain terrains. Transitioning to HSC-28 in Norfolk, Virginia, she played a significant role in hurricane and disaster relief operations. Her service also included a deployment on the USS Iwo Jima. Currently stationed at HSC-2, Stephanie actively participates in training new Navy rescue swimmers and search and rescue medical technicians.
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Lieutenant Annie Cutchen - HSC-2 Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron Pilot

Lieutenant Annie Cutchen, a 2014 graduate of Goucher College with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and a secondary emphasis in Spanish, has achieved notable success in her naval career. Accumulating over 1,600 flight hours across T-6B, TH-57, and MH-60S platforms, she significantly contributed to the operations of USS Theodore Roosevelt and USS Chester Nimitz, supporting missions like Inherent Resolve and Freedom Sentinel.

Her excellence has been recognized through various awards, including two Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals, a Combat Efficiency Award, Naval Unit Commendation Award, Inherent Resolve Campaign Medal, and Afghanistan Campaign Medal, among others. At HSC-2, Annie plays a crucial role in command standardization and serves as the Editor-in-Chief of the Rotary Review. She leads by example, offering guidance and mentorship to aspiring female pilots, aircrew, and maintenance personnel within the Fleet Replacement Squadron.
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Lieutenant Samantha Lynch - HSC-26 Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron Pilot

Samantha Lynch graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 2014 with a major in Aeronautical Engineering. After completing flight school in Pensacola, Florida, she earned her Wings of Gold in 2016. Her tenure at HSC-2’s Fleet Replacement Squadron introduced her to flying the MH-60S. She began her career at HSC-11, participating in Carrier Air Wing One's deployment on the USS Harry S. Truman, marking a historic aircraft carrier deployment to the Arctic since the Cold War.

Samantha then underwent SEAWOLF training, becoming a qualified SEAWOLF Weapons and Tactics Instructor. At HSC Weapons School Atlantic, she served as an Advanced Helicopter Readiness Program Officer, overseeing pre-deployment training for all East Coast HSC squadrons. Her outstanding performance earned her the 2022 HSC Wing Atlantic Instructor Pilot of the Year title.

Currently stationed at HSC-26, Samantha serves as a tactical officer. Her accolades include the Navy/Marine Corps Commendation Medal and two Navy/Marine Corps Achievement Medals, among others. As a mother of two, she actively supports and advocates for women balancing careers in naval aviation with family responsibilities.

All these women, through their time in service, have exemplified the values of integrity and leadership, paving the way for future generations of women to join the ranks of naval aviation. 
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The Milestones of Women's Engagement in the US Navy

The progress and achievements of women in the US Navy, particularly in naval aviation, are both significant and inspirational. Here is an overview of some key milestones:

1973: Eight women from the first class begin flight school.

1974: The first six female naval aviators earned their Golden Wings: Cmdr. Barbara Allen Rainey, Captain Judith Neuffer Bruner, Captain Jane Skiles O'Dea, Captain Joellen Drag Oslund, Captain Ana Maria Scott Fuqua, Captain Rosemary Mariner.

1980: Brenda Robinson becomes the first African-American female Navy pilot.

1980: USS Lexington - The first aircraft carrier to allow women to train onboard.

1990: Captain Rosemary Mariner - First woman to command an operational naval aviation squadron and the first woman to pilot a frontline tactical attack aircraft.

1991: The Senate overturns a 43-year-old law that banned women from flying warplanes in combat.

1993: Secretary of Defense Leslie Aspin lifts the ban on combat flights for women, and President Clinton signs legislation allowing women to serve on combat ships.

1994: Naval Personnel Chief Vice Admiral Ronald J. Zlatoper announces the assignment of women to Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 3, aboard Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) and to CVW-11 aboard Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72). Lt. Kara S. Hultgreen of VF-213 becomes the first fully qualified female Tomcat pilot, making her first F-14A landing aboard Constellation (CV 64).

1995: Sarah Deal Burrow - First female Marine Corps aviator.

2001: Elisabeth Malecha - First female naval aviator to graduate from TOPGUN.

2003: Beth Lambert - The first female Command Master Chief of an aircraft carrier (CVN-71).

2004: Becky Calder - First female TOPGUN graduate pilot.

2010: Nora Tyson - First female naval aviator to command a carrier strike group.

2013: Sarah Joyner - First woman to command a carrier air wing (CVN-75).

2015: Katie Cook - First female pilot to perform with the Blue Angels (Flight C-130, “Fat Albert”) and Nora Tyson becomes the first woman (and female naval aviator) to be appointed to and lead a fleet of ships.

2021: Amy Bauernschmidt - First woman to command an aircraft carrier.

2022: Amanda Lee - First woman selected to be a Blue Angels F/A-18 demonstration pilot.