Navy Lieutenant Kara S. Hultgreen was at the controls of an F-14 Tomcat fighter plane as it circled above the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln forty miles southwest of San Diego. With her was Lieutenant Matthew Klemich, the radar intercept officer (RIO). It was mid-afternoon on the clear day of October 25, 1994.
Hultgreen was one of eighteen women who had been qualified to fly carrier-based combat aircraft after Congress removed the ban. An indomitable and courageous woman, she was fully aware that hers was an exacting and demanding profession, that flying the thirty-five-ton F-14 was risky business.
"It's like dancing with an elephant," she had told CBS-TV News a few weeks earlier. "You can ease it over to the right and sort of nudge it over to the left. But when it decides it's going to sit down, there's nothing you can do about it."
Now off San Diego, twenty-nine-year-old Kara Hultgreen headed for a landing on the carrier, possibly the most dangerous task in the peacetime armed forces. The margin between life and death is razor thin. As the Tomcat neared the Lincoln, it appeared that she made a series of minor errors and overcorrected each of them. Apparently, she was flying too slowly and applying too much rudder trying to move the plane to the left. The angle of the wings in relation to the flight deck was too steep, a factor that dropped the left wing and turned the Tomcat to the left, depriving the left engine of enough air.1
As the plane neared the deck, the engine stalled. Some twenty seconds later Lieutenant Klemich called out that the plane was going five knots too fast. Seven seconds later he said, "We're ten knots slow--let's get some power on the jet!"
Moments before the Tomcat reached the flight deck, the LSO (landing signal officer) on the Lincoln waved off the plane, ordering Hultgreen to level its wings, apply power, and climb. Then the LSO ordered: "Eject! Eject!"2
In a split second of one another, Klemich and Hultgreen ejected. Klemich splashed into the water and was rescued, shaken but not seriously injured.