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2023 marks a significant milestone in Navy history and in naval aviation – 50 years of women flying in the Navy. In March 1973, the first group of women began U.S. Navy flight training in Pensacola. The following year, the group would become known as “The First Six.” Lt. Cmdr. Barbara Allen Rainey, Captain (Retired) Rosemary Bryant Mariner, Captain (Retired) Jane Skiles O’dea, Captain (Retired) JoEllen Drag-Oslund, Captain (Retired) Judith Neuffer, and Captain (Retired) Ana Marie Scott, were those first female aviators.
Training Air Wing Five at Naval Air Station Whiting Field, Fla., conducted a ceremony Oct. 21 to wing 33 newly designated naval helicopter pilots. The guest speaker, Captain Joellen Drag-Oslund, U.S. Navy Reserve (retired), was in the same shoes as the men and women receiving their wings of gold back in 1974, when she received her wings. Oslund made history as the fourth female naval aviator to complete flight training and the first female to earn wings of gold as a helicopter pilot as designator R-12906.5. She went on to fly H-46 and H-3 helicopters in the fleet.
As a senior in college, Oslund struggled to figure out what she wanted to do when she graduated. Her boyfriend at the time handed her a piece of paper and said, “I think you should go for this.” That piece of paper was a message released by Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, then Chief of Naval Operations, one of a series of directives called Z-grams that were released during his tenure. Z-gram #116, the 50th anniversary of that directive observed in August, changed the military’s structure by affording equal rights and opportunities to women who served.
The previously-restricted aviation pipeline was now open to women as a result of that Z-gram. After a few short-lived moments of self-doubt and a few more persuasive “you should go for this” from her friend, Oslund set her sights on Naval flight training. She graduated from college in 1972 and walked into the local recruiting office. She was nearly laughed out of the room when she handed them the Z-gram and requested to apply to flight school. The recruiting office had not caught wind of the message traffic yet and didn’t believe it was real. A few days later, she walked back in and tried again and was accepted. She shipped off to Newport, Rhode Island, as part of the last gender-segregated Officer Candidate School (WOS - Women’s Officer School) alongside five other women who had been accepted as part of this pioneer program.
Oslund, her husband, Captain Dwayne Oslund, USN (ret.), and their friend, Captain Tom Pruter, USN (ret.) joined aviators from NAS Whiting Field for events prior to the winging. They were welcomed on base by the stick display of all four of her trainer aircraft: the T-34, T-28, TH-57, and UH-1D.
Oslund put her more than 1,500 hours of flight time to the test, flying patterns at NOLF Imperial Beach and buzzing the tower of the aircraft carrier in the simulator for the Navy’s newest advanced helicopter trainer, the TH-73A Thrasher.
After a tour of the temporary hangar and a closer look at the TH-73A, Oslund met with nearly 40 aviators for a meet and greet at the monthly Female Aviator Network (FAN). The FAN aims to expand awareness about common challenges women face in the military through small group discussions, guest speakers, and resource sharing. Attendees ranged from Ensigns just checking in from initial flight school, NIFE, to lieutenant commanders on their second instructor tour.
Oslund quickly established commonalities with the younger ranks in the room, telling the story about how she forgot to raise the landing gear and close the canopy on her very first T-34 aircraft training event. She continued to tell some of her experiences in the T-28 aircraft, and about how the Navy had seemingly predetermined where the starting six women were going to go for their fleet aircraft.
US Code 10, Section 6015 was a federal law that was still in effect, restricting women from serving in combat and prohibiting women from being assigned aboard ships. Three of the women were to fly prop aircraft and the other three, to include Oslund, would fly helicopters; jets were not an option. Of note, one of the women selected to fly props was Rosemary Mariner, USN. (ret.), who eventually broke ground as the Navy’s first female jet pilot.
Oslund recalled her first helicopter flight, mentioning that it was the first flight where she knew helicopters were the right choice, and that she was truly meant for aviation. Her instructor hovered the TH-57, did a few clearing turns, and then pulled in a ton of power and went screaming down the runway while she stared directly at the ground in a seemingly extreme nose-low attitude. He brought the nose back for the climb-out and she experienced just how different helicopter flight is.
She successfully completed the TH-57 syllabus and went on to complete the Huey helicopter syllabus. Her father pinned her wings on at NAS Whiting Field in 1974, and she reported to HC-3 (Helicopter Combat Support Squadron) in San Diego, Calif., to qualify in the H-46. The expectation was that the original six women aviators would be assigned to squadrons that were shore based – Search and Rescue (SAR) units or Fleet Replacement Squadrons (FRS)
Oslund was greeted head-on with the restrictions of Section 6015; Navy lawyers, or Judge Advocate General (JAG)s interpreted Section 6015 to include any shipboard movement and by law, Oslund was prohibited from flying deck landing qualifications (DLQs) or conducting vertical replenishment (VERTREP) or even circling the ship. She did not like the restrictions and submitted a letter to the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) via her chain of command requesting exceptions to article 6015 to fully support the required mission of HC-3 so women were not restricted to flying around the helicopter pads at Navy Outlying Landing Field (NOLF) Imperial Beach.
Her letter died off somewhere along the chain, whether purposeful or not, and she set out to challenge it legally via the ACLU and the D.C. District Court. As part of Owens vs. Brown, Oslund successfully challenged the federal restriction on female service aboard ships and went on to become the first Navy woman pilot to serve aboard a U.S. Navy ship.
In her five years of active service in the Navy, Oslund continued to shatter the ceiling by becoming the first Navy woman to be a Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) aircraft commander with seven rescues of downed aviators under her belt. Six rescues were in open ocean and one in mountainous terrain. After active duty, she transferred to the Reserves where she served until retirement in 1998.
She summarized her comments to the FAN and the 33 wingers and their families with a simple charge to embrace change rather than resist it. In her remarks, she stated “I thought a long time about what meaningful remarks I might make to a group of young men and women who may not have been born when I retired from the Navy nearly 25 years ago. I finally decided to talk about something we have all experienced – change itself.”
Naval flight training has had its fair share of significant changes in the past few years: from navigating brand new syllabi, to figuring out a way to make production in the midst of a global pandemic, to integrating a brand new state of the art advanced helicopter trainer for the first time in nearly 65 years. Oslund encouraged both audiences to continue taking on challenges and change and echoed that if she or any of her five female peers had accepted resistance, naval aviation would likely not be where it is today.
She closed her keynote by saying, “A big part of your life and your career will depend on how you respond to change and how you make change happen. You will be called upon to anticipate change, evaluate change, analyze change, plan for change, and especially, implement change. And you will never have the luxury to ignore it or pretend it isn’t happening.”
Naval Air Station Whiting Field, home of Training Air Wing Five, is the backbone of Naval Aviation Training, supporting approximately 60 percent of all primary fixed-wing flight training and 100 percent of all initial helicopter training for the Navy, Coast Guard and Marine Corps. NAS Whiting Field is the busiest aviation complex in the world with more than one million flight operations flown at the installation annually. It is comprised of two main airfields and 12 Navy Outlying Landing Fields across four counties in Southeast Alabama and Northwest Florida. Training Air Wing Five flies an estimated 43 percent of the Chief of Naval Air Training Command's total flight time and 17 percent of Navy and Marine Corps' flight time worldwide. More than 1,200 personnel receive their essential flight training through TRAWING Five annually.
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