Discrimination flak downs commander Woman who failed to qualify as F-16 pilot cited unequal training

March 17, 1996|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BLOOMFIELD, N.Y. - A Vietnam veteran and gulf war fighter pilot, downed by what he sees as reverse sex discrimination, is locked in a new battle, one to salvage his career and reputation.

Col. David Hamlin Jr., 52, was stripped of command of the Syracuse-based 174th Fighter Wing of the New York Air National Guard in November. A board of inquiry found that he had allowed the training of Maj. Jacquelyn S. Parker to be dragged out so long that she resigned in frustration.

He was also denied promotion to brigadier general and stricken from the Guard rolls for fostering "an atmosphere permitting acts of gender-based discrimination and harassment."

Colonel Hamlin, a decorated Marine platoon commander in Vietnam and veteran of 52 air combat missions in the Persian Gulf war, vehemently denies the allegations and calls himself a victim of political correctness gone awry.

"I was the commander of a unit that tried very hard to bring a very high-powered, well-wired, egotistical, noisy lady through a flying program," he said. "She ultimately quit, and there were a lot of very frightened people around when Jackie Parker quit."

Major Parker, 34, is already a qualified fighter pilot. At issue is whether the training she needed was provided fast enough to enable her to become one of the first women to fly an F-16 fighter in a com bat zone.

"I wanted this to work," said Major Parker, who is now attached to the Guard's Albany headquarters as an operations officer, but lives in Chicago. "It was such a brutal environment, so malicious, to be around people who hate you."

While illustrating the sense of victimization that frequently afflicts both sides in such gender-related conflicts, the case is also the rare one of a male officer who refuses to accept the adverse judgment of his superiors. Gov. George E. Pataki has ordered the state's inspector general to review the case. Colonel Hamlin said he is prepared to seek relief in civil courts, if necessary.

The colonel was not the only member of his fighter wing to suffer from the fallout. Three other fighter pilots were grounded; one is suing Major Parker, accusing her of harassing him and ruining his career. Seven other pilots were reassigned or given billets for non-fliers, moves that Guard officials describe as a normal "career-broadening" rotation of officers.

Charges, counter-claims

A panel of inquiry three men, one woman, all from the state's Air National Guard criticized Colonel Hamlin for:

Failing to intervene when Major Parker was repeatedly required to retake training missions she had already passed.

Failing to stop "malicious shots" from male fliers against Major Parker.

Colonel Hamlin, in an interview in his farmhouse kitchen here in upstate New York, presented an opposite view, maintaining that:

His team did its best for a woman he perceived as more focused on her own interests than on the squadron's.

Major Parker received special treatment because of her connections with the top brass, notably Maj. Gen. Michael Hall, the senior officer in the New York Air National Guard.

Major Parker decided to wreak vengeance on the squadron after she was kept from becoming the first female F-16 pilot to deploy to a combat zone.

"I am not revengeful," she said. "I don't have anything out for these guys. I left. I quit.

"I decided I didn't want to be abused any more."

Said Colonel Hamlin: "I have no objection to women as fighter pilots. But it takes work. Jackie Parker didn't put the work in. She wanted to fly a fighter, sit in it, drive it around."

'93 decision set course

The case dates to a 1993 decision by the Pentagon to allow women to fly fighter planes in combat. That decision triggered a race among the services to produce the first combat-ready female fighter pilot.

The day after the announcement, General Hall asked Major Parker to join the state's Air National Guard to fly F-16s.

Major Parker, a 13-year Air Force veteran, had clocked more than 3,000 flying hours, mainly in cargo and tanker planes. She was sent by the Guard to basic F-16 training. She passed, but her instructors said she would require "close supervision" during advanced training.

Nearly three years later, she is one of only three women among the Air National Guard's 1,315 fighter pilots. One other woman is being trained as a Guard fighter pilot. Of the Air Force's 4,879 fighter pilots, eight are women; three others are in training.

Commissioned in the Air Force in 1980, Major Parker became a pilot instructor. Then she became the first female Air Force test pilot, flying high-performance planes, including the F-16.

A female role model, she has received achievement awards from Hillary Rodham Clinton; Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the Persian Gulf war commander; and Gen. John Michael Loh, commander of the Air Force Combat Command. Three times, she has appeared publicly with Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall.

"Parker is quick to mention her affiliations and associations with important people," the investigation report said.

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