PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. --
The countless women pilots who have written their legacy in the skies were honored at the 21st Annual Women in Aviation International Conference, held in Orlando, Fla., Feb. 25-27.
There, dozens of displays and seminars were dedicated to the women who have made careers out of breaking down barriers in a male-dominated career field.
From booths dedicated to the Women Air Force Service Pilots, the very first women to fly for the military, to commercial airlines workers, nearly every conceivable group was represented.
The Marines were there in support of the WAI, and its ideals of strength through diversity – an ideal the Corps shares.
“If you don’t change, if you’re not flexible at all, you’re going to fail. That’s not something the Marine Corps does,” said Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Holbrook, the assistant diversity coordinator for the Marine Corps. “Being diverse gives us more flexibility and more points of view … having that diverse pool of people to draw from is critical.”
To highlight why that concept is so important, the Marines were represented at the conference by a few legends of the Marine aviation field, all of whom are highly decorated female officers.
They were women such as Lt. Col. Sarah Deal, the very first female Marine pilot, Capt. Jill Stephenson, the first women Marine to fly the EA-6B Prowler into combat and Maj. Jennifer Marino, a highly-decorated CH 46E Sea Knight pilot who is now part of HMX-1, the squadron that transports the President of the United States.
While each pilot in attendance was dedicated to the ideals of the WAI conference, and each carried multiple combat deployments under their belts, they all had one qualification they were most proud of – the Eagle, Globe and Anchor.
“Being in this position, it makes us feel proud, sure,” Marino said. “Not because we’re female, but because we’re Marines.
“We’re setting the good example because we’re performing the way the Marine Corps demands, we’re performing the way we’re expected to as Marines.”
Those expectations have changed since 1995 when Deal stepped onto the flight deck as the first Marine female “winged.”
“The Navy had female pilots before then, but the Marines had none – we had to start from ground zero,” Deal explained. “Being the first was lonely.”
Deal said in the beginning, gaining acceptance among Marine pilots was difficult. It took years to prove to the Marines around her that she deserved her spot in the flight rotations.
Deal has cemented her reputation as one the most experienced aviators in the Corps, logging more than 1,600 flight hours. Along the way she has opened doors for the pilots who have followed.
“The Marine Corps says, ‘We don’t care what your race, sex or background is,’” said Capt. Elizabeth Pham, a F/A-18 Hornet pilot with VMFA-AW 242. “All they care about is that you’re the best pilot you can be.
“But we’re here because of the women before us, and our peers around us now,” Pham added.
Nor, the pilots said, would they be able to be successful without both the support of the Marines around them and the diverse nature of the modern Corps.
“We wouldn’t make it without the support of our brothers and sisters in our squadron,” Marino said. “Like everything else in the Corps, it’s a challenge, it’s difficult, but to meet those challenges all you have to be is a professional. You just have to be a Marine.”