Navy may ditch tradition, allow women pilots to soar with elite Blue Angels

January 27, 1993|By Orlando Sentinel

In the Pentagon's war between the sexes, women are getting close to breaking down a sacred all-male barrier -- the Navy's elite Blue Angels flying team.

The unit, based at Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida, has thrilled crowds around the world for 47 years with its daring loops and do-or-die precision flying.

But the Navy has insisted its female pilots don't have the right stuff for the outfit, even though some women aviators are so good they teach combat tactics to men.

Now, the Navy's brass may change its mind.

Rear Adm. Riley Mixson, the Navy's air warfare chief at the Defense Department in Washington, has told his staff to study the policy and possibly give women a shot at joining the famous unit.

"The way things are changing in the Navy, this is one of the things we're looking at and keeping in mind," said Lt. Sharon Heath, a Navy spokeswoman in the Pentagon.

"We're not going to just put it on the shelf and let it gather dust and say, 'Let's just let it stay the way it is because it's Navy tradition,' " she said.

Among those who say the change is long overdue is Lt. Liz Steinnecker, a Pensacola-based flyer and one of only 36 female jet pilots in the Navy.

"There's probably a half-dozen women that I know who are capable and qualified in all respects" to be Blue Angels, Lieutenant Steinnecker said."

Hugh Winters, 79, of Virginia Beach, Va., couldn't agree more. He put the original Blue Angels squadron together in 1946.

"If a gal can cut the mustard, hell, she ought to fly," he said. "If a woman shows that she's as good or better than other pilots, I don't see why she shouldn't do it."

The Blue Angels have always been special in the tightknit fraternity of naval aviation.

The squadron is made up of 16 officers and 95 enlisted personnel, but only seven pilot the Blue Angels' trademark: the supersonic F-18 Hornet attack jet.

The others play a variety of roles, ranging from mechanics to announcers. Last year the unit performed in 70 air shows, FTC including a first-ever appearance in Moscow, and dazzled a total 9 million spectators.

Competition to become a Blue Angel is stiff. About 20 pilots try out for the squadron every year. They are among the best the Navy has to offer, but only a few make it.

For the pilots, the average hitch is a couple of years.

"It marks a significant step in the career of a naval aviator," said Lt. John Kirby, the Blue Angels' spokesman in Pensacola. "There's a strong desire to be on the team, and for those who make it, it's a real milestone."

But female flyers are discouraged from trying out for the coveted slots because the Navy has stacked the deck against them, Lieutenant Steinnecker and others say. No woman has applied for the unit.

Blue Angel pilots must have logged 1,500 hours in a Navy fighter jet. That excludes most women, because the Navy does not allow them in combat, and few have a chance to fly the Navy's top-line aircraft.

The 36 women who do have the necessary flight experience serve as test pilots and instructors, often helping men earn their wings.

Blue Angels also must be qualified to land and take off from the deck of an aircraft carrier -- a requirement that many in the Navy say makes the Blue Angels unique.

But those positions are almost impossible for women to come by; the combat ban keeps female pilots off the ships.

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