Sunday, September 28, 2014

Fly like a girl: Celebrating women in aviation

Former Lt. Cmdr. Kathleen Betts in front of the Women in Naval Aviation Display in Hangar Bay One in the National Museum of Naval Aviation aboard Naval Air Station Pensacola.
(Photo: Bruce Graner, Pensacola News Journal)

American aviator Amelia Earhart helped pave the way for female aviators in 1937 by flying solo across the Atlantic ocean. But in Pensacola, it was former Lt. Cmdr. Kathleen (Umscheid) Betts, Melanie (Castleberry) Johnson and Mary Anne Von Hazemburg who made history.

The trio of women were the first to be commissioned at the National Naval Aviation Museum as U.S. Navy Ensign in March of 1987. This out of a class of 60.

"The women that come from the academy, it is so competitive for them to get a flight slot here," Betts said. "I still can't believe I was lucky enough to get a flight spot."

Betts credits a lot of the reason she got into the academy to her recruiter at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore.

"I had a very good recruiter and I did well in college, and he really pushed me and pushed me to get that slot," Betts said, while enjoying a recent lunch at the Mustin Beach Club on Pensacola Naval Air Station.

A New York native, Betts grew to love Pensacola and stayed in the area after finishing her time in the Navy.

"There was a lot of animosity when I started in 1987, because there were a lot of men from the academy I wound up getting lumped into train with as a student.

Even after nearly 30 years, she remembers the grueling four months in the commissioning program being trained by a Marine Corps drill sergeant.

She remembers having to get her hair cut and feeling — because no mirrors were allowed in the battalions — less than an inch of hair on her head.

And all of the ladies had to get their hair cut continually until they left the academy. Betts said they could never see how bad they actually looked because of the lack of mirrors.

"We had one floor of the battalions, and I shared a room with the women," she said. "And the guys were just right next door to us. They had their own restroom and we had our own restroom, which was on another floor."

"Every time we had to go to the restroom, it was a big production because not only was it on another floor it was on the far end of the building on another floor!" she said.

And there was no neutral territory. Betts said either the guys really didn't like the ladies or they really liked them and did everything they could to help.

"It was incredibly difficult," she said.

But regardless of the intensity of the program, Betts, Johnson and Von Hazemburg persevered. Betts described it as the biggest camaraderie she ever experienced.

Betts was in the the Navy for eight years and flew commercially for 12 years, totaling 20 years as a pilot. In those 20 years, she's accumulated 7,000 hours of flight time, 4,000 of those obtained on the Boeing 757.

"I've always been an advocate of getting more women into flying and into flight school here," Betts said. "And now that they've done away with AOCS (Aviation Officer Candidate School), I think there's even less."

Betts believes there isn't enough promotion to try and recruit female aviators and she is concerned that some women may think they aren't allowed to fly in the military or don't even know the option exists.

"It's such a fascinating career," she said. "It's exhilarating."

While she no longer flies, Betts continues to study in the field of aviation and hopes to see more women in the field in the future.

"I love the Navy, and I have strong ties to this community," she said. "I'm proud of my community and proud of what I've done here."

Want to learn more?

• WHAT: Women in Naval Aviation Exhibit

• WHERE: National Naval Aviation Museum, 1750 Radford Blvd., Pensacola NAS

• HOURS: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily


• QUESTIONS: Call (800) 327-5002, email or visit

- Source:

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