Think of members of the military who fly and, thanks to Hollywood, we think of men—Tom Cruise as Maverick in Top Gun or Richard Gere as Mayo in An Officer and a Gentleman. But more women are now reaching for the heights and flying in all manner of helicopters, planes, and jets in all branches of the armed service. This Veterans Day, we focus on three women who, after amassing thousands of hours in the air, now are writing children’s books, hoping to educate and inspire a younger audience to soar.
“Sometimes the male-dominated nature of aviation is such that girls really do not conceive of deserving a place in the sky,” said Lynda Meeks, who, as an Army pilot flew the UH-1 Huey Helicopter for two years, first in flight school and then in Germany, before transitioning into fixed-wing flying, including the King Air 200. Through her non-profit organization, Girls with Wings, and her children’s book, Penelope Pilot, Lynda hopes to interest young girls in flying.”[The book] follows Penelope’s first flight as a captain [for a commercial airline], explaining the process she goes through to get ready for her flight,” Lynda explained. “It ends with what I always view as the best experience had while flying, seeing the sun rise from above.” (Photo above, Meeks with her nieces, Kate, left, Marie, right, and Delaney, rear.)
Linda with Her Two Sons, Ethan (standing), and Aron
Linda Maloney’s interest in flying began at a young age. “I always had this thing for airports,” she explained. “My mom was a reservation and ticket agent during my growing up years. So, my first choice after getting my commission in the Navy was to fly.” Linda’s book, Military Fly Moms: Sharing Memories, Building Legacies, Inspiring Hope, is a collection of stories from women who shared two dreams, being aviators and moms. Linda said the birth of her son served as a springboard for the project and she spent eight years interviewing more than 200 female aviators from every branch of the military about their experiences. “The book is about moms and kids but is a great book for all markets,” Linda said. “The women’s stories encourage women readers who balance career and motherhood, give encouragement to those considering careers in the military or aviation, and offer advice to young people on pursuing their dreams.”
Graciela with Her Son, Kiyoshi (Photo: Jonathan Pece)
Graciela Tiscareño-Sato earned her degree in Environmental Design/Architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, while completing the Aerospace Studies program as a scholarship cadet in the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps program. “I decided I wanted to fly halfway through college during a summer training event,” she said. “I was offered an orientation flight in a T-37 training jet. The instructor pilot was a captain and a woman. She said the Air Force had been training women to fly as pilots and navigators for ten years and that I should go for it.” Because of her academic grades, her performance in the summer programs, and her physical fitness scores, Graciela was selected for one of the very few pilot and navigator slots awarded to ROTC units each year. Most of those aviation opportunities are given to U.S. Air Force Academy cadets. In Graciela’s bilingual children’s book, Good Night Captain Mama/Buenos Noches Capitán Mamá, a young boy sees his mother for the first time in her olive green flight suit and asks questions about the colorful patches on her uniform. That sweet bedtime conversation between mother and son addresses the question many have: why do mommies and women serve in the military?
Graciela in Her Flight Suit
While all three women had successful careers flying for the military, along the way, each encountered obstacles, some created by law, others resulting from being a female in a male-dominated environment, and, still others, self-imposed.
Tiscareño-Sato cited the teasing directed at women who wear military flight suits and are surrounded by men. “We attracted attention whether we wanted to or not,” she said. “Learning how to handle that gracefully was my biggest obstacle.”
Meeks in an Airbus 320 Simulator as an Instructor for a Major Airline in Hong Kong
Some women, according to Meeks, suffer from “imposter syndrome,” not quite accepting that they have earned their wings and often placing pressure on themselves to succeed. “I would beat myself up for being two knots off target airspeed on final approach and most of my male classmates were just happy they didn’t land upside down,” she said.
At one point, Meeks said she was so frustrated trying to prove herself to her male co-pilots that she thought about giving up flying once she became a civilian. As a passenger on a commercial flight, she listened to the male pilot run down the usual announcements about flight time, weather, and destination. “A girl sitting behind me asked her mom why you never heard any girl pilots,” Meeks said. “I immediately realized I HAD to continue in that career.”
Maloney, top right, with Her Fly Group
Until 1993 when the combat exclusion law was repealed, women were not able to officially serve in combat positions. “Even though I went through the same flight training as my male contemporaries, I did not have many choices of where to go once I graduated,” said Maloney. In 1994, Defense Secretary Les Aspin ordered the military to drop restrictions that prevented women from flying combat missions. “A year after the law’s repeal, my longtime wish was finally granted,” Maloney said. “I was assigned to a fleet combat squadron as a naval flight officer in the EA-6B Prowler, a four-seater jammer jet, and subsequently deployed in 1995 on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln over to the Arabian Gulf.”
Lynda in the C-12/King Air Cockpit in Germany
Meeks was in flight school just as women were accepted into combat helicopter positions. Feeling that she had yet to master flying the Huey helicopter, she initially resisted being pushed into the Apache. She told her Aviation Branch Representative, another woman, that she was proud of the progress she was making. “Her words are etched in my mind. `You know the only reason you’re here is because you’re a woman, right?’ I was floored. You mean all that hard work and effort was completely unnecessary? I told other female pilots that came after me, `let them say that you got here because you were a woman, but never that you got through because you were.’”
Along the way, all three women proved they had earned their positions, having their skills and courage tested. Maloney was flying for a Navy squadron in Key West when the jet experienced a total hydraulic failure and began to roll out of control. The pilot shouted: “I don’t have control; EJECT.” Stunned to hear those words, Maloney initially paused, until he repeated the command. “I pulled the lower ejection handle and I remember a flurry of yellow papers from my kneeboard card flying around and then my ejection seat exploding through the canopy glass,” she said. She briefly lost consciousness and when she came to, found herself hanging from her parachute, descending towards the ocean. In the water, she climbed into her raft and an hour later was rescued.
Maloney later learned that she was the first woman to eject from the Martin Baker Ejection Seat out of 6,000 previous ejections. Although the company invited her to Great Britain to receive a pewter pin commemorating her status (from Princess Diana, no less), the Navy denied the request, saying the military couldn’t be seen endorsing a company or product. Several months later, Maloney’s canopy “popped open” at 26,000 feet. Fortunately, she and her co-pilot were able to close the top and she avoided another ejection.
Tiscareño-Sato’s first deployment was to Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf War ended. Her crew was among the first KC-135 refueling tanker crews into Riyadh to enforce the southern no-fly zone over Iraq. They found themselves frequently chased by Saddam Hussein’s aircraft. “On one particularly frightening day, we were within 100 miles of an aircraft intent on chasing us and firing at us,” she said. “But because we had been trained on defensive procedures (and because we had a lot of gas, unlike the Iraqi fighter jets), we were able to do a fast 180-degree turn and get out of there intact.” Tiscareño-Sato and her crew earned the prestigious Air Medal from these combat operations, “a full year before Congress officially lifted the combat exclusion law allowing women to serve in combat operations,” she said. “I still find that hilarious.”
Graciela and Crew Onboard the KC-135R Refueling Tanker in Turkey
As exciting as that event was, Tiscareño-Sato said the defining moment in her career was being asked to plan a very high level and visible mission to transport 12 newly-minted generals around the Pacific theater. “I was in multiple roles as instructor navigator, as crewmember, as mission planner, and as lead briefing officer to inform the generals about the next leg in our journey,” she explained. This assignment provided an excellent foundation for both her first civilian career in global marketing management for a European software company briefing executives and now as a keynote speaker and business owner.
Linda and Her Son, Ethan, at the New England Air Museum’s “Women Take Flight” Event
Although the three women didn’t serve together and live in different areas of the country, they have formed online relationships through their shared passion of educating and inspiring children and young adults. As a way to further their cause Graciela and Linda have formed the National Women Veterans Speakers Bureau made up of accomplished women veterans who are published authors, public speakers, entrepreneurs, business and community leaders, scholars, leadership experts and corporate/business coaches/trainers. The organization will provide a vehicle for servicewomen to share their stories with a wider audience. “We have a core group of women and plan to expand in the coming months,” said Maloney. “Lynda Meeks will be a member once we expand the group.” More information can be found on the website for the National Women Veterans Speakers Bureau.
As the nation celebrates Veterans Day, the three aviators hope that “the imagery of women in service [will] be front and center in the minds of Americans, especially in the minds of children,” said Tiscareño-Sato. She noted that military women tend to make headlines only when the news is negative and this type of reporting may dissuade young women from considering military service. “I want the fantastic leadership experiences that I enjoyed, and the experiences my fellow sisters-in-arms enjoyed, to be heard more loudly and widely than ever before.”
To purchase autographed, personalized books, go to the authors’ websites. Otherwise, click on the title to purchase on Amazon:
Good Night Captain Mama/Buenos Noches Capitán Mamá
Website: Captain Mama
Military Fly Moms: Sharing Memories, Building Legacies, Inspiring Hope
Website: Linda Heid Maloney