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NEWS | March 16, 2022

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

By Benjamin Faske 12th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs

The 479th Flying Training Group and Detachment 1, Air Force Recruiting Service, held the once-in-a-lifetime Combat Systems Officer Sapphire and General Officer Inspire event from March 10-12 at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida.

Attended by More than 170 Junior ROTC and ROTC cadets, the event paid tribute to the first six female Air Force navigators: 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 was a celebration that marked 45 years of women in the cockpit.

The road wasn’t easy, but a deep since of pride and determination drove these trailblazers to reach their goals, along with never taking no for an answer.

Class 78-01 embarked on a journey 45 years ago that changed the Air Force forever and began a process to have women represented in all career fields including pilots, combat systems officers and special operations.

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

The group next 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.

Day two, which was the main event, saw busloads of JROTC and ROTC cadets filing into the Mustin Beach Club at NAS-Pensacola to hear the stories of the three female trailblazers in attendance.

Keynote speakers for the Sapphire Event included giants in the combat systems officer community: Brig. Gen. Brenda Cartier, Operations and Communications, Air Education and Training Command director; Brig. Gen. Leslie Maher, Jeanne M. Holm Center for Officer Accessions and Citizen Development director; and retired Brig. Gen. John Quintas, Amazon Global Military Affairs managing director.

Cartier received her navigator wings in 1993 and has over 4,000 flying hours.

“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,” Cartier said. “These efforts are essential to every aspect of diversity within our Air Force, if we are to reflect the society in which we serve. The RDI strategy is a long-term plan to recruit, develop and retain a diverse rated corps through events that raise awareness, develop strategic partnerships, remove potential barriers to service and mentor current aviators.”

Events like these are important to the younger generation because eventually they will be the next group of Air Force leaders, exposing them to another rated career field like the Combat Systems Officers can only serve to benefit the Air Force.

“This event is important for ROTC, JROTC as well as CSO students because the fact is so much of our history was built by people that were fearless so getting a chance to actually meet these people and hear their stories helps them develop in a way that gives them more opportunities than they thought they had before,” Maher said. “I’m thankful that I’m getting used to seeing diversity in the ranks, it’s not that it surprises me anymore, I want that to be the message, let’s get this to be something so mundane that now we can get after what it means to be an even greater team because we have that diversity, and get on with the mission, but until we get to that point where this uniqueness becomes mundane, we have some work to do.”

Higgins recalls filling out her first “dream sheet” when she entered the Air Force.

“In mid-1975, on my first AF Form 90, I had put my first choice was ‘student pilot,” the second was “student navigator,” and the third was ‘chief air traffic control officer,’” Higgins said. “I was told that I was wasting my first two choices as women couldn’t be Air Force pilots or navigators, and that I could put that information in the comments. 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 would go on to fly in the KC-135 Stratotaker as a navigator and she later attended pilot training where she became a pilot and flew KC-135’s.   

Like most women in Class 78-01, the importance of being a “first” was not lost on anyone. The success of their class would reverberate for females across the Air Force for generations to come. 

“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 and final day saw JROTC cadets from Escambia, Gulf Breeze and Pensacola High Schools, as well as ROTC 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 the cherry on top for the cadets, a chance see what it’s like to be a flyer in the operational Air Force. Hearing protection handouts, passenger briefings, and detailed instructions on how to use the “air sickness” bags all made the event more authentic for the cadets and will hopefully leave an impression on them if they decide to serve this great Air Force.

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.”