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479th FTG celebrates Sapphire Event, 45 years of women in the cockpit

  • Published
  • By Benjamin Faske
  • 12th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs

Members from the 479th Flying Training Group and Air Force Recruiting Service, Detachment 1, held a Combat Systems Officer Sapphire and General Officer Inspire events to honor 45 years of women in the cockpit.

The events showcased Air Force rated career opportunities and afforded students the opportunity to hear from the trailblazers, who were the Air Force’s first women to serve as navigators March 10-12 at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida.

The first women to serve as Air Force navigators of class 78-01: retired Col. Mary Kay Higgins, retired Lt. Col. Bettye Jo Payne, retired Lt. Col. Elizabeth Koch, retired Lt. Col. Florence Parker, retired Lt. Col. Ramona McCall and retired Lt. Col.  Margaret Stanek.

The event had various attendees, including more than 170 Air Force ROTC and Junior ROTC cadets.

“This event is important for youth to hear the stories of these women, and help them discover opportunities they may have never thought they had,” said Brig. Gen. Leslie Maher, Jeanne M. Holm Center for Officer Accessions and Citizen Development director. “The road wasn’t easy, but a deep since sense of pride and determination drove these trailblazers to reach their goals, along with never taking no for an answer.”

The three-day event began with a mission brief by Col. William O’Brien, 479th Flying Training Group commander, explaining how navigators integrated into the combat systems officers program. Additionally, O’Brien highlighted the different operational tracks now available to students such as navigator, weapons systems, electronic warfare and special operations.

Next, attendees visited the 451st and 455th Flying Training Squadrons, where class 78-01 members Koch and Parker received tours of the T-6 Texan II and T-1 Jayhawk aircraft.

On the second day, saw hundreds of Air Force ROTC and Junior ROTC cadets filing into the Mustin Beach Club at NAS-Pensacola to hear the stories of the three female trailblazers in attendance; Parker, Koch and Higgins.

Higgins recalled filling out her first dream sheet when she entered the Air Force and had put her first choice as student pilot, the second was student navigator and the third was chief air traffic control officer.

“I was told that I was wasting my first two choices, as women couldn’t be Air Force pilots or navigators,” Higgins said. “Of course, I was more than pleased some months later when someone showed me the message traffic indicating that the Air Force was starting a test program to train women as pilots and navigators.”

Higgins went on to fly in the KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft as a navigator, and later attended pilot training where she became a pilot and fly that very platform.   

 “It was so exciting to be one of the six women selected for this opportunity to be a first.  I was looking forward to the adventure of attending undergraduate navigation training, my husband had just been selected to attend undergraduate pilot training and I thought this was a great career advancement for both of us,” Koch said, “I was aware of the prestige of being in the first class and I knew that our performance could open this door for other women.”     

The third day of the event saw Air Force Junior ROTC cadets from Escambia, Gulf Breeze and Pensacola High Schools, as well as Air Force ROTC cadets from Tuskegee, Florida State, Southern Alabama, West Florida, Alabama State and Florida Universities, prepare for their incentive and inspiration flights aboard awaiting KC-135, C-130 and T-1 aircraft.

This was a highlight event for the cadets, to see what it’s like to be a flyer in the operational Air Force. The cadets received protection handouts, heard passenger briefings, and detailed instructions on how to use the air-sickness bags.

“With our current outreach and recruiting programs, we’re opening the door wider for those who may want to serve, but maybe haven’t had much exposure to the Air Force,” said Brig. Gen. Brenda Cartier, Operations and Communications, Air Education and Training Command director. “These efforts are essential to every aspect of diversity within our Air Force, if we are to reflect the society in which we serve.”

As for the next generation of female aviators, Parker had a message.

“I would tell them to ‘go for it.’  Don't let anyone or anything try to deter you.  Do your best at everything you do.”