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By Tech. Sgt. Brigette Waltermire
137th Special Operations Wing
The 137th Special Operations Wing hosted the seventh Oklahoma Women in Aviation and Aerospace Day celebration Dec. 8, 2023, at Will Rogers Air National Guard Base, Oklahoma City.
The annual event pays homage to the many women who have made significant contributions to the state’s aviation and aerospace industry, with the actual day falling on Dec. 9 – the birthday of Chickasaw aviator Pearl Carter Scott. She became the youngest pilot to solo in the U.S. at 13 years old and learned to fly from Wiley Post.
“We started off with a 120-person event at the hangar at Wiley Post airport, and here we are today at the 137th [SOW] Air National Guard with over 1,000 people to commemorate and celebrate all the things that women have done for the industry” said Grayson Ardies, state director of the Oklahoma Department of Aerospace and Aeronautics. “We’ve got 87 high schools around the state of Oklahoma that are teaching four-year aviation curriculum in the classroom – (that’s) 3,000 students. I’d like to see that … everybody that goes through high school takes some kind of aerospace or aviation programing.”
Oklahoma was the first state to recognize Women in Aviation and Aerospace Day in 2017 and boasts many other famous aviators like Bessie Coleman, Jerri Cobb and Shannon Lucid.
Bessie Coleman was the first African-American woman and Native American woman to hold a pilot license. She attended what is now Langston University, moved to France for flight school then flew stunt shows throughout the U.S.
Jerri Cobb, who spent most of her childhood in Pona City, Oklahoma, was the first woman to fly in the Paris Air Show. Cobb held several world aviation records and was part of the “Mercury 13” group of women who were selected to undergo the same physical and psychological evaluations of the Mercury astronaut program. She was reported as the first in her group to complete each of the tests, ranking in the top 2% of the candidates for both genders.
Shannon Lucid of Bethany, Oklahoma, and a University of Oklahoma graduate, was part of the first NASA Astronaut Corps class to include women and the only one in the class to be a mother. She held the record for the longest stay in space by an American and a woman for her time on Russian space station Mir. She was the first woman to receive the Congressional Space Medal of Honor.
The 2023 honoree for Oklahoma Aviation and Aerospace Day Woman of the Year is the first woman to pilot a NASA shuttle, retired U.S. Air Force Col. Eileen M. Collins.
Collins commissioned from ROTC into the Air Force and began pilot training at Vance Air Force Base in Enid, Oklahoma, in 1978. She was the first member of her class to solo in the T-37 Tweet and – after gaining her pilot wings in 1979 – became the first woman to be a T-38 Talon instructor pilot. From there, she charted a career path to reach her goal of becoming an astronaut.
“The whole base (Vance Air Force Base) had around 500 pilots, instructors and students. There were only four of us (women),” Collins said about being in the test program for women to become U.S. Air Force pilots.
She did not mind the lack of women but noted, “if we failed, it would close the door for all women. I was very aware that I was the first, but I tried not to focus on that. Know what the mission is and focus on the mission rather than feel the weight of the world on your shoulders. I had to take the stressors along with the fun of living my dream.”
Collins realized her dream in 1990 when she was selected to be a pilot astronaut with NASA Astronaut Group 13. Five years later, her first mission flying the Discovery was the dress rehearsal for Lucid’s mission to Mir.
“The women in the astronaut program really supported each other,” Collins said. “Shannon and many of her classmates were mentoring my generation, and they would encourage us to continue with our family life while still being an astronaut. Being an astronaut is probably one of the best jobs you can have when you’re also a mother – that’s exactly what Shannon told me.”
Three women were honored for their contributions to aviation and aerospace during the luncheon: Nan Gaylord received the Pearl Carter Scott Oklahoma General Aviation Distinguished Service Award honoring Oklahoma trailblazers for her more than 40 years teaching, mentoring and preparing certified flight instructors. Retired U.S. Marine Sgt. Brandi Rector received the Geraldyn M. Cobb Oklahoma Military Aviation Distinguished Service Award honoring Oklahoma military leaders for her 15 years of aviation experience. Carol Viluethpad received the Shannon Lucid Oklahoma Aerospace Distinguished Service Award honoring Oklahoma aerospace professionals for her work in educating students in engineering and rocketry.
Retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Heather Penney, another pilot, served as the keynote speaker. She spoke about overcoming challenges as a woman in aviation and her experience on 9/11. Penney was one of two F-16 Fighting Falcon pilots flying unarmed aircraft to stop United Airlines Flight 93 before it reached Washington, D.C. No missiles or ammunition capable of downing the aircraft were available to the fighter pilots, but they had to be sure the terrorists hijacking aircraft did not make it to their intended destination.
“Heroism isn’t something uniquely possessed by just a few,” Penney said while reflecting on lessons she learned from that “clear blue morning” in September. “What [my Wingman] and I were willing to do that day, and – never forget – what the passengers of Flight 93 did, was actually totally ordinary. Any one of us would have been willing to do the same thing … because there are things in this world that are more important than ourselves, and we all belong to something that is greater than ourselves.”
Penney was in the Air National Guard at the time, which is the only U.S. Air Force component to have a federal and state mission. Her squadron had to wait for the authorization to launch.
“Because we had seen what was happening (to the World Trade Center), we know what the hostile is,” she said of launching F-16s to intercept a commercial aircraft. “We know what the bad guy is, and we know they are carrying over 100 innocent Americans on board. We couldn’t take off without authorization knowing that we might have to use lethal force.”
An intelligence Airman was narrowing down how many aircraft were unaccounted for (and possibly headed for Washington, D.C.) by contacting airline operations center reservation desks and air traffic control towers and manually checking off airliners. At this point, the Pentagon had already been hit, and they thought there might be up to three other hostile aircraft inbound. It later transpired the only other plane hijacked was United Airlines Flight 93.
“Serving as an intelligence officer supporting F-16s, I have been able to see firsthand the impact the Air National Guard has on our national security and contingencies throughout the world,” said Col. Shelby Dreyer, 137th Special Operations Wing deputy commander. “Heather Penney’s story about her actions during 9/11 really highlighted how important the work we do at home in the Air National Guard can be for our national security. Our 137th SOW Airmen influence global operations as part of Air Force Special Operations Command missions and through the State Partnership Program with the Air National Guard. It is amazing how widely our global footprint has spread, but we also have an important mission here at home helping with state and local responses in times of crisis or disaster.”
The 137th Special Operations Wing is the third-largest contributor to the industry in Oklahoma City. Its Citizen Airmen also work in the aviation industry as civilians around the state.
“You routinely hear [the aerospace industry in Oklahoma] is the best kept secret,” Ardies said. “We’re trying to spread the word this is the state’s second-largest industry – $44 billion per year. This is a very male-dominated industry, and we want to make sure all the jobs and career fields are opened to women, and everybody. That’s our number one challenge, but it’s also one of our most glorious missions at the agency because it’s probably the most rewarding.”
Collins encouraged future aviators to relish their time in school and take courses that will challenge them rather than worrying about grades, noting true learning was the most important outcome. She also encouraged them to set time aside for imagination.
“Flying a space mission was always a dream of mine,” she reiterated. “[The earth’s beauty] is the one thing I still carry with me today. There are 16 sunsets and sunrises that you see every day from the space station.”
The grit, determination and sacrifice by Oklahoma women for advances and successes in aviation meant they found ways to push past or go around obstacles of disqualification and prejudice to pursue their dreams. Many had to put their safety, health and lives on the line to pave the way for the women now leading the charge in developing strategies and formulating plans that will propel the industry into the future.