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Careers Are Adrift : Female Pilots in Navy Can Only Fly So High

Times Staff Writer

At 35, Cmdr. Rosemary Mariner has spent nearly half her life learning to fly jets, working her way up in the elite society of Navy pilots from whose ranks will emerge future ship captains and admirals.

By all reports, her performance has been stellar, her dedication unquestioned. Self-assured and eloquent, she has been selected by top Navy brass to be the commanding officer of a flight squadron, a position never before held by a woman.

For the female fliers still working their way up in the overwhelmingly male world of Navy pilots, Mariner’s rise is at once reassuring and unsettling. Mariner has achieved what only a few years ago seemed impossible, but she is also approaching a limit beyond which women simply cannot go.

Aircraft Carriers Off-Limits

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“You cannot get there from here,” Mariner said. “You cannot, theoretically, reach the top of this profession because you cannot participate in its fundamental business. In the Navy, the world revolves around going to sea. That’s what we’re all about.”

Neither Mariner nor any other woman is permitted to sail aboard aircraft carriers, the centerpieces of naval defense that serve as floating bases for Top Gun pilots.

“I have never gone on a cruise,” Mariner said in a recent interview. “I don’t have any night carrier landings. I’ve been around fleet pilots enough to know how much I don’t know. I want the opportunity to prove or disprove my ability just like anyone else, but I have not done what men like my husband do. I haven’t paid my dues in carrier aviation like my male peers, and I understand that.”

Fiercely loyal to the Navy, Mariner, who is assigned to Lemoore Naval Air Station in the San Joaquin Valley, plans to remain in the service and take over a shore-based squadron that specializes in electronic warfare training. Under her command will be several hundred enlisted personnel and about 50 officers. Meanwhile, her male counterparts will be earning the flight hours and experience at sea that are a prerequisite for many top Navy jobs.

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Whether other female pilots will be able to come to terms with similar career stall is a question now facing Navy officials, who have found no easy answers. By federal law, Navy women are not allowed in combat and therefore cannot compete equally with men.

“The women who are speaking up, wanting to do these jobs, are frustrated and we acknowledge that,” said Capt. Kathleen Bruyere, special assistant to the chief of naval personnel for women’s policy. “It’s a frustration factor also for commanding officers who are not able to employ the women, whether they’re officers or enlisted, to the full extent of their talents.”

Bruyere was a member of a Navy study group set up one year ago to assess the problems of Navy women, whose numbers have burgeoned from 9,000 in 1972 to 54,000 today--about 9% of the total naval force. Even so, of the 12,541 navy pilots, only 130, or about 1%, are women, and most of those women fly cargo planes or helicopters, not jets. Over the next three years, the Navy plans to increase the number of female aviators to 250.

“Many of the women I’ve talked to have said, ‘I’m going to go just as far as I can, do just what I can because I’m going to be here, and if I’m needed and things were to change then I have the qualifications,’ ” Bruyere said. “I think most of them are very optimistic, even though there are periods of great frustration, and that’s probably what keeps them going.”

Women want to fly jets for the same reason men do, Bruyere said. They are attracted to the challenge of Top Gun flying with its tactical maneuvering, aerial dog fights and hair-raising landings on carriers. “That’s the first line and the action,” Bruyere said, and women want to do it “because it’s there and because it’s a challenge and because its a superb responsibility.

“And yes, the ones that I know become very frustrated that there’s only so far that they can go . . . If I were there, it would be a frustration factor to me.”

Those who decide to leave often go to commercial airlines, Bruyere said. “They feel that if they can’t fly the combat aircraft and go wherever they want to go, then they’ll start another career. Some of them do not feel that they want to stick around as Rosemary has.” Mariner graduated from college early and joined the Navy when she was 19 after her mother sent her a newspaper article announcing that the Navy was opening flight training to a small number of women. “I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Mariner said. “The Navy was going to take women pilots.” Within six weeks, she was sworn in.

Mariner said she entered the Navy and stays on because she never believed the seemingly insurmountable obstacles to promotion would remain in place.

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“You’re talking to somebody who was told when she first came in the Navy that women would never go to sea, women would never fly jet airplanes, women would never be able to even carrier-qualify--landing airplanes on board ship. People were emphatic that that would never happen. But two weeks before I entered flight training, people were saying women would never be navy pilots.”

Only two of the eight women in that first flight class have remained in the Navy, Mariner said.

“There are many, many women who get out because if you look at the world the way it is today and you accept that, then they leave because they are limited career-wise,” she said.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that military women, American women, are going to go into combat in the next major war . . . . You’re talking about 20 to 30 years of sociological change. You’re talking about a time frame now when the American population watched the female astronaut be killed in the Challenger and nobody sat there and mourned her any more than anyone else. The world has changed.

“I look at the young women entering the program today who are being told that they can’t do many things, as I was told I can’t do many things, and there’s no doubt in my mind that they may well find themselves leading men and women into combat.”

If Mariner’s assessment is correct, one of those women may be Sali Gear, 27, a pilot at North Island Naval Air Station who trained under Mariner. Gear flies a T-39, which is similar to a small executive jet and does emergency medical evacuations and transport runs.

Gear’s father was a Navy test pilot who died when his plane crashed on the deck of an aircraft carrier when she was an infant. Her desire to fly jets for the Navy was “my way of trying to identify with the father I never knew,” Gear said.

Career Behind Desk?

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She envisions a lifelong career in the Navy, but now thinks it may be behind a desk somewhere in Washington. It is unrealistic, Gear said, to hope to advance to command of an aircraft carrier.

“It’s not happening,” Gear said. “You have to punch the right tickets to do that and unless things change dramatically in the next few years, there’s no way I can do it. There’s no way I could pass through those gates.”

Gear said she, like Mariner, loves her life in the Navy, but she says that Mariner is more optimistic.

“Rosemary Mariner was the first female who ever screened for command of a squadron and it’s wonderful what she’s done,” Gear said. “But how many more are going to get to do that? You do everything you can at this point to plan your career down the road, but you just don’t know. So I try to look at it realistically and I don’t ever want to be bitter. I’m not bitter. . . . I love it and I can’t imagine a better life.”

Gear was only one of three women in her flight class to make it through the training, she said, adding that many of the women in her current squadron will probably leave because they are disillusioned.

“I know the women would stay in if there were more opportunities available to them, if they could go places, but so often you feel like you’re just butting your head against the wall,” Gear said. “You hope it changes . . . I hope if I can’t deploy on a carrier, my daughter has the opportunity.”

The Navy has gone a long way over the last 15 years toward advancing women pilots, Bruyere said, and any further changes are now up to Congress. “If they would choose to amend or repeal the combat restriction laws, then obviously we would not have anyone frustrated over something she couldn’t do. Everything would be opened up. Whether that’s going to happen, no one can predict.”


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