From Typewriters to Strike Fighters: Women in Naval Aviation

In March 1973, young officers reported as normal to Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola, Florida to commence flight training in hopes of  ultimately receiving their wings as a naval aviator.  Yet, there was something different about four of the youngs officers reporting that month, Lieutenants (junior grade) Barbara Allen and Judith Neuffer and Ensigns Jane Skiles and Kathleen McNary being the first women assigned to flight instruction.  The following February, Allen would become the first to receive her wing at NAS Corpus Christi, Texas, a landmark milestone for the service of women in naval aviation, one that began with the yeomanettes of the Great War and continues today on the front lines around the world and in outer space.

Yeoman (F) of the Great War

yeomanette bannerThe entry of the United States into World War I in April 1917, prompted Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels to enlist women into the ranks of the U.S. Navy to perform administrative duties and free male sailors for duty overseas.

To this end, the Navy created the rate of Yeoman (F), the (F) standing for female, and eventually enlisted some 11,000 women.  Although a small number of nurses had previously served in the Navy, such a vast number in uniform at the same time was unprecedented in Navy history.  “Girl Sailors of the Land” is what one newspaper labled them, the patriotism of the “yeomanettes” was evidenced by the Walker sisters of Alameda, California, who in enlisting in the Navy joined their five brothers on active duty during World War I.  “I felt greatly pleasesd with myself,” recalled one yeomanette of her time in uniform, her enlistment coming despite the vehement objections of her mother.  “I had gone the limit in my effort to end the war, and end it fast.”

The WAVES

WAVES PosterIt was a fitting acronym for women serving in the Navy, WAVES standing for Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service. That national emergency was World War II, and following President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signing of legislation authorizing the WAVES on July 30, 1942, women began joining the sea service in greater numbers than in World War I, representing 2 ½ percent of all personnel serving in the Navy by war’s end. In addition, the ranks of jobs for which they were eligible had expanded to include not only the yeoman rate occupied in the Great War, but also service as parachute riggers, aviation machinist’s mates aviation ordnancemen, control tower operators, and LINK trainer instructors, contributing directly to air operations on flight lines and in hangars at stateside bases and in Hawaii. Even after women were made a permanent part of the Navy in 1948, the WAVES acronym endured into the 1970s, years after the national emergency that triggered its establishment had ended.

Nurses in the Skies

The Navy Nurse Corps was established three years before the Navy ordered its first aircraft, but it was not until World War II that female nurses took flight in their efforts to care for wounded sailors and Marines. Commencing their training at Naval Air Stations (NAS) Alameda and Oakland in California in late 1944, the women learned about the types of casualties they might see in the combat zone and prepared for flight duty by receiving instructing on airplane ditching procedures at sea.  They also spent time in a low pressure trainer to prepare them for flying at altitude.   A total of 122 female officers qualified as flight nurses, serving on board transport aircraft that made long distance flights providing medical evacuations from embattled islands like Iwo Jima and Okinawa.  They routinely logged over 90 flight hours per month and, with no doctors on board the transport planes, these women in their twenties were responsible for the care of all on board the airplane.

Women Win Their Wings

Judith NeufferWhen the Navy selected the first eight women for training as naval aviators in 1973, more than four decades had passed since Amelia Earhart had successfully become the first woman and second person after Charles Lindbergh to complete a non-stop solo flight across the Atantlic Ocean.  Women in the cockit represented a sea change for naval aviation, yet for those selected, the rigorous Navy flight training program represented a personal challenge like it did for their male counterparts.  As Ensign Jane Skiles commented to a reporter from her hometown newspaper, ” Learning to fly has been one of my ambitions…I know the training will be very demanding, but like anything worth doing, I’ll have to work for it…When I win my wings I want to feel that they mean the same thing pinned on me as they would on any man who had undergone the same training.”  Of the first eight chosen, six successfully completed the program, those that have followed them expanding the horizons for women in naval aviation, including flying combat missions around the world from land and sea.

In Their Own Words: Women in Naval Aviation

Ally ShulerLieutenant Commander Ally Shuler, a Coast Guard helicopter pilot, recounts a search and rescue mission in the waters off Bermuda in which her MH-60 Jayhawk crew rescued a family from a sinking sailboat.