Aviation History: November '97 From the Editor | HistoryNet MENU

Aviation History: November ’97 From the Editor

9/23/1997 • Aviation History Archives

The first all-women aircrew team to fly a B-52 pose for a photo at Barksdale AFB, La., January 22, 2008.
The first all-women aircrew team to fly a B-52 pose for a photo at Barksdale AFB, La., January 22, 2008.

It’s time for the nation’s military to equalize personnel expectations regardless of gender or rank.

One of the best co-pilots I flew with when I was a Douglas C-47 pilot in the U.S. Air Force was a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress aircraft commander. A B-52 pilot, a major yet, flying right seat for a mere second lieutenant? (Co-pilot’s motto: Shut up, follow me and carry the bags.)

This particular day I was told I would have a “guest” co-pilot from a nearby Strategic Air Command base who was between assignments and needed some flight pay time. I was accustomed to flying with my squadron peers. Now, was I going to have to fly practically solo while some big shot sat on his butt in my cockpit doing nothing but smoking a cigar and being adored because he was a B-52 pilot?

Surprise–the pleasant kind. This guy first told me to knock off the saluting, then told me to utilize him as I would any other co-pilot, regardless of rank. He already had more hours in C-47s than I would ever collect, not to mention the hours he had piled up in B-52s. And there he was, dutifully backing me up on the throttles during takeoff, raising the gear and flaps on my signal and keeping a sharp eye out for other pieces of aluminum in the sky–a model co-pilot.

The word “professional” took on a new meaning for this young lieutenant that day. I already greatly admired those elite pilots who flew the huge, fast and deadly Stratofortress. But this was a memorable experience. It humanized the cream of the crop that was given godlike status in our branch of the service. And it imbued in me an enduring respect for the type of individual who had made it into the cockpit of an airplane that demanded personal and professional qualities far above those required of us average “airplane drivers.” It was a lesson in professionalism that has continued to influence me in the 40 years since that flight.

The B-52 is still being flown today, and it still takes a special person–and pilot–to fly it. One difference now, though, is that women are entering military cockpits. They are exhibiting the same professionalism and meeting the same demanding skill levels as their male counterparts. The trouble is, women pilots are also being expected by military brass, male peers and much of the public to be perfect in every other aspect of their lives–something that never was required of us “boys-will-be-boys” pilots. The legendary devil-may-care male pilot somehow had an adventuresome mystique that earned him society’s forgiveness if he was a “party boy” on the ground. Affairs with women, married or not, often were overlooked or resulted in little more than a slap on the wrist.

Now an unmarried female B-52 pilot has had an affair with a guy who was legally married. A national scandal was made of it–while at the same time male senior officers (sometimes very senior) were getting the traditional slap on the wrist for similar peccadilloes. There’s a dichotomy here. B-52 pilot Lieutenant Kelly Flinn was publicly castigated and drummed out of the service for, face it, the same off-duty behavior for which many of her male peers were forgiven.

A B-52 pilot, like a general, represents an expensively trained servant of the taxpayers and is a valuable resource to the country. Let’s not waste either of these resources by overreactive summary judgments handed down by those who themselves may not be “holier than thou.” Help them get back on track and put them back to work doing what they are qualified for–and good at. And then let’s all get on with it.

I would feel honored to have a professional like Kelly Flinn–or any B-52 pilot, male or female–as my co-pilot any time. I’ll even carry my own bags.

American Air Museum Opens

U.S. Air Force Secretary Sheila E. Widnall attended the August 1 dedication ceremony, performed by Queen Elizabeth II, of the American Air Museum at Duxford Airfield near Cambridge, England. The new museum holds a special attraction for members of the U.S. Eighth Air Force, some of whom flew from Duxford when it was home to the 78th Fighter Group during World War II. The opening marked the culmination of a 12-year campaign to recognize the contributions of the more than half a million Americans who served from British bases during the war. The impressive facility, designed by renowned architect Sir Norman Foster, houses more than 20 vintage and contemporary American combat planes. Call 800-233-4226 for information.

–Art Sanfelici


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