Patuxent River, Md. –
In 1973, the first eight women began flight school in Pensacola, and one year later six of those eight women, titled “The First Six,” earned their Wings of Gold. In the 50 years since, Naval Aviation has expanded its roles for women to lead and serve globally. Today, women aviators project power from the sea and in every type, model and series aircraft. They fly and fight in all strike missions, hunt submarines, protect the integrity of the nuclear triad, supply essential cargo and personnel to every corner of the globe and rescue those in distress at sea and ashore. They command aircraft carriers, carrier air wings, squadrons and missions to space. In 2023, we reflect on our Naval Aviation history and pay tribute to all of our women Naval Aviators: “The First Six,” and all those who have come after them.
Naval Aviation News has compiled some thoughts and experiences from Navy and Marine pilots—past and present—to reflect their perspectives in celebration of this milestone.
Capt. Molly Boron, Navy
Current Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) Inspector General; former program manager Aerial Target Systems Program Office; first female commander of P-8 Poseidon Squadron
“My favorite part of being a naval aviator is the uniqueness of flying in the Navy. The tie to the ocean that we have, which is unique for maritime patrol in that we are not on the carrier. We are land based, but we very much support all Naval Aviation in keeping them safe from undersea threats, as well as the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance that we provide.
“What women bring to Naval Aviation is diversity. The presence of women in Naval Aviation, or any male dominated community, brings a different perspective in how that community functions, how they think, ways they look at problems and challenges.
“If we’re only using half of the population to contribute toward a mission, a problem, a challenge, solving problems and challenges, we’re missing out. So I think bringing in 50 percent of the population, giving them the opportunity to partake, to participate in the problem, in the mission, in the duty of serving our country, what we gain can’t be quantified.”
Capt. Karly E. Boettcher, Marine Corps
Current CH-53E Super Stallion pilot, HMH-464
“The highlight of my career was achieving Helicopter Aircraft Commander. Being responsible for an aircraft, its crew, and its passengers is not something I take lightly, but it’s the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had. A career highlight from a leadership standpoint was having the opportunity to speak at a Rolls Royce Convention for Women Engineers. It was eye opening to see all the experiences we had in common, and ways that we could inspire and lead each other even though we came from such different backgrounds.
“I am not a ‘female pilot,’ I am a Marine who happens to be an aviator. This profession is based on qualification, skills and the ability to perform. I bring the same potential, capability and skill as any of my peers, male or female, and I have progressed on par with my peers. Working in a male-dominated environment will inevitably create different experiences for women, many of which have personally shaped me as a leader.
“Naval Aviation is an integral part of our nation’s defense forces. I also believe that Marines who serve, particularly in aviation, experience a different level of responsibility than most people do. Not only do we need leaders like this in the Marine Corps; we also need mature individuals to become leaders in the civilian sector.”
Capt. Anneliese Satz, Marine Corps
Current member of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 121, having served as Logistics Officer, Aviation Safety Officer, Quality Assurance Officer, Assistant Operations Officer; first female Marine to pilot the F-35B Lightning II
“Other than the pure joy of flying a fast and maneuverable aircraft, the best part of being an aviator is the opportunity to always get better. Becoming complacent will have negative consequences, so you always need to be learning or practicing your craft. Every pilot is in search of the perfect flight, knowing full well that no such thing exists.
Although higher hours brings increased experience, no pilot is so good that they no longer have to strive to be better. Being in a community of like-minded individuals who are striving to be better pilots daily is also a great part of being an aviator. The ready room provides a sense of camaraderie found nowhere else. Although the people come from all over the country and have a diverse set of experiences, there is commonality found in the experiences of Naval Aviation.
“The aviation community needs the next generation of innovative and driven people to solve the problems we face today as well as those we will face in the future. You don’t need a degree in the STEM fields in order to be successful in aviation. Rather, what it takes is an open and curious mind. Air Force and Navy fighter aviation are unique in that they are cultures that encourage and embrace brutal honesty. In the debrief after a flight there is no rank and no ego, only the desire to take away a few lessons learned and an improved skill set. I would recommend introducing yourself to as many new experiences as possible. Other than a few flights in general aviation, there is no single skill that will help you be a better naval aviator. Rather, an ability to adapt to new and novel challenges as well as the mental fortitude to accept criticism and improve from failure. The more people we have in our community who are interested in furthering the capabilities and strengths of Naval Aviation, the stronger we will be as a whole.”
Lt. Cmdr. Maggie Doyle, Navy
Current Mission Control Station Military Installation Lead for the Unmanned Carrier Aviation
Program Office; P-3 and P-8 Poseiden pilot; attended U.S Navy Test Pilot School; former test pilot with Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 20
“[To younger women thinking of a career as a Navy aviator] I think just do it, just get in there, just do your best, live your best life and, if you want to be an aviator, go and be an aviator. I think everything will just kind of fall in place. And then it’s kind of that trend, you see more and more women being naval aviators then there’s going to be more that follow because they can see you doing it and be like, ‘hey, I can achieve this too.’
“I feel like the Navy just revolves around tradition with everything we do, but especially Naval Aviation. I think it just connects us to the past and where we come from. It just helps us go forward with a sense of purpose.”
Capt. Kricket Harper, Marine Corps
Current CH-53K King Stallion pilot with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron (HMH) 461 Airframes Officer in Charge
“With the current state of the Marine Corps aviation, there are minimal resources and few flight hours to go around. This makes career progression a challenge. The best way I have found to promote growth with minimal assets is to help those who are flying to learn through their experience, and to recognize the importance of working hard to be ready when it’s my turn in the seat. The failure or struggle of one pilot is the failure of the ready room, so focusing on that team effort maintains unit cohesion and helps everyone grow.
“I think that any community can improve by including differing viewpoints. We are all formed by different experiences and life events that shape our outlooks and decision-making processes. The inclusion of women, or any marginalized group, in the aviation community provides a unique viewpoint for problem solving, which will make the force stronger as a whole.
“‘Train your replacement’ is a common phrase used in Naval Aviation. The next generation are the replacements for the fleet. We must continue to inspire quality individuals to maintain and strengthen the force.”
Cmdr. Shannon “Hoov” Hoover, Navy
Current Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Aircraft Program Office Special Mission Aircraft Integrated Product Team Lead; P-3 Pilot; attended U.S. Navy Test Pilot School; former test pilot with Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 20
“Years ago, I was airborne, doing a night proficiency flight in a T-2 Buckeye over the Patuxent River, Maryland, at about 38,000 feet with one of my dear friends, another pilot, and we ended up experiencing explosive decompression and losing the canopy. It gets really loud in an airplane at 30,000 feet when you don’t have a canopy and glass shards under the visor and in your eyes. So just bringing the airplane home, landing it safely and then being greeted on the runway by the maintainers who had sent us flying that night, who were genuinely concerned about our safety and glad to see us back. It ended up being a really defining moment for a multitude of reasons. Everybody corrals around you to just say, ‘Hey, what happened? How can we prevent this from happening again? Did we do everything right? Could we have done anything differently? How can we ensure this never happens again?’ The Navy had my back, my command had my back, our back collectively, and we were just going to figure it out and march along smartly when we had it figured out. In Naval Aviation, you spend 99 percent of your time with an expectation that everything is going to go according to plan. And then you prepare for that 1 percent or it’s not going to go according to plan.
“One challenge was I flew very pregnant with my first daughter. As soon as I was able to and medically cleared to when I found out I was pregnant, I continued to do operational tests in the P-8 at VX-1. My command was on board with it. And I get to say to my little girl, ‘You got a pretty impressive logbook.’ And she likes to say she was a pilot in mommy’s belly when she was a baby. I get to say, for many years from now, to my daughter that we’ve spent some time in the airplane together.
“I’m proud of the trailblazers that set the path in motion for me to be here, for us to be here now, I’m grateful. I think we just have to continue to forge ahead and continue to redefine what it looks like to be a naval aviator.”
Capt. Karah “Gobbles” Jaeb, Marine Corps
Current Sections Leader and Night Operations Instructor, CH-53K pilot with HMH-466
“Women bring themselves, their intelligence, their problem solving, their leadership, their motivation, their personality. Some of the best Marines I know are women. Some of the best mechanics I know are women. Some of the best pilots I know are women. Some of the best leaders I know are women. At any given point, women make up about 10 percent of my squadron. What does that tell you? That the women in our community are exceptional. We bring ourselves and by doing so we enhance our community.
“As a community we have made enormous strides forward regarding supporting women and mothers. Unfortunately, biases, subconscious or not, color how each of us interacts with the world. Everyone projects their personal situation, history, and background onto those around them. For many their mothers or spouses. I believe strongly in celebrating our forward progress. But we need to acknowledge that cultural change takes time, and we have a ways to go.”
Capt. Whitley “Warhammer” Noel, Marine Corps
Current Flight Leadership Standardization Evaluator and CH-53E Super Stallion pilot, HMH-64, 2nd Marine Air Wing (MAW)
“I have a passion for teaching in and out of the cockpit. The ultimate goal is to train the next generation of Marine aviators to be better than my generation.
“Throughout my career, I have faced many challenges, some seeming insurmountable. The best advice that I can give to any Marine is to find a way to get to yes. I accepted a ground contract to have the honor of becoming a Marine officer, even though I’ve always known that I wanted to also be a pilot. I found a way to get to yes when I was at The Basic School and a competitive flight contract was being offered to my company. I fought for that spot and subsequently earned my wings.
“When our nation calls, we need to be ready. Eventually, my generation of naval aviators will be ready to retire. To whom can we pass the torch? Marine aviation provides so many unique opportunities to grow personally and professionally. It is the greatest decision that I ever made.”
Capt. Brianna Sirks, Marine Corps
Current Marine Air Group (MAG) 16 HQ Staff Secretary, MV-22 Osprey pilot, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing
“I’m freshly to the fleet, but my single biggest career highlight was still the first time I flew the MV-22. Before stepping into the actual cockpit for the first time, we amass some 30 hours in the MV-22 simulators, but it doesn’t prepare you for the enormity of sitting behind the controls in the actual cockpit. The aircraft is enormous, and you can feel that as you lift off and then transition to airplane mode. The first time I came off the ground and to a 20-foot hover felt like I was lifting the entire world.
“The people are always the best part of being an aviator. Flying a crew-based aircraft means that every flight is a team effort. The crew chiefs, the other copilots and aircraft commanders, it’s the people that make it both satisfying and fun. Furthermore, as an assault support aircraft you’re a significant part in any mission to insert troops or cargo. Knowing that you’re the one in charge of safely transporting the men and women that are on the ground protecting our country is very awe inspiring.
“As a woman, I’m frequently in the minority of my squadrons, and at times have also been the only woman in the squadron. From a pure mentorship view, the younger enlisted women need someone that they feel comfortable coming to when they have concerns and someone to look up to, to show that it’s not only men that can run the world. Beyond this, I’ve noticed that women frequently come up with different solutions to problems that arise because we offer a different perspective than what the other members of the room have.
“Naval Aviation is one of the most important foundations that our military stands on. Whether it’s the jets and Cobras laying down fires to allow our troops to infiltrate an enemy zone, or the Ospreys and CH-53s bringing our men and women into that zone, we shape the battlespace. We need more men and women to be a part of the fight.”
Capt. Reilly Sullivan, Marine Corps
Current MV-22 Osprey pilot; VMM-261, MAG-26 Pilot Training Officer/Assistant Training Officer
“Last summer, I was able to fly in the Chicago Air and Water Show as a demonstration aircraft commander and was able to share my passion with other aviation enthusiasts. On deployments, I’ve been able to see some beautiful parts of the world: flying across the Mediterranean or along the coast of Sicily are memories I’ll cherish.
“The best part of being an aviator is working with highly competent individuals and personalities to accomplish often daunting and difficult missions. The success of accomplishing these missions is made even better when it’s done working with the younger pilots and aircrew, who I get to see progress and grow as aviators and Marine officers.
“All people can bring a unique perspective based on their strengths, weaknesses and upbringing to their work community. A successful team uses these different perspectives within the group to accomplish a goal. In some cases, women can provide a unique perspective.
“Do not let self-doubt or others deter you from your goals. There will be hurdles and obstacles in your life that you will have to face, but if you surround yourself with people who push you to do better and be better—people who believe in you—great things can happen.”
Cmdr. Jocelyn K. Liberg, Navy
Current Time Sensitive Strike deputy program manager with the Direct and Time Sensitive Strike Weapons Program Office; F/A-18 Hornet pilot; U.S. Naval Test Pilot School graduate; former test pilot with VX-31
“I’m a third generation Navy attack aviator. I’m a second-generation Aerospace Engineering Duty Officer. My whole family in some capacity has been in service since 1948.
“A moment that stands out the most to me is one that happened at the very beginning of my career. I was an ensign and had just started in flight school. I went home and home at that time meant Key West, Florida, and my dad was stationed there. We ended up getting a chance to fly together. So, my first flight in my military logbook is a flight with my dad, and that also is his last flight as a Naval Aviator. Getting to fly together, and like, do the high fives and pass the torch was kind of the highlight of my career even 16 years later.
“The best part of being a naval aviator is being part of a community that has such intensely, intentional culture. You walk into a Naval Aviation ready room, and you know where you are. And if you don’t, someone’s going to tell you. The other thing is my kids think I’m cool. I know that that’s short-lived and won’t last forever, but right now they think what I do is pretty awesome.
“Women, like every group, come with a diversity of experience. We can’t afford to solve our problems as a monoculture; we must include people of all backgrounds, of all genders, races, ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, all of it. If we’re going to solve the kinds of problems that we’re facing right now, there is no room for exclusion of any group, whether we’re talking about men or women or people of a different background.
“We’re celebrating that women have been a part of the obligation for 50 years now. We’re also celebrating that women have been allowed to fly in combat for the past 30 years. I was in kindergarten when that change came about in the Navy. It’s exciting to think about the changes that are going to come in the next 30, the next 50, the next hundred years. We honor the generations that came before us, that brought about the changes that allow us to be here where we are now. But it’s so exciting to think about the changes we haven’t even imagined yet that my generation and the generation that follows will bring about for Naval Aviation.”
Capt. Rebecca “Princess” Schmidt, Marine Corps
Current Aviation Safety Officer, CH-53E pilot with Marine Heavy Helicopter Training Squadron (HMHT) 302
“The crew concept of our aircraft is my favorite aspect of aviation. I do think anyone can be taught to fly, but not everyone is a good team player. The team is not just the pilots and aircrew, but it is also the maintainers and administrative personnel that allow us to do our job. Each member of the flight crew is critically important, and the coordination and environment created within the aircraft will either set the flight up for success or failure. Our crew chiefs are fantastic, and the coordination required to land in a confined area or pick up an external load is made possible by trust between the pilots in the cockpit and the aircrew in the cabin.
“Women bring different perspectives and experiences that frame their communication and leadership styles. Having battled back through an endometriosis surgery and two postpartum recoveries, I come to the table with the experience of how to navigate the medical system and continue flying, as well as how to balance the unique demands of motherhood with aviation. These experiences have caused me to enter and exit the cockpit three times, which inherently means that I have had to put in the effort to regain my skillset with each comeback. Each time I do this, I find myself mentoring a new group of women. The example that is brought to aviation matters because now these women realize that it is possible. It may not look the same as their male counterparts if they choose to take care of their health and grow their family, but they will realize they are capable of more than they thought.
“Aviation is a unique career field that women are not routinely exposed to. There are skill sets and experiences to be gained from the next generation of women that will benefit the Navy and Marine Corps if they choose to make a career out of aviation, or it will benefit the civilian sector if they choose to take their skills and experience elsewhere. Either way, the perspective, experience, and leadership that the next generation of women will bring to the table will enhance the commands that they are a part of in and out of the cockpit.”
Capt. Holly Shoger, Navy
Current program manager for the Naval Undergraduate Flight Training Systems Program Office; E-2D pilot; former VX-20 test pilot
“The best part [of being a naval aviator is] you get to go fly. It’s something civilians don’t get to do. You’re entrusted with these aircraft that cost millions and millions of dollars. It’s a lot of accountability and responsibility to have. It’s unique. You don’t get that everywhere.
“Women bring a different viewpoint. We all think differently. And I think it’s a piece of diversity that we bring that if it were just an all-male workforce, it wouldn’t be that way. And I’ve seen the workforce shift and evolve over time since I’ve come in as we have more females in the fleet. And I think it’s a good thing. I think we have a healthier environment or balanced viewpoint out there rather than maybe a single mindset.”
Cmdr. Sarah Abbott, Navy
Current deputy program manager for the F/A-18 & EA-18G Program Office; F-18 pilot; former test pilot with VX-9
“I started off at the U.S. Naval Academy and I was studying aerospace engineering. I think I was always excited about being an astronaut, if I could, or getting into aviation. I was around aviation as a child, and as a teenager I worked at a private airport. But as I progressed through my studies at the Naval Academy and got a chance to get out in the fleet and see what it was like, I just wanted to be out there. It looked exciting and it seemed like the way I really wanted to serve.
“I enjoy above anything the people that I serve with. I’m motivated by the people I serve with. You get up every day to do something with everybody around you, but of course, the aviation part of it is getting to fly a really cool aircraft and getting to do very challenging things and push yourself and really strive to be the best you can be at a very hard job.
“I think women bring talent. Everybody who does this job needs to be good at doing this job and they need to put the work in. And you’re only here if you can do your job and do your job well. It’s a high-risk organization and everybody needs to be on their game to do it. But I think women represent talent that’s half the population. If you don’t have a representative number of women, if your organization doesn’t look like the population, we’re missing out on a lot of talent and we’re not giving everyone that opportunity they deserve.
“Naval aviators are parents, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers. But we’re also very dedicated to what we do, where we work. We work long hours and we put in a lot of time in service of our country. And we are professionals. Every aspect of our job is professional. It’s about learning. It’s about being the best we can be in an aircraft.”