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Ceiling Limited for Navy’s Women Fliers

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 aviation, Mariner’s rise is at once reassuring and unsettling. She has achieved what only a few years ago seemed impossible, but she is also approaching a limit beyond which women simply cannot go.

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 serve a tour of duty aboard aircraft carriers, the centerpieces of naval defense that serve as floating bases for Top Gun fighter pilots. Technically, a woman can advance to any rank in the Navy--a woman has been selected for promotion to two-star admiral--but the reality of Navy life is that many top officers were jet pilots who worked their way into command of aircraft carriers. Women must find a different path to the top.

“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.”

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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.

The oldest female pilots are still in their 30s and could not expect to have reached the top ranks yet. But whether they, like Mariner, will be able to come to terms with similar career stall is a question now facing Navy officials, who have found no easy answers.

“The law certainly doesn’t prevent them from having a full measure of success,” said Maj. David Super, a Pentagon spokesman. “Women just haven’t been flying long enough to have worked their way up. . . . It’s going to take a few more years.”

By law, Navy women are not allowed in combat and therefore cannot compete equally with men. The approximately 300 female pilots in the Air Force, who also are barred by law from combat, face similar career obstacles and must confine their flying to noncombat missions.

Federal law does not bar the Army, which has about 320 female pilots, from using women in combat, but Army policy on women mirrors that of the other services.

Frustration Acknowledged

“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 a 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 little more than 1%, are women, and most of those fly cargo planes or helicopters, not jets. Over the next three years, the Navy plans to increase the number of female aviators to 250.

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“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.”

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 dogfights and hair-raising landings on carriers.

“That’s the first line and the action,” Bruyere said. “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 women who decide to leave the Navy often go to work for 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,” she said. “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.

Mariner has flown a variety of Navy jets and other aircraft and has done daytime landings on aircraft carriers. She will first become executive officer, then the commanding officer of VAQ 34, a tactical electronic warfare squadron at Point Mugu. VAQ 34 pilots fly jets called EA-7Ls and ERA-3s, which are crammed full of electronic warfare equipment.

Her current assignment is VA 122, a squadron at Lemoore whose pilots fly A-7E Corsairs, light attack jets. Mariner has worked as an instructor pilot and has been permitted to go to sea with training squadrons for as long as several weeks.

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

“Two weeks before I entered flight training, people were saying women would never be Navy pilots,” 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. . . . 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 Lt. Sali Gear, 27, a pilot at North Island Naval Air Station here 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?

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

Gear was the only one of three women in her flight class to make it through 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.”


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