WINGS
OF
GOLD

by
Phyllis R. Moses

The 4-day DESERT FOX operation waged in the skies above Iraq in December, 1998 seriously damaged the Iraqi's air force, shattering that nation's defenses. Taking part in this history-making military operation were seven women combat pilots and Naval Flight Officers who flew actual strikes into Iraq, with an additional eight women functioning in support roles. These pilots are based on the aircraft carrier, USS ENTERPRISE, stationed in the Persian Gulf. Since the conflict of 1991 in the Gulf, the task of enforcing the no-fly zones falls to the combined efforts of the U.S. and British military.

Female combat pilots are not entirely new to the aviation military scene. The U.S. government cleared females for active combat missions in 1995; however, it wasn't until 1998 that they were in the right place at the right time and actually flew the missions.

There are 15 female aviators in Airwing #3, a unit of highly-trained Naval combat pilots and Naval Flight Officers (NFOs) who are there to enforce the UN sanctioned treaties. On December 16, 1998, it became their duty to engage in a military operation designed to persuade Saddam Hussein to comply with the directive of the United Nations.

Through the magic of cyber technology, we interviewed four of these female aviators by E-mail. As we re-tell their stories, bear in mind they were in a perilous military situation during all of this.

In-between real world operations and training missions, they send messages to friends and family. Reassuring letters, graphics and even photos taken aboard the carrier can be transmitted instantly. The U.S. Navy provides this mode of communication, making it possible for them to stay in touch with the folks back home.

Because of this remarkable communication link, we learn about the day-to-day routine of living on an aircraft carrier. They tell us of their beginnings as students: how they struggled with college, the often strenuous training of flight school and dealing with rigorous life in the military.

LTjg Andrea Quy, who is 26 years old, said, "On one of our missions, we were wearing night vision goggles and could see them shooting over our target area from a hundred miles away. We saw explosions over Baghdad, which was equally far away. My only fear was that of failing. I knew they would be firing at us, but my primary concern was finding my target, getting the bombs off and having them guide to the right target. At that point, we must rely on our training and trust in ourselves, because the minute we waver, we lose concentration. That is when we fail to complete the mission."

The pilots reported that the entire airwing came through with flying colors. It is being called one of the most successful military operations in history.

Andrea planned out her future in the fifth grade. Her ambition was to fly fighter planes and be an astronaut. After attending U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, she began flight school in Pensacola, Florida, where she earned her "Wings of Gold" in 1997. While there she flew a variety of military training planes: the T-34C Mentor, the T-l, T-39 and the A-4 Skyhawk. NAS Oceana at Virginia Beach, Virginia was next on her training program where she flew for the first time in the F-14 Tomcat. In July 1998 she was assigned to the VF-32 Swordsmen Squadron.

On the ENTERPRISE, three women fly F-14s, three are in the F/A-18 Hornet squadron, and one woman is in the EA-6B Prowler ECMO squadron doing electronic jamming.

Other women were also a part of the operation, but not over Iraq, as they fly in helos, airborne early warning platforms and S-3 tankers. Everyone has specific assignments, all involved in the operation but not all flying over targets.

It takes two people to fly the Tomcat. One pilots the aircraft, while the RIO (Radar Intercept Officer) is solely responsible for operating the air-to-air radar and the LANTIRN pod, (infrared targeting pod for dropping laser-guided bombs). The RIO is also capable of launching the Phoenix and Sparrow missiles from the back seat. The RIO is also responsible for navigation and communications.

Andrea said, "There are no specific issues to deal with being a woman. If you make it to a squadron, you are as qualified as anyone else to fly. Clearly, it's a milestone for women to fly in combat, but it should be no more a big deal than for a man. For most men who flew into combat during those four days in December, it was their first time also. We are equally trained, so all of us, men and women, are qualified to fly those missions."

Andrea emphasizes, "Don't ever let anyone tell you you're not qualified to do something just because you're a woman." As for now, she concentrates on the rest of her deployment and her next 2-1/2 years with the Swordsmen.

LTjg Megan Osborne, F-14 RIO, who is 29 years old, got off to an early start in aviation. Her first airplane ride at the age of 10 was in a Cessna 152. She knew she wanted a future in aviation, so at the age of 16 she began working on her ratings. She attended the University of Washington and continued to build time flying for an FBO (Fixed Base Operation) at Boeing Field in Seattle.

Since Megan's lifetime goal was to fly a fighter aircraft, it was just a matter of time until she began her training. After 200-plus hours training in the F-14, she used these skills to drop live ordinance (ammunition) in operation DESERT FOX.

Megan said, "One thing we can't train for is to have live anti-aircraft artillery shot at us. It was a new experience for most of us in the squadron, but we continued to do our duties as we were tasked."

When asked about her feelings about being a woman in combat, Megan replied, "Many women in the history of the U.S. military served in support roles more deserving of attention than we are. I've tried to keep a low profile and stay out of the media limelight because all through my training, I haven't wanted to be treated any differently than any man. Women in the military are no longer a novelty; they are perfectly capable of becoming whatever they want to be.

"For women interested in going into the military, I would recommend getting all the information first before making a choice. There are three commissioning programs available in the Navy: Officer Candidate School, the Naval Academy and the ROTC. Talk to various recruiters and school advisors in order to have good information needed to make an educated decision. I hope this might motivate some young woman to follow her dreams of becoming an aviator."

Another pilot who flies the F-14 Tomcat aboard USS ENTERPRISE is 26-year-old LT Kerry Kuykendall, who attended the U.S. Naval Academy and graduated with a degree in Astrospace Engineering. Kerry explains, "The difference between Astro and Aero Engineering becomes apparent during the junior year in college. My courses branched off into rocket propulsion and orbital mechanics." She was "winged" as a Naval Aviator in November 1996 and then received her orders to fly F-14 Tomcats.

After completing her tour with Fleet Replacement Squadron at NAS Oceana in Virginia Beach, she reported to VF-32, the Swordsmen, in June, 1998.

Kerry said, "The training I received in flight school and the Naval Academy definitely prepared me well for DESERT FOX. I learned to focus on the task at hand and how to complete the mission. My training also taught me how to 'compartmentalize,' ignoring all external distracters (like anti-aircraft artillery shooting at us), and to focus on getting the bombs on target."

During DESERT FOX, the entire Enterprise Battlegroup received much support and affirmation from Fifth Fleet Commanders as well as the military leadership in the United States. Kerry talks about the support she received from friends and family during the evolution.

"When we began the strikes in Iraq, my family sent me positive and supportive E-Mail every day. My mom gets really nervous whenever I do anything 'dangerous,' but she deals with it well now. My dad was a Marine Corps Captain in Vietnam, so he understands the military and the stresses we're under."

We asked each woman how she dealt with anxiety or fear during the operations. Kerry said, "There was, without a doubt, some anxiety felt during the night strikes over Iraq. I was probably too busy to be scared but definitely felt some nervousness as we flew over our target and saw the anti-aircraft artillery."

In describing some of their duties, Kerry exclaimed, "Flying while the carrier is underway is awesome! There is nothing better than flying on and off the carrier (except at night!). Night landings are extremely difficult; during DESERT FOX, all our strikes were at night. The huge GBU-24 bombs were strapped to the bottom of the jets. Some bombs had graffiti on them, saying, for example: 'Take that, Saddam!'

"There was an air of anticipation on the flight deck during my first mission. We wondered: 'What was going to happen? Were they going to be shooting at us? Will I find my target? Will my bombs guide?'
"We launched off at the front end of the ship and into the night. After rendezvous and in-flight refueling, we pressed out on our mission. En route, all I could think about was the target and ways to avoid screwing this up. Then the RIO called out: 'Target acquired,' and I breathed a sigh of relief. The master arm switch came on, then: 'bombs away!'

"Overall, it was quite an event. I guess, technically, I could then consider myself a combat-experienced aviator. Funny, I didn't feel any different, no braver or smarter, just a little bit hungry - I had forgotten to eat all day!"

Kerry said about her future, "In five years, I would like to be a test pilot, testing the newest jets and systems. It's definitely a feasible goal, but time will tell if I get the opportunity.

Of course, I would love to be married someday and have a family, but actually at this point, I can only pursue my career. I see how the married aviators deal with being away from home so much, and it seems difficult."

LT Valerie Rud, who is 28 years old, flies the E-2C Hawkeye, based on USS ENTERPRISE. This aircraft is known as the eyes and ears of the fleet. Their primary mission is airborne early warning, Command and Control. They are the first to launch from the carrier and the last to land. Valerie's main job is to get the aircraft airborne and "on station," so the airwing can execute its mission safely and successfully.

While most operations are routine for these pilots, they do have their scary moments. Valerie recalls a recent incident when on a double-cycle event, (about 3.5 hours) they got an oxygen light warning during the first cycle. Although this is not a "must land" emergency, it made no sense to stay airborne at that point.

They headed back. Then they got another warning light: fire in the right engine. As Valerie describes it, "I'd never had a fire-warning light in the air before and definitely never landed single-engine on an aircraft carrier, so I was a little nervous, especially since the winds were 32 knots starboard. Ideally, they should be about 25-28 knots right down the angled landing area of the ship, which is 11 degrees off the bow. Axial winds mean they are coming down the bow, starboard means they are even farther over. With 80 feet of wingspan, and only about 110 feet to land in, the winds mean everything. It was a tough approach but ended well when I felt the wire pulling the aircraft to a stop. I maintained the desired glidescope well until the aircraft was over the ramp, when all 32 knots of starboard winds pulled me out of the sky. It wasn't a textbook landing - emergency landings never are. I did it, but I hope I never have to do that again!"

Valerie's carrier qualification was on USS KITTY HAWK in a T-2. Her first carrier cruise was on USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT. She now proudly serves on USS ENTERPRISE.

"Nothing gets your heart racing faster than hurtling down out of 20,000 feet altitude to this tiny aircraft carrier where all you can see are the dim lights of the centerline." These words reflect the common feeling that marks every approach a carrier-based combat pilot experiences. Valerie explains the technique of coming in for a landing on an aircraft carrier. "Keep in mind, the centerline is constantly moving to the right."

According to Valerie, "It's amazing how our precision training makes 'real' world happenings feel just like the exercises at home. Just go do it like you have a hundred times before! It was this training that made some of the fear subside so we could do our jobs. Just knowing we are prepared is more than half the battle."

These women are surprisingly modest about the role they play in this international military alert. As Valerie says, "Being one of the 'Women in Combat' can be a double-edged sword. We're trained and ready just like the men. We all did well, we all made mistakes, just like the next guy. However, it does show some young girl somewhere if she has the drive, the motivation and the 'want' to fly airplanes, she can.

"The road has been paved. I never dreamed of going to war when I was a child, but I surely did picture myself flying high and fast with all the boys. My dad was a navy pilot, and I always knew I would be too."

"Yes, the fear factor is definitely there," Valerie said, "The first night of DESERT FOX the adrenaline was flowing. I didn't realize how nervous I was until after the catapult shot. I keyed the mic to call '603 airborne.' Was there a little shakiness in my voice? Naaah!

That's when I realized real, people were going to be killed, and our guys were at a new risk. I was amazed and thankful we all returned safely each night and didn't take any losses. It's good to know the training actually pays off. When fears begin, just refer back to the basics, and you know you're ready."

One of the highlights of their cruise was a recent detachment to Israel. In five days, about 20 aircrews from various squadrons from the Enterprise engaged in dedicated training with pilots from the Israeli Air Force. This training included ACM (air combat maneuvering) and "dog fighting." Andrea reports she was able to ride in an Israeli F-16 with one of their pilots, who spoke English on one radio and Hebrew to his team mates on another.

Unquestionably, these women will take their places in the pages of history. Stories of their military exploits will, quite possibly, be written into text books. Their records, certainly, will reveal they served their country with pride and dedication. Ultimately, their lives will resume in a normal way. Some will become astronauts and airline pilots. Maybe others will become test pilots. Most will seek their mates, and many will raise children.

If the children ask their mother what she did in the effort to preserve democracy in the '90s, memories will come flooding back. She will remember her jet fighter streaking through the night sky. She will hear the screaming engines and feel the undeniable, jolting surge of adrenaline through her body as she nears the enemy target. Once again, she will see the rolling, tilting deck of the carrier she approaches for the landing. But most vividly, she'll recall the intense camaraderie with her shipmates and the passion of her patriotism as she served her country in the U.S. Navy. Americans everywhere can be proud of these women serving on USS ENTERPRISE.

Andrea Quy, Megan Osborne, Kerry Kuykendall and Valerie Rud are now flying "Operation Southern Watch," awaiting the end of their cruise. They are scheduled to return home the first week in May.