Military Women Aviators Oral History Initiative

By: Lt. Col. Monica Smith, USAF (Ret)

A Women’s Airforce Service Pilots flight team walks from the “Pistol Packin Mama”

Wearing military wings sets us apart from other pilots. We all know it. Perhaps it is elitist, but military training is just outstanding. Pair that training with the camaraderie that builds community, then season with “there I was” hangar stories, and you’ve got a unique creation: the military aviator.

But what of the time when the camaraderie was not there—at least not for everyone or the hangar doors were not so wide open for everyone with wings? How can we collectively embrace our military flying history, yet ignore the ignoble acts of those who made it their mission to keep the skies all-White, and all-male?

We cannot, nor should we keep the tales of the bad-behaving under the rug. Nor should we pass up opportunities to praise other individuals who stood on the right side of history during the integration of our flying forces.

In 2019, I had the privilege of interviewing fifteen women military pilots, across all five services, spanning almost 50 years of flight. The purpose? Starting a collection of military women pilot oral histories at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum (NASM) Archives. I am a retired Air Force pilot, and I am Black, so my perspective is through the lens of a Black woman pilot. As I listened to these aviators, I was struck by familiarity with the obstacles that they faced, in the scenarios they relayed. In some ways, I felt as if I were listening to a Documented Original Tuskegee Airman all over again: same arguments for exclusion without any factual basis. Only this time, the racist remarks were replaced by sexist ones, 30 years later.

I admire and know that each woman who I interviewed sacrificed something so that other flyers could don flight suits, climb aboard aircraft, and set their hair on fire, blazin’ through the skies. Each service had its own class of firsts, some of whom championed gender equity. Several names came up repeatedly: Barbara Rainey and Rosemary Mariner (USN), Connie Engel and Kathy La Sauce (USAF), Sally Murphy and Anne Macdonald (USA), Sarah Deal and Vernice Armour (USMC), and Janna Lambine and Vivien Crea (USCG). The services selected strong, proven high-performing candidates to break through the gender barrier. That didn’t mean that women behind them wouldn’t endure hardship, but it did mean that someone had already proven herself capable, was visible, and perhaps able to consult with and to look out for those who trained after her; something the Naval Aviators told me that Mariner did in spades for women and men in the Navy.

 The women that I interviewed all had one thing in common: upstanding men in their lives that made conscious, and sometimes unpopular decisions to support the mission over tradition; their legacies will stand the test of history. Changing organizational culture is a monumental undertaking; it takes courageous leadership and team players willing to honestly examine their internal biases. Not every male officer mentioned during the interviews was lauded, and a few servicemen are likely nervous about these oral histories going public. Regardless, people from all walks of life can benefit from hearing how gracious and dignified these women carried themselves in the face of uncommon and sometimes ugly circumstances. Several interviewees said that they were not aware of any gender bias.

 A recurring theme throughout the project was the importance of sound moral character in leaders because, as one flyer put it, “leadership sets the tone.” For everything.

 Why did I ask to have these histories recorded? The Smithsonian houses the premier U.S. aviation archive. The Women Airforce Service Pilots were the first women to fly military aircraft, and scores of their oral histories are archived at Texas Women’s University. Yet the first military women to earn wings had no oral histories held at the Smithsonian. I thought that omission was wrong. I wanted these servicewomen’s histories to be recorded using their own words. I envisioned a multi-year, expanding collection project; my goal was the take-off.

 I was met with overwhelming enthusiasm at NASM. A team of curators—Dorothy Cochrane, Margaret Weitekamp, and Cathleen Lewis—buoyed and guided me, while intern Abigail King and volunteer Azmera Carter helped me execute and process the interviews.  A host of other Smithsonian employees share in the project’s success—too many to name here. Special thanks go to Marcy Atwood, Lucy Young, and Claudia McKnight of Women Military Aviators, Inc. for their vital support and assistance throughout the project.

 I did not realize how much I did not know about oral histories until I delved deeply into the project. Compiling and editing transcripts, post-production of audio and video files, scanning photos and supplementary documentation, and completing the paperwork took months longer than anticipated. Thanks to the great team, the work is done, and the files and documents rest in the expert hands of the Smithsonian archivists. It will take time to completely process the materials, most of which will be made public. I was recently informed that curators are already coordinating the use of interview clips for display in several NASM galleries. History revealed.

 James Baldwin wrote in Notes of a Native Son, “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” (Beacon Press, 1955). I hope that readers consider releasing their unique aviation history to the world. Recording an oral history with a reputable institution or organization will ensure that your important story is properly curated and archived for posterity. Examples include the Library of Congress Veterans History Project, a local flight museum, the Daedalians Archives, or perhaps your alma mater. Another option is to share an aviation story for the Daedalus Flyer. Trust me, if our small team could pull off the Military Women Aviators Oral History Initiative, you can pen your story for eager Daedalians to read.

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