Airplanes, Ships, and the Women Who Serve on Both: the U.S. Navy

Blue Angels Fly Over Golden Gate Bridge

San Francisco celebrated its annual Fleet Week with the arrival of the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard this past weekend. It is a time honored tradition beginning in 1935 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt thought it necessary to reinstate our Naval presence on a global scale.  At the time tensions started to heighten in Europe with the onset of WWII and FDR prepared necessary precautions, such as strengthening our armed forces.  To rally American citizens for military support, FDR organized military personnel to be present at the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition in San Diego. The initial purpose of the event centered around exhibits on history, arts, science and industry, but it would evolve into what it is today: the celebration of our Sailors, Marines, and Coastguardsmen. The event is open to the public allowing civilians to meet with military service members, tour their ships, and become familiar with our nation’s defense.

Glenn Hammond Curtiss
The Father of Naval Aviation

One of the exciting aspects of our area is that It is the birthplace of naval aviation. On January 18, 1911 the first aircraft successfully departed and landed on a ship on the San Francisco Bay. To accomplish this feat, modifications were made to the Pacific Fleet’s armored cruiser USS Pennsylvania by Glenn Hammond Curtiss. Known as the “Father of Naval Aviation,” Curtiss forever changed the structure of the American Navy with his innovative designs for naval aircraft. He began with the aircraft carrier design by retrofitting the Pennsylvania with a 120 by 30 foot platform. The platform included a series of ropes with sandbags attached to the ends to which the hooks on the airplane’s landing gear would catch and bring to a rapid halt. The Pennsylvania’s crew rigged a canvas along the perimeter of the deck in case of overrun or if the airplane swerved towards the edge of the ship. Fortunately, no such emergency occurred and pilot Eugene Ely flew the Curtiss pusher biplane both on and off the platform. Initially, the Navy saw no benefit from the aircraft carrier design and decided to forgo its construction (the British Royal Navy would take the lead in its development). However, the U.S. Navy asked Curtiss to build a seaplane that could be transported on the deck of a battleship. On January 26, 1911 Curtiss successfully demonstrated the first practical seaplane in San Diego Harbor. The plane landed next to the battleship on the water and then raised onto the deck of the ship. Thus marked the beginning of naval aviation in America.

Modified deck of the USS Pennsylvania

Curtiss Pusher Biplane landing on the USS Pennsylvania. Notice the sandbags on either side of the platform








1973 -First Four Navy Women chosen for Flight Training Pose at Pensacola, Florida in March 1973.
(left to right): Lieutenant Junior Grade Barbara Allen, USN, Ensign Jane M. Skiles, USN, Lieutenant Junior Grade Judith A. Neuffer, USN, and Ensign Kathleen L. McNary, USN

Not only is the Navy the first to incorporate airplanes into their fleet, but also are the first branch to officially train women pilots. 1973 marks the year in which women were accepted in to flight training beginning with Lieutenant JG (Junior Grade) Judith Neuffer. The following year Barbara Allen Rainey became the first woman to graduate the program, closely followed by Judith Neuffer, Rosemary Bryant Mariner, Ana Marie Fuqua, Joellen Drag, and Jane Skiles O’Dea. Of the original six women, one is living in the Bay Area: Joellen Drag. Commander Drag was the first woman helicopter pilot to graduate from flight school in 1974. As for the other women, they also proved successful in the careers. Several went on to have their own commands while continuously setting “firsts” in their respective fields. For example, Lieutenant Commander Rainey was the first woman to be jet-qualified flying the T-39. In 1990, Captain Rosemary Mariner was the first female to command an operational aviation squadron. At the time of her retirement, Mariner had 17 carrier landings with over 3500 military flight hours in 15 different naval aircraft. Captain Jane Skiles O’Dea was the first woman not only to qualify in the C-130 Hercules, but also first female Navy aviator to obtain a command as well as promoted to Captain. O’Dea logged over 3,000 miles in C-130, C-1A, T-34, and EC-130Q. Unfortunately, Lt. Commander Rainey did not live to see her fellow colleagues break the gender barriers. She had been recalled after switching to the Naval Reserves to be an instructor pilot. On July 13, 1982 Rainey and Ensign Donald Knowlton were killed when their T-34C crashed while avoiding another aircraft during touch and go landings at Naval Air Station Whiting Field in Florida. President Bill Clinton eloquently praised her service during the 1995 groundbreaking ceremony for Women in Military Service for America Memorial, “Her story reminds us that even in peacetime, those who wear the uniform face danger every day.” Let us not forget these extraordinary women who pushed through one of the most elusive fields in the professional world. Their endurance and sacrifice will continue to inspire future generations of female aviators in both the military and civilian sectors.

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