Inherently dangerous and what can best be described as organized chaos, the flight deck of an aircraft carrier is no place for the faint of heart. Among the brave service members who operate the flight deck, the women of Launch & Recovery Division (V-2) are manned and ready to launch aircraft off USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) (IKE) as the ship’s only all-female catapult crew.
As aviation boatswain’s mates (equipment) (ABE), they are responsible for maintaining and operating the systems that launch multimillion dollar aircraft off the flight deck. In this predominantly male job, these women have proven they are just as capable of doing the hard, grease-covered and labor-intensive work as their male counterparts.
“Working in this rate is actually pretty amazing,” said ABE Airman Tanya Funez. “Being dirty and greasy most of the time doesn’t bother me. I can do what any male can do, and an all-female cat crew basically just proves there’s a lot more females out there who can pull their own weight on the flight deck.”
Along with long hours and greasy days, their job is unceasingly precarious.
“Simply put, the flight deck is arguably one of the most dangerous places on the planet,” said Chief ABE Andrew Vanwinkle. “We have a job to do where there is only one way to get it right. Anything less can and will get you killed.”
In 2014 during routine flight operations, a Norfolk-based Sailor was caught underneath the wheel of an F/A-18 and lost his leg.
“It is scary at times,” said ABE 2nd Class Spela Marinsek. “You always have to keep your head on the swivel, a motto every ABE lives by. It only takes a split second for you or someone else to get hurt.”
Through this dangerous-yet-organized chaos, the women have become family within their male-dominated rate.
“My favorite part about being on the flight deck is being able to know whoever is up there with me has my back and that we’re more than Sailors, we’re family,” said Funez.
Women first served aboard aircraft carriers 22 years ago, and within that span, they have proven they are just as capable as their male counterparts. Ike became a milestone for women’s history in October 1994 when the ship and its strike group deployed with 400 women to the Gulf. Prior to 1994, women were not allowed to serve on naval combat ships.
Since then, women have overcome challenges and stereotypes while serving in several roles throughout the ship. Today, the women who launch aircraft off the flight deck don’t stress over gender stereotypes; they simply recognize that a job needs to get done.
“In my experience, this in no way provides a barrier to any Sailor based on their gender, but rather serves as motivation to the crew as a whole to work together and get the job done no matter how insurmountable the job may seem,” said Vanwinkle.
Their chief, who supervises them on a daily basis, can testify that the flight deck does not discriminate against gender.
“When we’re up at 0300 preparing an alert 7 fighter for launch, I barely see an outline, much less the gender of the Sailor,” Vanwinkle said. “I see a Sailor spotting the bird on the cat or crawling underneath to attach the holdback bar.”
To the women who crawl under the planes, dodging jet exhaust and spinning propellers, it is just a job.
“There isn’t much difference honestly,” said ABE 2nd Class Jillian Riddall. “At the end of the day, we still have a job to do, male or female. I wasn’t raised where you had a choice to get dirty or stay clean. A job is a job; get it done to the best of your ability.”
Despite the grease, these women end up enjoying their job and the experience they share on the flight deck.
“It’s probably one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done in my life,” said ABE Airman Recruit Racquelle Bonds. “I still get nervous when I go up there sometimes, but launching aircraft is an amazing site to see and I get to watch it every day.”
ABE Airman Nija Dent describes the experience as a small adrenaline rush when the aircraft passes over her head or just a few feet from her face. She believes that it reminds her that she’s on borrowed time.
At the end of the day, the women of V-2 have demolished the walls of gender stereotypes while becoming members of an historic family.
“Now we have females at the highest echelons of the Aircraft Launch and Recovery Equipment community,” said Vanwinkle. “I don’t see male or female, I see damn good ABE’s.”
As our military becomes more integrated and the future opens more doors for female service members, the Sailors aboard Ike are proving each day that gender is no obstacle.
Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Alex Delgado supports the Media Department aboard USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69).