By Lance Cpl. Jen S. Martinez
DALLAS – Marine officer selection officers demonstrated their enthusiasm for Women’s History Month by attending the 23rd Annual International Women in Aviation Conference March 8 through March 10, 2012, in Dallas.
The conference gave aviation enthusiasts from all over the world a chance to come together to learn and share their experience with one another. The 8th MCD OSOs eagerly discussed opportunities in Marine Corps aviation to an audience of 3,350 attendees, a new WAI Conference record.
Conference guests met and talked with important figures of Marine Corps history like CH-53E pilot Lt. Col. Sarah Deal, the Corps’ first female Marine aviator, and Maj. Elizabeth Okoreeh-Baah, the first female Marine V-22 Osprey tilt rotor pilot.
The conference served as an opportunity for attendees to meet the history makers of present and past generations, and as an opportunity for the local populace to learn more about what ‘the few’ can offer the many, said Deal, who is currently a recruiting support officer for Recruiting Station Lansing, Mich.
“There are still people out there that don’t realize women can fly in the Marine Corps and (the conference) is making them more aware that we are (able to),” she said. “To me, it’s a time of getting together with women of the same interests and rekindling your spirit, but also letting people know who (the Marines) are and then finding those qualified individuals who want to be Marines.”
The conference also served as a bridge between the gap of older generations of female pilots to later generations of aviators such as Lt. Col. Jenifer Nothelfer, a CH-46E helicopter pilot now in the Individual Ready Reserve.
“I think that it was a wonderful opportunity to work with the Marines,” Nothelfer said. “That was the most rewarding time of my career as a helicopter pilot. Flying with (night vision) goggles off a ship was very challenging, probably the most challenging part of being a helicopter pilot.”
Deal and Nothelfer share their stories and the story of the Marine Corps each year at the WAI Conference.
In addition to booths set up by various airlines, aviation organizations, and pilot organizations, the conference featured discussion groups, aviation mechanics displays and seminars, including a leadership seminar in which the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing Commanding General, Maj. Gen. Jon M. Davis, was a panel member.
As an aviator in the Marine Corps, Davis often worked with female pilots and shared his experience, along with four other aviators from the U.S. Army and Air Force. The conference, he said, is a great resource for any woman or aviator to learn about their roots.
“I was itching to learn from the attendees at the conference,” Davis said. “It was great to see the different perspectives of all the wings (from different branches) and it gives Marines a good perspective on the growing slice of the Marine air wings and what kind of issues they’re looking at today.”
The general also talked about his background in working with the first female to pilot the AV8-B Harrier, Lt. Col. Esther Wingard, during a time when women were just beginning to break into the field. Davis noted that the transition from a men-only occupation into an integrated field was successful by keeping his Marines, male and female, mission ready.
“When the commandant tells us to get something done, we say, ‘Yes, sir,’ so I was concentrating on making (females in aviation) happen,” said Davis. “We gathered our Marines and told them that our mission is the most important thing. I looked at what Lt. Col. Wingard could bring to the fight and what we could do to make sure she was mission ready. It wasn’t hard for us because all we had to do was say that it wouldn’t be a problem and stay focused on the mission execution. Once we did that, everything just fell into place.”
When females were granted the right to fly combat missions in 1993, male pilots had to quickly adjust their mindsets and welcome their sisters into their ranks. Lt. Col. Deal recalled, however, that her welcome was less than ideal. Instead of open arms, she said she was received with the attitude, “Well… she doesn’t deserve to be here, but here she is.”
For those women who have been around since the beginning, the road to their dreams was a rough and rocky one, and not all were as accepting as Davis’ Marines, but Nothelfer said she hopes those who come after her and her fellow sisters in aviation will find the road a little smoother for them.
“(I hope) they don’t have to face the same struggles as an aviator to become a proficient pilot, or a good leader, or a good Marine,” Nothelfer said. “I think sometimes there’s still that old school mentality of ‘this is the boys’ gun club’.”
Davis said that while the “boys club” mentality may still be present at times, good leadership and proper guidance will help Marine units stay strong and accepting.
“I think that anyone with (that mentality) is led poorly,” Davis said. “I believe we have good leaders in (aviation) and we don’t put up with that. I know there is still that mentality around the Corps but I believe good leaders will rise to the top and they will focus on the mission and what we can do to make sure all Marines on the team are the best warriors they can be. If you do that, you minimize the buffoonery that goes on in the unit.”
The female Marines at the conference did their part by educating other conference attendees on the Marine Corps’ expectations and opportunities, and encouraging other women and young girls to aim high to reach their goals. Nothelfer particularly enjoyed guiding young girls who are motivated about flying to look into the Marine Corps.
“I’ve been coming to this conference for 13 years and I enjoy talking to the young girls that are just starting out and they have their whole lives ahead of them,” Nothelfer said. “It’s all about opportunity and information, it’s not about selling the Marine Corps to anybody. It’s about giving the individuals the information and letting them make an educated decision.”
Maj. Gen. Davis, who agrees with Nothelfer on the benefits of the conference, said he will encourage other Marine aviation units to attend future WAI conferences. The conference helps the legacy of women in aviation live on, and opens doors for the next generations to carry on the torch.
The 8th MCD OSOs and female Marine aviators plan to meet each other at next year’s conference in Memphis, Tenn. to continue their support of women in aviation.