The Navy's first female combat pilot


October 02, 1994|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Sun Staff Correspondent

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- On the day that Lt. Shannon Workman learned that two of her fellow pilots were missing in the Atlantic, her commander gave her and other officers the chance to stay on the ground.

"This is a time for introspection," said Commander Randy Rice. "Is anyone not comfortable flying?" He was met with silence.

Lieutenant Workman, a 1988 Naval Academy graduate from Cumberland, calmly pulled together her gear and headed toward her "Prowler" jet. Soon, she was off in a deafening roar, fast on the wing of Commander Rice's plane as they arced into the afternoon sky last month.

There is little bravado in this slight woman with the reddish brown hair, the first to break into the elite, swaggering world of combat pilots. It is more a quiet confidence, an eagerness to do the job.

"I've always wanted to do as well as I could," she said.

Lieutenant Workman is to set sail next month aboard the USS Eisenhower for a six-month deployment to the Mediterranean and Adriatic. It also will be a floating experiment, for "the Ike" is the first "combat vessel" with women aboard -- about 400 among the 5,000 officers and crew. She is one of five female pilots on the nuclear-powered carrier. Two fly anti-submarine helicopters, the others have followed Lieutenant Workman into the ranks of combat jet pilots. Before long she will be patrolling the skies from Bosnia-Herzegovina to Iraq.

Should action come, the radar-jamming Prowlers and their four-person crews will lead the way, streaming into hostile territory at 600 mph to take out enemy radar installations with their jamming capabilities -- an electromagnetic burst -- or a HARM missile. As the pilot, Lieutenant Workman will pull the trigger.

She doesn't see herself as pioneer, role model or feminist -- simply as a Navy pilot.

"I don't single myself out as the female," she said. "I don't want someone to say this person is just in this position because she's a female.

Lieutenant Workman became the Navy's first combat-qualified woman pilot in May 1993, one month after Congress lifted the ban on women flying combat missions. That summer she joined an EA-6B Prowler squadron at Whidbey Island, Wash., settling in small town with her husband, John Kittelson, a former Marine combat pilot.

Last fall, the final barrier fell when Congress lifted the restriction on women serving aboard combat ships. She reported to the Eisenhower in December and has been shuttling among bases in Virginia, California and Washington ever since, awaiting the deployment.

The phone got busy

When word reached Prowler squadron VAQ-130 that it would receive the first woman combat pilots and flight officers, the phone began ringing in Commander Rice's office.

"I got a lot of calls from friends who told me it was justice. I'm not exactly a feminist," the burly combat veteran said, leaning back with a chuckle.

In addition to Lieutenant Workman, Lt. Terry Lynn Bradford, a 1990 Naval Academy graduate, and Lt. Sally Fountain joined the two dozen Zappers, the nickname of this tight-knit squadron, as flight officers.

"Everybody was a bit nervous about it," admitted Lt. Cmdr. Steve Kirby, a 40-year-old flight officer. "It was something new."

Lieutenant Bradford, 26, said she, too, was apprehensive. But that feeling soon vanished once the squad went to work. "I have to prove myself as a naval flight officer, Shannon has to prove herself as a pilot," she said. "What it comes to is can you do the job?"

The male officers soon found it was "much ado about nothing," said Commander Kirby.

"If a person's got the wings," added Lt. Cmdr. Fred Drummond, with a shrug, "then it doesn't matter what sex they are."

And Commander Rice said he soon learned that Lieutenant Workman was the finest of his four new pilots.

"She's the best," the commander said. Her assignments as an instructor honed her skills. She holds her position better in formation and is a solid instrument pilot when darkness or bad weather force her to use the cockpit dials instead of her eyes, he said.

She has made the gut-wrenching night carrier landings that had long separated the men from the women, who never had a need to land on carriers because they were banned from combat.

Flying at 130 mph, the pilot approaches something the size of a refrigerator magnet, with blinking lights, rolling with the seas. Snagging a cable, the jet stops short in a rib-shaking jolt. One officer said it brings back memories of his car hitting a tree at 30 mph.

"Night landings are definitely the hardest by far," said Lieutenant Workman.

Throughout her career, from her first summer cruise as a midshipman until she became a pilot in the fleet, Lieutenant Workman has been shadowed by the same nagging sentiment: Women don't belong here.

Many have told her they are against women in the military. "A lot of them, I'm sure, are still against it," she said.

But it doesn't bother her, she said. "Everyone's going to have their own opinion. The only way someone's opinion is going to change is through example."

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