Reporting for Duty: AARP Studios Shares Veterans’ Stories

By Scott Spangler on June 13th, 2022

The bait dangled by AARP Studios was the 10-minute Reporting for Duty documentary about Lt. Carey Lohrenz, who in 1994 became one of the first female aviators to fly the F-14 Tomcat. The latest of eight episodes so far produced, the YouTube channel offered another tantalizing aviation morsel, “The Untold Story of the First Top Gun Competition,” with a P-47 Thunderbolt thumbnail that made it even more intriguing. The other episodes tell the stories of how service in the Marines and Army and Air Force changed the course of their lives.

The episode is titled “Flying an F-14, I Can’t Believe it Was Legal,” and it wasn’t until our elected officials finally surrendered their stereotypical prejudices. Lohrenz says in the documentary’s opening minutes that she always knew she wanted to fly. She graduated from Aviation Officer Candidate school in 1991 and wanted to fly fighters “because they were the cream of the crop,” but at the time the law prevented females from pursuing combat roles.

Women were flying for the Navy, but not in combat billets. Naval aviation training takes about two years, she explained, and maybe the law would be repealed by the time she finished her primary training and proclaimed her top six preferences among the Navy’s aviation pipelines, tactical jets, helicopters, and multiengine. The Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, she said, lifted that restriction on the day her class filled out their dream sheets. A top performer in her class—one of five women selected to fly combat aircraft—Lohrenz reported to the replacement air group in 1994 to begin her transition into the F-14.

Learning a new airplane, especially one as complex and challenging at the Tomcat, is never an easy evolution. With an unspecified number of men (who saw women as unwanted, unqualified interlopers in their y chromosome domain) actively working to make her transition harder than it needed to be, one wonders how they would have performed had the stereotypes been reversed. Lohrenz’s success is a tacit spotlight of her superior abilities and resilience. She put it this way, “If you don’t work through the hard stuff, you’re never going to get to the awesome.”

Providing perspective on flying the F-14 is Ward Carroll (see Review: Ward Carroll, F-14 RIO), who explained the relentless scrutiny all carrier aviators face, including grades for every carrier landing (of which she logged 172). It should surprise no one that the men in charge employed a double standard for female aviators, imposing restrictions on them and not their male peers who tallied similar grades. The challenge of being a pioneer, said Carroll, is that these women “are carrying the weight of an entire gender on their shoulders, because if they failed it would set American female status back decades.”

This situation led to a Naval Inspector General investigation that revealed (big surprise) “that the Navy was ill prepared to integrate female pilots into carrier-based flight crews.” As a consequence, Lohrenz continued to fly, but not in the F-14. But, as Carroll pointed out, she paved the way to female aviators, whose numbers continue to increase and who fulfill squadron missions without stigma.

Lohrenz now employs the lessons she’s learned as a strategic planning consultant and keynote speaker. “Not taking a risk is the biggest risk you can take,” she says. “Courage is not the absence of fear, it means you feel the fear and go for it anyway.” And that should be a lesson for us all. –Scott Spangler, Editor

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