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COLUMN ONE : Sky’s the Limit for Squadron : After years of frustration, ‘Sue Bob,’ ‘Dandy’ and the other women aviators of the Navy’s VAQ-34 reach for equality in combat.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two weeks ago, the seven women aviators of squadron VAQ-34 were sure their days flying military jets were numbered.

Their job was to use their F/A-18 Hornets to play the “bad guy” in training exercises, jamming ship and aircraft radar and serving up electron beams that simulate incoming missiles. But their squadron will be decommissioned Oct. 1, courtesy of defense cuts. So will two other squadrons with the same mission in Florida and Washington state.

In a Navy that banned women from combat units, there would be nowhere else for a fighter pilot with two X chromosomes to go.

While some of the squadron’s seven male aviators were getting orders to advance to the more elite fighter groups, the women foresaw a future of shuffling paper, assisting admirals, maybe settling down and having some kids.

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Then, on April 29, came The Announcement. Defense Secretary Les Aspin declared before a bank of TV cameras that air and ship combat slots would be open to all, regardless of gender. The only positions in the military that would remain off-limits to women would be in ground troops.

“Yesssss!” said Lt. Brenda Scheufele, whose fourth-grade teacher had told her that girls couldn’t be astronauts.

“I don’t believe it!” thought Lt. Sharon Cummins, whose flight school graduation was ruined when a male classmate’s father told her he didn’t approve of women pilots.

“Timing is everything,” sighed a relieved Lt. Pamela Lyons. “They were basically asking us to leave the Navy before this. And I’m marketable. Right now, any airline would pick me up. It’d be real easy just flying a commercial airliner from Point A to Point B.

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“But it would bore me to tears--I’m an aviator.”

The women of VAQ-34, the squadron with the Navy’s highest percentage of female aviators--50%, say their joy over Aspin’s order has nothing to do with lust for war and carnage, and everything to do with equality on the job. They know they may be among the first American women to face combat on the same terms as men and they are aware that a strong taboo is being broken. On this base in raisin country, 40 miles south of Fresno, that responsibility has been long awaited and is keenly felt.

“This is not going to change the military much, not nearly as much as some people think,” said Cummins, 27, from Portsmouth, Va. “But it is a big change for women, all women, in the military and out. This was legal discrimination and it’s over.”

Already, Scheufele and Lyons have verbal orders to report to a training squadron down the street to learn dogfighting and bombing techniques, schooling long since provided to the men. If they pass the course, each woman will be assigned to an aircraft carrier squadron, working at sea during six-month stints.

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This time next year, if trouble erupts, they could be dispatched to any hot spot, not just sitting on the sidelines. And the weapons on board will be real.

These are the prestige jobs they wanted all along. Finally, they will fly the Hornet the way it was supposed to be flown, learning the intricacies of the sophisticated equipment, taking full advantage of the plane’s agility.

What the men think about this is an open question. Only one, flight officer Charles Boone, has shown outright joy for them. When the word broke, he pumped his fist in the air and flashed a huge smile. “With the quality of these aviators,” he said later, “it wasn’t fair. They’re good enough for this.”

A few others have offered markedly less enthusiastic congratulations. And a few more have made downright hostile predictions: “You’re going to be pushed through (training) because you’re female. It’s not fair.”

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Perhaps the silence of the rest means acceptance. Or perhaps many men are still making up their minds. “It’s going to take a lot of getting used to for the guys,” Boone said. At the least, there is suddenly even more competition for coveted combat berths.

Currently, women constitute only 36 of the Navy’s 3,452 jet pilots, and 24 of the 3,340 flight officers, who control the weapons systems.

In VAQ-34, four pilots and three flight officers are women. They have passed the same rigorous training as the men, in Aviation Officer Candidate School--also known as “boot camp for fliers"--and flight school.

The youngest of the VAQ-34 women is Loree Draude, a sweet-faced 25-year-old who describes practice bombs as “cute little blue things” but is equally capable of describing killing an enemy as “just part of the job.”

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The daughter of a career Marine officer (her father) and a Marine who left the service after a year (her mother), Draude was inclined early to enter the military. During her junior year in college, she got to ride in a Cessna and from then on, flying was her goal. After four years in the Navy, having earned her wings, she watched her buddies head off for advanced training and then tactical units, some--like her boyfriend--down the street at Lemoore.

The most seasoned female crew member is Lyons, 30, who has more than 1,500 flight hours. There is little doubt that if she had been a man, she would have been assigned to a combat squadron years ago. Having earned master’s degrees in aerospace engineering and business at University of Texas at Austin, she graduated flight school in the top third of her class and was asked to remain as an instructor. She taught men on training planes, the T-2 and the Vietnam-era A-4. Her students went on to fly the new jets she yearned for.

Despite such frustration and the isolation of being “the only girl around” at training school, Lyons said she had reasons to endure. For one, she, like Scheufele, wanted to become an astronaut. Both thought going through the military would offer better odds than trying as a civilian.

Second, she felt certain that the combat ban would be lifted someday, especially after Desert Storm, when women proved themselves in support roles. Five American women were killed and two were captured, then released.

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She was determined not to join the women she knew who had given up and left the service.

Her boyfriend, a combat pilot stationed at Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego, tried to buck her up when frustration set in. But he had to be careful what he said to his colleagues. They couldn’t imagine flying with women in war.

The other women helped, too. All of the female pilots and flight officers in the Navy know each other, at least by reputation. Now, in her squadron at Lemoore, Lyons feels virtually surrounded.

Finally, she has found others who understood the double-edged charge that comes with being a woman who flies jets. In Sharon Cummins’ no-frills house a few miles from the base, hangs a framed Leonardo da Vinci quote about the joys of soaring through the sky. On a living room wall is a reproduction of a World War I recruiting poster. It features a girl dressed like a sailor. “Gee! I Wish I Were a Man. I’d Join the Navy,” it reads. “Be a Man and Do It.”

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Yet through it all, the women manage to move well through the Navy’s macho culture.

Like the men, they derisively refer to any aircraft carrier as “The Boat.” They’ve been known to tell a bawdy joke or two and to quaff a few brews at the officers’ club.

They banter easily with the guys. “What did you say?” the squadron’s commanding officer, Cmdr. Phil Tompkins, inquired mock-sternly of Lt. Chris Green one day last week. She had been overheard remarking that she could be loyal to whatever type of jet she flies. “What have you been told?” Tompkins demanded. “How many times?”

“Sir!” Green responded. “Only the F-18. It-is-the-one. It-is-the-coolest. It-is-the-main-plane.”

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They both laughed.

*

A squadron’s traditions resemble nothing so much as the rites of a high school football team. Each unit has a nickname, painted on the hangars lining the service road at Lemoore. The Warhawks. The Argonauts. The Mighty Shrikes.

Squadron VAQ-34 has been labeled the Flashbacks--a reference to its electronic warfare mission--and Hangar 5 is labeled “Flashback Country” in tall red letters.

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The men all have nicknames--the cherubic countenance of the squadron’s skipper, for example, inspired the handle “Gerber.” The women are not exempt: Texas-born Susan Fogarty is “Sue Bob.” Then there is “Dandy” Lyons.

Most of the women are single; most of the men are married. More important, most of the women are junior officers; most of the men have more flight time and seniority. All have more training. Each has at least one cruise behind him.

For some time, the women have been sneaking whatever extra schooling and experience they can get, sometimes helping each other, sometimes getting help from men. But the discrepancies still surface and it hurts.

One day last week, Cummins and Scheufele piloted two of the Hornets, with the squadron’s executive officer, Cmdr. Matt Pasztalaniec, taking a third aloft. Fogarty was Pasztalaniec’s flight officer; Boone worked with Cummins.

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The slim, sleek Hornets, pale gray with beige nose tips to blend against the sky, blew a hot wind into the cold gusts rippling an adjacent field of foxtails. A foghorn blast from each plane signaled that the engine was ready and soon the three jets thundered off to the north.

Ninety minutes later, they returned. The crew had practiced using radar to find enemy planes--a skill taught in the part of the syllabus that had been denied to women in flight school.

In the air, Cummins had lost track of a jet on her screen. In the ready room, Pasztalaniec wiggled two fingers above his head. “Lost animal there,” he teased, then told her: “Don’t feel bad, don’t feel bad. It’s very common . . . The only thing is, you might have been a little bit dead meat out there.”

She remained stoic, keeping her Navy cool, but later admitted she was crushed. “They expect you to know it,” she said.

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“Yeah, they do,” Fogarty blurted out angrily. “They don’t give you the training, but they expect you to know it.”

To be blunt about it, VAQ-34 is not a coveted post. Its crews do not get to use the most advanced techniques, nor the most advanced equipment. There are no six-month tours at sea--a virtual requirement for anyone who has ambitions to command others in the Navy. So, while the best women may end up here, some of the men are in the squadron because they did not fare well in combat posts.

“You can’t get a good reputation here,” Scheufele said.

Consequently, she can understand, though not condone, why some Navy men have grown accustomed to thinking of women aviators as lesser beings, why they worry that they might have to spend extra time protecting a woman under fire.

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She understands, too, that it can be upsetting when women take up so many shore-duty berths that the men go on cruise after cruise, away from their families for months on end. “We don’t carry our weight,” Scheufele said.

There is a link, the women of VAQ-34 believe, between the status of women in the Navy and the sexual assaults at the notorious 1991 convention of the Tailhook Assn.--a Navy aviators’ group.

In some of the hotel suites, men wore T-shirts proclaiming “Women Are Property” and buttons with the slogan “Not in My Squadron.”

“I don’t think the Navy will ever end sexual harassment until it has ended sex discrimination,” Cummins said.

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They have long worked to overturn the ban. Cummins felt she could not lobby politicians directly because of the service’s chain-of-command culture. But she cheered on her mother, Martha, a Pensacola housewife who has carried on a sporadic lobbying campaign since the Persian Gulf War. Martha Cummins telephoned her local congressman and a Virginia senator to complain about their public objections to women in combat. She also called the White House under both the George Bush and Clinton administrations.

“You’re always frightened for your child when she goes into battle,” Martha Cummins said. “But this is what she wants to do. And if the boys can go in, so can my daughter.”

Last month, Lyons, Cummins and Scheufele, with their commanding officer’s blessing, spent their own money to travel to Washington for a meeting of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services. They missed the remarks of the Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, who told the audience that it would be “a mistake” to open combat aviation slots to women.

But they and other women aviators were able to buttonhole committee members in the hallways and explain the urgency of their own situation. They needed jobs to go to--and soon.

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They found sympathetic ears. In the decades since women became part of military aviation, concerns over their impact have been fading. Researchers had found no physical reason why a man would be superior to a woman as a jet pilot. In fact, because women tend to be shorter, the heart generally has a smaller distance to pump blood to the brain and it is easier to withstand the short bursts of extra gravity that can drive consciousness away during acceleration and turns.

By this time, there were rejoinders to just about any argument. What if a woman is pregnant when her carrier stint comes up? “You just don’t get pregnant,” Scheufele said. “You have years of shore duty after a cruise and you can plan your family. And if it happens, it would be like a guy breaking a leg.” What about a man’s instinct to protect a woman? How will that affect conditions in combat? “When they know us as colleagues, they will feel differently,” said Fogarty.

*

When the ban was lifted, at least one of the female Flashbacks was caught off guard. Chris Green had promised her fiance they could start a family right after their planned 1994 wedding. “Oh, no!’ she wailed to Aspin’s image, on C-SPAN. “I’m not ready!”

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Then she called her betrothed, a computer programmer in Seattle. The wedding is still on, but now the kids are on hold. Because combat Hornets are one-seaters and she is a flight officer, her next decision is which other jet to try for. “I’ve basically got it narrowed to A-6s or F-14s,” she said.

Other worries are surfacing.

The pilots are nervous about making it through combat training. They’ll have to land on The Boat at night, the carrier rolling up and down in pitch darkness. They have a feeling that if the first women aviators don’t perform well, the reputation of the whole gender will suffer.

But they also want to be sure that they don’t get passed through without earning their places. “That would cheapen everything we’ve done,” Draude said.

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Pasztalaniec says he thinks the women will do about the same as most men. Some will wash out; most won’t. “From flying with them, I know they’re all good pilots,” he said. “It’s just hard to tell how people will react at night.”

The word around the ready room, where five women still await their orders, is that the Navy plans to put more than one woman in each of the first combat squadrons to be integrated. And the service plans to assign more than one squadron with women to each carrier. In VAQ-34, the women fear that men will see this as a quota, though they will be grateful for the presence of the others.

And they think about going to war, about killing.

If they need to, the women of VAQ-34 say, they will use their jet fighters to take enemy lives. They also say they are prepared to risk their own lives for their nation.

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“I wasn’t protected (from combat) before, I was smothered,” Scheufele said. “I know this Marine who was in Desert Storm. He was a carrier pilot. He’s my age. After he got a few beers in him, he talked about it. It’s going to change your whole life. It’s going to change the way you think about yourself.”


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