Forming a More Perfect Union: Honoring Women in Naval Aviation

Women first served in the Navy as nurses in 1908. Today, all military positions are now open to women including infantry, armor, reconnaissance and special operations.

NavalWomen_timeline_webOur Naval Aviation News timeline summarizes many firsts for women in Naval Aviation, including the first women, Lt. j.g. Judith Neuffer, to be selected for flight training in 1973 through 2015 when Marine Corps Capt. Katie Higgins became the first women to fly with the Blue Angels.

Whether it was a family tradition or love of country, read what inspired Higgins and five others in the following vignettes.

But before there could be a first female Thunderbird pilot or women flying combat missions into Iraq and Afghanistan, there were the pioneers: the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots of World War II.

In September 1942, nine months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Army Air Forces commander Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold stood up the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, or WAFS, and the Women’s Flying Training Detachment, or WFTD.

According to the Air Force Historical Support Division, on July 5, 1943, the WAFS and WFTD merged into a single unit for all women pilots who were rapidly extending their qualifications to every type of aircraft in service. The new unified group called itself the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP, with its pilots known as WASPs.

Rear Adm. CJ Jaynes

Program Executive Officer, Air ASW, Assault and Special Mission Programs, PEO(A)

Rear Adm. CJ Jaynes, Program Executive Officer for Air Anti-Submarine Warfare, Assault and Special Mission Programs, attends a change of command ceremony March 20. (U.S. Navy photo by MC2 Kenneth Abbate.)

Why Serve. I joined the Navy after four years of teaching math. I was looking for an adventure and believed the Navy would give me opportunities to see places and do things that I would never be able to do on my own. I immediately became hooked and the desire to serve my country blossomed into a 33-year adventure.

Influential Role Models. Within the first few weeks of arriving at my first duty station, Training Squadron (VT) 86 in Pensacola, I met Lt. Frank Smith. We worked in the maintenance department together and he quickly became my mentor and go-to person for all things Navy and aviation maintenance. Throughout my career, Frank continued to provide guidance and is still my sounding board today. Later in my career when I transitioned to the acquisition community, I worked for Ms. Steffanie Easter, [executive director for the F-35 Lightning II Joint Program Office]. She was the person I modeled myself after—her professionalism is impeccable—and the manner in which she cared for the workforce is one of a kind. I wanted to be just like her.

Memorable Assignment. My tour as the Intermediate Maintenance Department (AIMD) division officer in Diego Garcia was the best ever. We were isolated and had to support the deployed patrol squadron with minimum infrastructure. It was a leadership challenge maintaining aging support equipment and keeping parts on the shelf for the aircraft. With 100 Sailors, four chief petty officers and a command master chief all pulling together—we developed a professional family atmosphere far away from home. At the end of the day, what a great place it was. Running, swimming, cycling, volleyball—you name it, we played it. We worked hard and we played hard—we were a family.

Preparing Future Leaders. Being a leader means coaching, mentoring, guiding and training our juniors and enabling them to be successful and achieve greatness. Everyone deserves an opportunity to excel, and it is up to us to make sure the opportunities are there. We are only as good as the legacy we groom to replace us. I take pride when someone I have led gets promoted, selected for a special assignment or achieves a career milestone. The future is for them, and my role as a leader is to prepare them to lead the next generation.

Capt. Tamara K. Graham, USN

Director Diversity and Inclusion Commander, Naval Air Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet

In 2005, then-Lt. Cmdr. Tamara K. Graham is forward deployed in southern Iraq with Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron (HS) 8. (U.S. Navy photo)

Why Serve. I initially joined the Navy purely to pay for college. I had an NROTC scholarship and very little idea what I was getting into. My first year in the ROTC program, however, introduced me to people who would become my lifelong friends and opportunities to do exciting and challenging hands-on work. I quickly found that I loved the team environment that continues to be fostered and the motivation I find in serving my country and its ideals.

Influential Role Models. I’ve had many positive influences over the course of my life and career, and it’s those collective efforts that have brought me to where I am today. First and foremost, I’d have to say my parents, who always stood as personal examples of hard work, dedication and service to others. They often reminded me that I could do anything I put my mind to and that no one owed me anything. Taking both those things to heart has been the foundation of my success.

I’ve also been blessed with incredible leaders and mentors throughout my career as a naval aviator. There are far too many individuals to name, but I’d call out Capt. Joey Tynch, Capt. Tim McMahon and Capt. Lou Cortellini as prime examples of great leaders who served because they loved what they did and the Sailors who made it happen. They each took a vested interest in me and my development as an aviator, officer and individual. Although their styles differed greatly, it was apparent in all three that they demanded only the best from themselves and took the most joy in watching their people succeed. They were leaders that inspired trust and whom you never wanted to let down.

Lastly, I would have to say I’ve been most influenced by the Sailors that have worked for and with me over the last 23 years. From my peers in the cockpit to the Sailors on the deckplates, I have seen enumerable acts of courage, sacrifice and selflessness that humble me daily. Their personal examples inspire me to strive to be the leader, officer and aviator they deserve.

Memorable Assignments. All of my assignments have been memorable—my first fleet tour, leading the line division at the fleet replacement squadron (FRS), being an instructor pilot, flying combat missions over southern Iraq as a department head, negotiating military engagements with our partner nations across Asia during my joint tour—but the one that will always stand out is my command tour with the legendary “Black Knights” of Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron/Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 4. There is nothing quite like operational command, where you hold the ultimate authority and responsibility for your people, your aircraft and your mission. It is daunting, humbling and empowering all at the same time. Like my previous tours, my time with the Black Knights was marked by incredible people, unique experiences and numerous challenges, but the ability to make a lasting impact as the commanding officer was unparalleled. I will always look back with pride on the things we accomplished as a squadron and all the personal achievements my sailors were able to garner during that time.

Advice for Women Considering a Military Career. I would say to absolutely do it. The learning curve is steep and the expectations are high, but what better environment to exceed your own expectations? I believe that whether you serve one tour or spend a full career, you will leave the military with increased skill, confidence and leadership ability. The opportunities to develop technical skills, challenge yourself and be part of something bigger are endless. The experience you garner in the service will set you apart from your peers in the civilian world and although military service will ask a great deal of you, it gives back two-fold in return.

Capt. Katie Higgins, USMC

Blue Angels C-130 Pilot, Naval Air Station, Pensacola

Capt. Katie Higgins, USMC, pilots the Blue Angels’ C-130, “Fat Albert.” (U.S. Navy photo)

Why Serve. As a third-generation military aviator, my grandfathers and my father instilled in me a desire to pursue a life of service. I knew from a young age I wanted to give back to this amazing country that has provided such opportunities for my family. I considered becoming a law enforcement officer, firefighter and even a nun. However, when I was in high school, I decided the military was the path for me and felt attending the United States Naval Academy would be the best choice in pursuit of my ultimate goal of becoming a naval aviator.

While at the academy, we did a lot of summer training to expose us to all the facets of the Navy and Marine Corps. During this time, I met amazing enlisted Marines who were not only passionate about their jobs, but were dedicated to the Marine Corp’s core values of honor, courage and commitment. I knew I wanted to lead men and women of that high caliber, and that led me to seek a commission in the Marine Corps.

Influential Role Models. Being from a military family, I was blessed to be surrounded by a multitude of high-caliber men and women my entire life. Strong leaders like Rear Adm. Margaret Deluca “Peg” Klein, Senior Advisor to the [Secretary of Defense for Military Professionalism,] were friends of my family, so I grew up with these amazing role models all around me. However, I would say the most influential person in my life is my father. A graduate of the Naval Academy class of ’81, he served in the Navy for 26 years as commanding officer of Strike Fighter Weapons School Pacific, and as the air boss of USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) during Operation Enduring Freedom. I could spend the whole interview talking about his personal accomplishments, but those aren’t what he is most proud of, and that is what I respect the most about him. My father was so incredibly dedicated to his Sailors and Marines that their successes and accomplishments are what brought him the greatest joy. He instilled in me the importance of leadership and dedication to subordinates. He used filling out my tax forms to illustrate one of his most memorable lessons to me. He said, “when filling out your paperwork, it asks you for your job description, you put Marine Corps Officer, not pilot. This is how the government prioritizes your profession, and you should too.” I would not be the pilot, officer, Marine or woman I am today without his guidance and amazing example.

Memorable Assignments.  My most memorable assignment was with Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron (VMGR) 252, and specifically my first deployment in 2013. We were stationed at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, about a half-hour flight west of Kandahar. What was really unique about this deployment, and about the C-130 community in general, was the diverse missions we were doing from one day to the next. One day we would wake up and do a four-hour aerial-refueling mission for AV-8B Harriers and the next we would be launching Hellfire and Griffin missiles against the enemy from our Harvest HAWK platform. We did aerial-delivery missions, battlefield illumination and moved thousands of pounds of cargo. I flew more than 400 combat hours, 100 of which were using night vision goggles. That deployment definitely made me a better pilot, and I will never forget the friendships I made with the awesome Marines on my detachment.

Advice for Women Considering a Military Career. I love sharing the phrase: “Calm seas don’t make a skilled Sailor.” What I mean by that is it’s not the easy times in your life when things are going fine that define you as a person. Instead, it’s the difficult times, the obstacles or hardships I have experienced, that have shaped me into the Marine, officer, pilot and woman I am today. Even if you fail at something, if you use that experience as a learning point to make yourself better, then ultimately you are forging a path toward success.

Capt. Corrie J. Mays, USMC

F/A-18 Weapons System Officer, Blue Angels, Naval Air Station Pensacola

Capt. Corrie J. Mays serves as Events Coordinator for the Blue Angels.( U.S. Navy photo)

Why Serve. I joined the Marine Corps because of the amount and intensity of training required of every Marine Corps Officer. Regardless of our primary military occupational specialty, we are all trained first and foremost to be rifle platoon commanders. This includes training in multiple weapons systems, tactics and hand-to-hand combat, plus intense physical training and standards, which prepares us to effectively lead Marines beginning day one in the fleet. In addition, I admired the discipline, emphasis on customs and courtesies, sense of camaraderie, outspoken pride and unparalleled reputation of the Marine Corps.

Influential Role Model. My father without a doubt influenced me the most. He flew his entire life, beginning at age 14, and shared with me his passion for aviation. More importantly, he instilled in me his tireless work ethic, without which I would never be where I am today.

Memorable Assignments. Here at the Blue Angels, no question.

Advice for Women Considering a Military Career. Like with most things in life, prepare to work harder than many of your male peers. That’s reality. The rewards will always be worth the effort when you’re doing something you love. It’s not easy, but strive to find the fine line between toughening up and not compromising your femininity. Lastly, you must understand that you will always represent all women in everything you do or say. It is imperative that you take that seriously.

Lt. Jessica L. Whitens

Naval Aviator, Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 21

Lt. Jessica L. Whitens is welcomed by children during her deployment with Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 21 Detachment 4. (U.S. Navy photo)

Why Serve. I knew from a young age that I wanted to serve in some manner, and I also wanted to travel. At the beginning of my senior year of high school, I found out that the Navy offered full scholarships for college, and I received a scholarship through the nursing program. After my sophomore year of college, I realized that nursing was not for me. I switched to mathematics and was able to finish college and earn my commission in the U.S. Navy.

Influential Role Models. My grandfather, an Army veteran, was my biggest influence. I talked to him about which service to join. He told me, “If you join the Army, I will disown you!” This helped me choose the Navy as the service that was right for me.

Memorable Assignments. During the summer of 2015, I was lucky enough to get assigned to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 21 Detachment 4. The squadron was assigned to U.S. Navy Hospital Ship Mercy for Pacific Partnership. We not only got to travel to some of the most beautiful places, such as Fiji and Papua, New Guinea, but we also provided assistance to the people of those countries. The looks on children’s faces were priceless. They were not only able to see a helicopter for the first time, but they were also able to witness a woman piloting it. Those memories I will keep forever!

Advice for Women Considering a Military Career. For those who are considering a career in the military, do not let anything or anyone hold you back. Push through any barriers that you face; this will only make you stronger. Secondly, do not hold yourself back. Believe that you can accomplish something great and make a difference in the world, not just to Americans, but to people around the entire world. A career in the military will be one of the most rewarding things you will do with your life.

Petty Officer 1st Class Kimberly L. Singleton

Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron ( HSC) 15, Naval Air Station North Island, San Diego

Navy Counselor Petty Officer 1st Class Kimberly L. Singleton started her Navy career as a hospital corpsman before finding her calling as a counselor. (U.S. Navy photo)

Why Serve. The military has always been a part of my life. My grandfather served honorably in the Army during the Vietnam era. My mother and sister are currently serving on active duty in the Navy, and I have other relatives serving in the Army as well.

Influential Role Models. I would have to say every woman in the military has influenced me in one way or another. I have witnessed so much in my nine years of service and learned from other women that the only thing stopping me from doing what I want in the military is myself.

Memorable Assignment. While I started out as a hospital corpsman, after several deployments, I realized that counseling was my true calling, so I converted to Navy counselor in November 2013. When I was a hospital corpsman second class (HM2) stationed at Naval Hospital Okinawa, Japan, I loved my job as well as the Japanese culture.

Advice for Women Considering a Military Career. The military is definitely not easy, but it’s worth it. It is the most rewarding job I have ever had. If I had to do it all over again, I would in a heartbeat! Hard work and dedication will definitely get you far in this organization. Some of the strongest bonds I have are through people I met in the Navy.