Falling out of the Sky: For the Navy's First Female Combat Pilots, the Problem Wasn't Sexual Harassment - It Was the Silent Treatment
Thomas, Evan, Vistica, Gregory L., Newsweek
LT. (J.G.) CAREY LOHRENZ WANTED to fit in. She was willing to put up with the loutish behavior of her fellow pilots, the misogynist jokes and the male strutting. She understood why naval aviators sometimes act like fraternity boys. Landing a 35-ton, $40 million warplane on a heaving deck in the middle of the night is extremely difficult. In the clubby world of naval aviators, macho posturing is a way of fighting off fear, drinking and carousing a way of easing the pressure. Lohrenz, a 22-year-old University of Wisconsin grad whose father, brother and husband were all navy or Marine pilots, was eager to join the brotherhood.
Lohrenz was one of five female combat pilots assigned to Air Group 11 aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in the summer of 1994. As they steamed toward the Persian Gulf to fly their first-ever missions over the Iraq no-fly zone in April 1995, the women of Air Group 11 didn't feel they were getting much help from their squadron mates or their commanding officer, Capt. Dennis (Dizzy) Gillespie. About a week into the cruise, Gillespie summoned the female pilots for tea and cookies. He told the women that since they had come aboard, the ship was cleaner and "smelled better." But, he said, he wasn't sure the American people were ready to see women taken prisoners of war. He explained that he regarded the women under his command the way he did his own wife--as females who needed to be protected. Gillespie told NEWSWEEK that he was just being "open" and "concerned," but the women thought they were being patronized. They felt they were being singled out as women, not treated as fellow officers. Worse, they believed they were being set up to fail. Normally, out of 120 or so pilots aboard a Carrier on a cruise, one or two might wash out. But today, none of the five women assigned to combat aircraft in Air Group 11 is flying off a carrier. One, Kara Hultgreen, died in a crash. Three others, including Carey Lohrenz, were grounded at least temporarily for poor flying, and one asked to be transferred.
The navy is trying to find out what went wrong in Air Group 11. NEWSWEEK has learned that a still-secret draft of an inspector general's report questions whether the women of Air Group 11 were given adequate support from their shipmates and superior officers on the USS Abraham Lincoln. All new carrier pilots--"nuggets," in navy jargon--need extra teaching and training to become accomplished at the precarious business of landing jets at sea. Aboard the Abraham Lincoln, the women were left to sink or swim.
Air Group 11 illustrates a subtle but important problem in the integration of women into the ranks. There is no allegation that these women were crudely harassed like the victims of the 1991 Tailhook scandal. Rather, it appears that the female pilots aboard the Abraham Lincoln were quietly ostracized and derided. Warriors talk about "unit cohesion," the intricate relationships that bond fighting men together. Because soldiers die for their buddies, not out of abstract notions of patriotism, those bonds can make the difference between fighting and fleeing. The Pentagon insists that women are now being welcomed into the fleet and that their failure rate is not significantly higher than that of male pilots. But the experience of the female fliers aboard the Abraham Lincoln--or the "Babe," as it was quickly dubbed--shows that some deep prejudices will have to be overcome before women can be accepted as top grins.
Glamour boys: For Lohrenz, the voyage of the Abraham Lincoln in the spring of 1995 was a lonely travail. Lohrenz is a tall (6-foot-1), solidly built (160-pound) woman. She can "take a dirty joke," she says. She speaks evenly and without emotion about her experience. But she is clearly bitter about what she calls the navy's "betrayal."
Lohrenz was still fresh from flight training when she became one of the first two women ever qualified to fly F-14s on combat missions. The F-14 Tomcat is the navy's premier fighter plane, and its pilots have long been regarded as glamour boys, the "best of the best. …