In February 2019, the National Air and Space Museum launched the Military Women Aviators Oral History Initiative (MWAOHI) to record histories of some of the groundbreaking women who led incremental change in the military that resulted in women becoming fully vested (combat) military pilots. Military women’s histories are vital components of museum archival collections. Oral histories facilitate more complete representation of military aviation in scholarly works and exhibitions and enable the Museum to present a broad spectrum of aviation faces to the public. Funded by a Smithsonian Scholarly Studies Award, former Museum Verville Fellow Lt. Col. Monica Smith, USA (Ret.), led the limited Initiative that preserves personal and professional stories from the more than five-decade history of military women aviators. The Museum’s space history chair Margaret Weitekamp, aeronautics curator Dorothy Cochrane, space history curator Cathleen Lewis, aeronautics intern Abigail King, volunteer Azmera Carter, and many others contributed to the success of the MWAOHI. These interviews reside in the National Air and Space Museum Archives and are available online.
A Brief and Simple History of Military Women Aviators
American women have wanted to serve in the military since the Revolutionary War. From then until the mid-20th century, they performed various roles as individuals or in auxiliaries and corps of temporary or civilian status—always under the impenetrable ceilings of segregated or specialized duties. The Navy’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) and US Army’s Women Corps (WACS) of World War II were severely limited in their overall numbers and the types of positions women could hold. More specific to aviation, the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) flew for the US Army Air Forces (USAAF) as civilians. They proved beyond a doubt that women could fly all USAAF aircraft, including combat types. After a lengthy campaign to have their service recognized, they finally received military status in 1977. Today’s military women aviators stand on the shoulders of these pioneering women.
In 1948, the U.S. Congress made women a permanent part of the military through the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act. However, the legislation included two exclusionary policies. One policy barred women from duty aboard vessels or aircraft engaged in combat missions and in combat zones. The second limited the proportion of women in the military to only 2% of the enlisted force and 10% of officers. There were few paths to senior leadership.
In the 1960s, the women’s movement spread throughout society with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Pay Act that forced progress in the civilian workplace and in political and public arenas. At the same time, the escalation and controversy of the Vietnam War resulted in less military enlistments in the face of greater need. The military draft was reinstated for men while Public Law 90-130 loosened some restrictions for women to utilize their talent and attract more of them. The law offered more promotion tracks, including some toward command experience, and removed the 2% ceiling on the number of women allowed on active duty.
With the perceived imminent passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (though it was never ratified), and, in 1973, the end of the draft in favor of an all-volunteer force, each military branch continued opening career tracks for women. However, women were still barred from combat units, ships, or aircraft—service primarily required to be considered for general officer or flag ranks. In the next two decades, and in the face of overwhelming social change and political pressure, each service began admitting women to their military academies and into flight training in wider types of aircraft and schools. While gender restrictive bans became murky, and were sometimes completely ignored, they were still formidable legal roadblocks.
Again, feeling the winds of change, in 1991 Congress passed the Kennedy-Roth Amendment, repealing the combat exclusion policy of the 1948 Act and leaving implementation to the military branches. The celebration for military women pilots, some of whom had flown in combat areas during the first Persian Gulf War, was short lived as Congress soon added an advisory committee to “aid” in decision making. Hard fought on both sides, the commission’s input muddled the situation. Finally, in 1993 Les Aspin, the new Secretary of Defense, reinforced the repeal of the combat exclusion policy and directed the military to open combat missions to women. Women could now enter the fighter tracks necessary to reach their full potential in their chosen military service. The Museum’s Military Women Aviators Oral History Initiative sought to capture this progress.
Identifying Military Women Aviators to Spotlight
Smith and the MWAOHI team categorized potential women military pilots who were among the first to break various gender, racial, or ethnic barriers into three groups:
- Pioneers (1973-present): first to earn wings as military pilots.
- Combat Transition (1991-2016): first certified to pilot combat aircraft; log combat hours as a pilot; or lead deployed troops in theater.
- Senior leaders (2000-present): first to attain general and flag officer (GFO) rank.
From this pool of extraordinary women, sixteen veterans participated in the Military Women Aviators Oral History Initiative: seven Air Force, three Navy, five Army, two Coast Guard (the USCG is a military service serving noncombatant roles; both women also flew in the Army skewing the totals), and one Marine. Five were among the first military women to earn wings, seven are combat aircraft and/or combat zone aviators, and three were flag (senior) officers. Demographically, of the women interviewed, 13 were white, three were minorities (who self-identified as Asian, Black, and Hispanic), and two women self-identified as gay. Each person interviewed offered candid recollections and analysis of their military service and their personal lives. The interviews are available here.
Knowing the barriers before them, why did these women choose to fly? Some, like Col. Nicole Malachowski, USAF (Ret.), always wanted to fly. Some jumped at a new opportunity. Lt. Col. Connie Engel, USA (Ret.), was a nurse practitioner who became the leader of the first class of USAF women pilots. Some followed in family tradition. None of them took “no” for an answer. Lt. Col. Olga Custodio, USAF (Ret.), was denied entry into the USAF Reserve Officer Training Corps in 1969 and finally became a pilot over a decade later. In 1984, a recruiter told Capt. Tammie Jo Shults, USN (Ret.), that he would take her brother, but not her; another said she had “scored high enough (on a test) for a guy but not for a girl,” Captain Shults recounted in her book Nerves of Steel.
Each one encountered entrenched or arbitrary hurdles and worked incredibly hard, knowing she would have to be significantly better prepared to simply qualify for the next coveted opportunity, school, or squadron. Still, the women found critical support along the way, despite some male officers and instructors who were determined to reject or disqualify them. Smith noted that the women’s struggles were reminiscent of those the Tuskegee Airmen, pioneering African American military pilots, encountered during World War II.
Clearly, they persevered. As Capt. Joellen Oslund, USN (Ret.), one of the first female naval aviators, recalled: “It never dawned on me I was going to fail. And it simply was not an option.” For Captain Oslund, finding a way included joining a 1976 class action lawsuit that challenged the combat exclusion clause. It was a risky but gutsy move. In 1978, federal judge John Sirica ruled in favor of the women by amending some portions of the ban. The U.S. military’s first woman helicopter pilot could now legally land on a ship and fulfill her duty to supply sea vessels.
Those in the Pioneers category earned their wings and, although it was too late in their careers to achieve full combat status, their barrier breaking roles had forged the repeal. Of critical importance was their role as rising leaders to assist those who followed them. The women we categorized as Combat Transition pilots eagerly moved into available fighter and combat aviation roles and went on to serve over the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Others ably performed instructor, operational, and support missions in all flight zones. Their upward mobility to squadron and wing commanders and chiefs of staff allowed them to compete for senior leadership positions. MWAOHI interviewees include three who achieved general officer rank: Maj. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt, USAF (Ret.), the first USAF woman fighter pilot; Lt. Gen. Stayce Harris, USAF (Ret.), the first African American woman to attain a general officer rank; and Gen. Jackie Van Ovost, USAF, an early female military test pilot.
Another Voice Heard: Capt. Rosemary Mariner
Capt. Rosemary Mariner, USN (Ret.), a pioneer naval aviator and arguably one of the most powerful forces for the advancement of women into naval combat aviation, was high on our interview list when we learned of her death in January 2019. Thankfully, she had already told much of her story in a Museum lecture in 2011. In addition, Mariner is now a central figure in Beverly Weintraub’s Wings of Gold: The Story of the First Women Naval Aviators.
In 1975, Mariner became the U.S. Navy’s first woman to pilot a fighter aircraft and, in 1997, to command an operational aviation squadron. Cleverly, Mariner adapted the lessons and paths of the Tuskegee Airmen and subsequent African American aviators, in the face of systemic racism, to women, challenging systemic gender bias step by step. She knew it was vital to use the chain of command to change the military forever. Both Weintraub and Shults write of instances where Mariner guided Shults through difficult situations, never putting either one of them in jeopardy but letting leadership know that women deserved equity and respect. “Sexual harassment will continue to be a problem in the military services as long as women are barred from combat duty—as long as we are considered institutionally inferior. Just as in matters of race, separate is inherently unequal,” Mariner told the LA Times in 1992.
Mariner observed that no one was doing women a favor by “letting” them fly. So instead of making it harder, with excuses and extra flight hours and tests for women, the military should prioritize their full integration into combat flight. If women could not perform and prove themselves in all roles, they would never become respected aviators or leaders. Why ignore qualified aviators and leaders needed to fulfill the Navy’s—and ultimately the military’s—mission of securing the nation? Why indeed.
Fittingly, Mariner forged a final first at her funeral on February 2, 2019, when eight women in four F/A-18E/F Super Hornets conducted the first all-woman missing person formation flyover in military history.
Exploring the MWAOHI Interviews
We are grateful to the MWAOHI interviewees who candidly shared their groundbreaking experiences. Anyone can access the interview recordings, transcripts, and other documents on the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives (SOVA). We hope these remarkable women and their stories found in the Military Woman Aviators Oral History Initiative will inform and inspire others.
The list of interviewees:
• Lt. Col. Olga Custodio, USAF (Ret.): first USAF Hispanic woman pilot (1981), first Hispanic T-38 pilot, 1980s
• Lt. Col. Sarah Deal, USMC Reserve: first female Marine Corps aviator (1993), combat pilot (Afghanistan), 1990s and 2000s
• Lt. Col. Ladda Tammy Duckworth, USAR, NG (Ret.): UH-60 helicopter combat pilot (Iraq), disabled veteran, 1990s-2000s
• Lt. Col. Connie Engel, USAF (Ret.): member of the first USAF class of women pilots (1976)
• Lt. Gen. Stayce Harris, USAF (Ret.): first African American woman to become a 3-star Air Force general, first African American woman pilot to attain general rank, second USAF African American woman pilot, 1990s-2010s
• Maj. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt, USAF (Ret.): first USAF woman fighter pilot (1993), first woman to command a USAF fighter unit, 1990s-2020s
• Col. Abigail Linnington, USA (Ret.): Kiowa and Blackhawk pilot and UH-60 VIP support company, 1990s
• Col. Nicole Malachowski, USAF (Ret.): combat pilot (Iraq), first American woman aerial jet demonstration team pilot (Thunderbirds), 1990s-2010s
• Capt. Patricia McFetridge, USCG (Ret.): U.S. Army 1980s, first USCG women to earn Distinguished Flying Cross (1990), 1980s-2000s
• Cdr. Claudia McKnight, USCG (Ret.): US Army and USCG search and rescue, medevac, polar missions, 1980s-1990s.
• Col. Sally Murphy, USA (Ret.): first US Army woman pilot (1974)
• Capt. Joellen Oslund, USN, USNR (Ret.): member of first class of women naval aviators (1974)
• Lt. Col. Tammie Jo Shults, USNR (Ret.): one of the first women tactical (FA/18) naval aviators, 1990s-2000s
• Gen. Jackie Van Ovost, USAF: fourth woman USAF test pilot; Commander, U.S. Transportation Command, 1990s-2020s
• Capt. Lucy Young, USN (Ret.): first navy woman light attack (TA-4J) instructor, carrier qualification 1982; 1980s-1990s
• Col. Kim Campbell, USAF (Ret.): veteran A-10 combat pilot (Iraq), 2000s
Bjorkman, Eileen. Fly Girls Revolt: The Story of the Women Who Kicked Open the Door to Fly in Combat (Knox Press, 2023)
Douglas, Deborah G, American Women and Flight since 1940 (The University Press of Kentucky, 2004)
Shults, Tammie Jo. Nerves of Steel. (W. Publishing Group, 2019)
Weintraub, Beverly. Wings of Gold: The Story of the First Women Naval Aviators (Lyon Press, 2021)