40 Years of Women in Naval Aviation

By Vice Adm. Nora Tyson
Deputy Commander, U.S. Fleet Forces Command

On March 2, 1973, thanks to the innovative leadership of Secretary of the Navy John Warner, the Navy ended the restriction that prevented women from serving in aviation. Shortly thereafter, eight pioneering women reported for flight training, and on this day in naval history, Feb. 22, 1974, Barbara Allen Rainey became the first woman to earn her Wings of Gold and was soon followed by classmates Judith Neuffer, Ana Marie Fuqua, Rosemary Bryant Mariner, Jane Skiles O’Dea and Joellen Drag.

Lt. Barbara Rainey, the U.S. Navy's first woman to qualify as a jet pilot, stands on the steps of a T-39 Sabreliner trainer aircraft at Naval Air Station Alameda, Calif.

Lt. Barbara Rainey, the U.S. Navy’s first woman to qualify as a jet pilot, stands on the steps of a T-39 Sabreliner trainer aircraft at Naval Air Station Alameda, Calif.

Because of the hard work, dedication and achievement of these women, as well as others who ventured outside the traditional career path, the Navy made significant advances and opened up aviation and other professions to the most qualified personnel, regardless of gender, race, religion or cultural differences.

Before 1993, female aviators in the Army, Air Force and Navy were limited to training and other non-combat jobs, and the Marine Corps had no female pilots at all. Partly because of the proven success of the Navy’s first women aviators, Defense Secretary Les Aspin lifted a major barrier and authorized women to fly combat missions and serve aboard warships. Since then, women have demonstrated great courage and sacrifice both on and off the battlefield and have significantly contributed to the defense of our great nation.

Just this past year, the military cleared another hurdle when the Secretary of Defense announced the decision to rescind the 1994 Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule that restricted women from assignment to units whose primary mission is to engage in direct combat on the ground. This decision opened up many more opportunities for the women who make up approximately 15 percent of the Navy’s active duty force and 18 percent of the Reserve force.

Today, women may embark on any type of ship and are currently assigned to 206 of the Navy’s 283 ships. Women, both officer and enlisted, may be assigned to any type of aviation squadron and serve with Seabees, Riverine forces and explosive ordnance disposal teams to name a few. Leadership opportunities for women also continue to increase. Women have commanded and are currently in command of strike groups, airwings, combatant ships, aviation squadrons, civil engineering commands, mobile diving and salvage units and numerous shore commands.

These opportunities exist in part because of the success of those who were “selected first.” So please join me today in celebrating 40 remarkable years of women in naval aviation and to thank Barbara Allen Rainey, Judith Neuffer, Ana Marie Fuqua, Rosemary Bryant Mariner, Jane Skiles O’Dea and Joellen Drag. Their courage and commitment opened many doors and presented opportunities for others to follow, including me. Today, I proudly wear my Wings of Gold knowing that I followed in the footsteps of some truly amazing women.

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40 Years of Women in Naval Aviation