Q&A: Wings of Gold–The Story of the First Women Naval Aviators

Beverly Weintraub’s new book, “Wings of Gold: The Story of the First Women Naval Aviators” (Lyons Press), chronicles the journey of the pioneering six wom­en who were recruited into U.S. Navy flight training in 1972. It was a long, hard road to prove themselves on the job, and Weintraub’s book details their profession­al struggles, as well as the enduring legacy that resulted from their trailblazing work.

This November marks the 50th anniversary of the announcement of the Navy opening flight training to women. In honor of this milestone, Weintraub discussed her new book with Sea Technology.

What made you want to write this book?

The story found me. I’m a journalist and a pilot, and a former colleague of mine works for the opinion section of The Washington Post, so occasionally, when there’s news about women and aviation, she’ll ask me to write.

When Captain Rosemary Mariner, the most prominent of the original six female naval aviators, died in 2019, the Navy did the first-ever all-women Missing Man Forma­tion flyover at her funeral. It made national headlines, and my colleague asked if I’d write something for the Post. A few months later, an editor at Lyons Press emailed that she’d read the op-ed and thought it might make for an interesting book.

This book focuses on the six women who became the U.S. Navy’s first female aviators. Can you give a brief introduction on each woman for our readers?

The Navy originally wanted eight officers/officer train­ees but could find only four, so recruiters were asked to find four civilians. One from each group dropped out, so the original female naval aviators consisted of six wom­en. Most came from military families and had at least some flight experience.

Barbara Allen Rainey, the first to win her Wings of Gold, was a lieutenant serving as a communications watch officer when the Navy opened flight training to women. She flew the C-1 Trader and the T-39 Sabreliner and was one of the Navy’s first female flight instructors. She was killed in a crash during a training flight in 1982 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Judith Neuffer Bruner, the first woman to solo a Navy aircraft, learned to fly in her dad’s Piper Cub and soloed at 16. She was a lieutenant working as a computer pro­grammer when the word went out about flight training, and she was the first to sign up. Navy Secretary John War­ner himself signed her training orders at a huge press con­ference at the Pentagon. Judy flew the P-3 Orion and was the first female hurricane hunter. Later, she wrote code for the Hubble Space Telescope and served as director of safety and mission assurance at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. In 2014, she received the Katharine Wright Memorial Trophy ‘for over 40 years of distinguished and historic contributions’ to aviation.

Jane Skiles O’Dea had flown with her dad in his Ford Trimotor and Beechcraft Bonanza and was at Women’s Officer School when the word went out. When she grad­uated from flight training, her father, a retired naval avia­tor, pinned his own Wings of Gold on his daughter. Jane would be the first woman to fly the C-130 Hercules, the first female naval aviator assigned overseas, the nation’s first military pilot mom, and one of the first female naval aviators to achieve command, to make captain, to serve on an aircraft carrier and to carrier-qualify. Women were first allowed to carrier-qualify in 1979, though the first to do so in a jet didn’t get her chance until 1981.

Joellen Drag Oslund, the first civilian to sign on, would become the military’s first female helicopter pilot. But at her first billet, she found she was not allowed to land on ships because of a 1948 law banning women from combat. She joined a federal lawsuit challenging the so-called combat exclusion, and in 1978 a federal judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and mentioned Jo­ellen by name. She soon became the first female pilot assigned aboard a Navy ship and was the first female combat search-and-rescue helicopter aircraft command­er, logging seven rescues.

Ana Maria Scott was already a private pilot when she learned about the Navy flight training program and signed up. She became the second female helicopter pi­lot and flew VIPs all over the East Coast before leaving the military and making a career flying for FedEx.

Rosemary Bryant Mariner was the only one clearly focused on aviation as a career. She earned her private pilot certificate at 17 and enrolled at Purdue Universi­ty, where she’d become the first female graduate of the aviation technology department. She was a junior when word went out about Navy flight training, and she tested out of her remaining classes with 620 hours in her log­book and certificates up to and including multi-engine instrument flight instructor. She was the first woman to qualify in a Navy tactical jet—though, technically, wom­en weren’t allowed—the first to command an aviation squadron, and among the first to make captain, serve on an aircraft carrier and carrier-qualify. She would log more than 3,500 hours in 15 types of military aircraft, held a master’s degree in national security strategy from the National War College, was a staff member for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and chairman of the Joint Chiefs’ Chair in Military Strategy at the War College.

Who made the decision to hire this pioneering group? Can you tell us a little bit about that person: What was his/her background? Why did he/she make that de­cision, and how did he/she convince whoever needed convincing that the first group of female naval aviators should be given a green light?

When Admiral Elmo Zumwalt became the youngest chief of naval operations in history, in 1970, he had a crisis on his hands. The reenlistment rate was a mere 9.5 percent. With the Vietnam War winding down, the Navy could no longer count on men choosing to go to sea rath­er than fight in the jungle. The impending end of the draft meant the Navy would have to attract volunteers.

And with the expected passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, it seemed it would soon be unconstitution­al to forbid Navy women from serving on ships, limit them to desk jobs, restrict their promotions or bar them from any job that made a woman a commanding officer over men.

Opening flight training to women was part of a broad strategy to modernize the Navy and increase the pool of available talent.

These six women were selected for naval flight training in 1972 as an experiment. What were their challenges: mentally, physically, socially?

Women’s Officer School was designed to prepare ca­dets for desk jobs, not for service at sea or in the air, so there was far less emphasis on physical conditioning than in men’s officer training. The strength and endur­ance requirements at naval aviation training school in Pensacola were very challenging for the women—par­ticularly the obstacle course, with two tall walls that they had to hoist themselves over—although many men found it difficult as well.

There were repeated questions about whether women had the physical strength to handle the aircraft they were to fly, even though the Women Airforce Service Pilots, the WASP, who flew for the Army during World War Two, had proven that women pilots could fly every warplane the U.S. could produce.

The Navy realized the six women made for great pub­licity, so they had to appear on TV game shows, pose for photos and do interviews in addition to handling the enormous pressures of flight training.

Everything they did was under constant scrutiny, and since the program was an experiment, they knew that if they failed, it would be the end of women in naval avia­tion for very a long time.

There was subtle and overt resistance from many men who believed women did not belong in naval aviation, from the silent treatment and shunning to sexual harass­ment and abuse. Joellen was assaulted by fellow officers in an attack that foreshadowed Tailhook [a military sexu­al harassment scandal in 1991].

These pioneers must have struggled to be taken serious­ly. What are some of the lessons they learned and the strategies and tactics they practiced to confirm that they were right for the job?

The six women were never all in the same place at the same time, and while some of them served together for a little while, they were very much fighting these battles alone. They needed the courage, commitment and con­fidence to believe they could do the job, and the inner strength to do their best every day, no matter what was happening around them.

Among their strategies: be respectful, but don’t take no for an answer; know your rights and make sure they are enforced; document everything, particularly when a petition for equal treatment is denied, so no one can secretly quash a reasonable request or deliberately mis­interpret official policy.

There were also men who thought the rules were out­dated and made sure the women had the tools to suc­ceed. Rosemary’s first skipper was the first African-Ameri­can commanding officer at Naval Air Station Oceana. He laid out for her how black service members networked and protected each other while integrating the military, and he mentored her in how the women should do the same. He put her into jet training even though women were not technically allowed.

When Jane got pregnant, her CO [commanding offi­cer] expected she’d quit. When she’d initially arrived, he told her there was only one bathroom, and she couldn’t use it. Pregnancy had been cause for automatic dismissal until only a few years before. But Jane, her husband and the flight surgeon decided that not only was she stay­ing—she could fly until her seventh month.

After Joellen, with her CO’s support, sent multiple re­quests up the chain of command asking to be allowed to fly out to ships with her squadron and received no reply, she joined a federal class-action lawsuit.

What would you say is the legacy of these women?

They proved that women had what it takes to fly Navy aircraft, to carrier-qualify and to lead, and their example helped pave the way for today’s active-duty women to serve in every capacity. Several of them were instrumen­tal in persuading Congress to end restrictions on women in combat.

The flyover pilots at Rosemary’s funeral credited the original female naval aviators for helping to make their own military careers possible. Among them were combat veterans, Top Gun graduates and commanding officers. One, Lieutenant Amanda Lee, was just named the first woman demonstration pilot for the Blue Angels.

Anything you want to add or emphasize?

The personal stories of the original female naval avia­tors mirror the larger stories of how the military and the country were dramatically changing between the 1970s and the 1990s. They were witnesses to history—and made history themselves.

You can purchase the book at: https://tinyurl.com/ yy8z2bdz.

For more on the author, visit: www.beverlyweintraub.com.

Caption: Commander Rosemary Mariner, CO of VAQ-34, Naval Air Sta­tion Point Mugu, California, in her A-7. (Credit: Naval History and Heritage Command)

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