50 years apart, these women are making aviation history - We Are The Mighty

50 years apart, these women are making aviation history

Fifty years ago, six women shattered the glass ceiling preventing females in military aviation. The “First Six,” as they were called, paved the way for generations to come. As the words of our National Anthem echo through the State Farm Stadium at today’s Super Bowl, an all-female flyover will mark another historic moment. While millions of people across the world watch, one of the first six, Captain Joellen Drag-Oslund, USNR (Ret.), will be there in person, to see first-hand what she and her five colleagues made possible, five decades ago. 

We Are The Mighty sat down with Oslund at the USAA Salute to Service Lounge at the Super Bowl Experience to talk about her journey in aviation, what it was like to be one of the first and how proud she is of this next generation. And, we interviewed two members of today’s Super Bowl flyover team: Naval Flight Officer Lt. Kathryn Martinez who will be navigating the F-18 and Naval Flight Surgeon Taylor Rudolph who will be coordinating comms on the ground alongside this mission’s skipper. While 50 years may separate these incredible women, there’s an unmistakable bond and a profound respect among them all.

A true pioneer

Oslund was just the fourth Naval Aviator, and the first to earn her Wings of Gold as a helicopter pilot. Oslund recalled her early days. “The program happened very quickly. Admiral Zumwalt sent out this message in November and by January I was in Officer Candidate School so there wasn’t a lot of study or, ‘Is this a good idea?’, it was just Adm. Zumwalt saying, ‘Make it happen,’ and it did. The Navy, I have to say, was not as fully prepared. I went through OCS and then reported to flight training in May 1973 and you know they didn’t have helmets that fit us, we didn’t have flight suits that fit us, I was wearing a pair of flight boots that had come from Vietnam, made for the Vietnamese pilots because those were the only ones they got small enough for our feet. We only had uniforms with skirts, heels and stockings … you can’t get over 12 foot walls with those! A lot of it was sort of made up as we went along. The first three, when they started flight training, they did a huge publicity thing with them and apparently they put a lot of pressure on them. With the second group that I was with, we started in early May and they kind of backed off on a lot of the publicity. But the result of that was that we felt very isolated and like nobody cared about us anymore. It was an all or nothing proposition we had to navigate along the way.”  

“There was a law in place at the time that prohibited women from combat, and jets were considered combat, so they were going to put three of us in prop aircraft and three in helicopters. My first flight in the helicopter, I knew it was the right choice for me because I loved that seat-of-the-pants flying, the feel of the helicopter, and I loved the missions – I never did the same thing twice.” 

women making aviation history
Oslund conducts a pre-flight check

What does the Super Bowl flyover mean to you? 

“It’s just thrilling to look back on 50 years,” Oslund shared. “The first time I went to the Women in Aviation Conference and I saw 250 military women in the room in their flight suits, I got tears in my eyes, because honestly I didn’t think I’d ever see that many women all together and now we have over 1600 pilots and flight officers. I’ll be on the field at halftime tomorrow. It’s just a joy to look back. It’s all been worthwhile.” 

oslund women making aviation history with tessa robinson
Oslund and WATM Editor in Chief, Tessa Robinson. Photo/WATM

The Next Generation

VFA-122 is contributing two F/A-18F Super Hornets to the formation. They will be joined by an F-35C Lightning II from the “Argonauts” of VFA-147 and an EA-18G Growler from the “Vikings” of Electronic Attack Squadron 129 (VAQ-129). The strike fighters are based out of NAS Lemoore, California while VAQ-129 is based out of NAS Whidbey Island, Washington. All aircraft will stage at and fly from Luke Air Force Base, Arizona. In the F/A-18F, in the slot position of the diamond, will be NFO Lt. Katie Martinez. We asked Martinez what this meant to her. 

martinez and rudolph with derrick henry
Martinez (left) and Rudolph (right) pose with Derrick Henry of the Tennessee Titans in the USAA Salute to Service Lounge

“I am thrilled. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I’ve done a flyover at my college, but this one is truly unique. [Oslund] dealt with adversity, challenges, all the barriers that we talk about, like breaking the glass ceiling. All of that. And now 50 years later, it’s more about helping other people up the ladder. There are no ceilings honestly at this point. I’ve had a female skipper, we’re in an all female flyover over the Super Bowl. But it’s really incredible to know that it’s because of her and people like her 50 years ago that we can even have this many opportunities.” Flight Doc Rudolph also joined us in the USAA Salute to Service lounge and as a huge football fan (her SEC blood is crimson for Alabama!), is ecstatic to be part of this historic day. Rudolph has been medically clearing VIP riders, taking care of the team and crew all week long. She’ll be on the ground today working the precise timing of it all. “It’s such a cool opportunity,” she told us. “I’m really just so honored to be a part of this squadron and a part of this moment.” 

Also participating in today’s flyover are: Lt. Arielle Ash, Lt. Margaret Dente, Lt. Jacqueline Drew, Lt. Lyndsay Evans, Lt. Saree Moreno, Lt. Naomi Ngalle, Lt. Caitie Perkowski, Lt. Suzelle Thomas and LCDR Calli Zimmerman. 

As you watch the Super Bowl today, remember these incredible women. Listen to the words of our Star Spangled Banner. And may we all pause to acknowledge this historic moment in our country and the countless heroes – men and women – who made it possible. The land of the free, and the home of the brave. 

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