Try the new FT.com

June 10, 2011 10:09 pm

First Person: Linda Maloney

  • Share
  • Print
  • Clip
  • Gift Article
  • Comments
Linda Maloney regained consciousness to find herself descending oceanwards in her parachute
 
Linda Maloney

Linda Maloney regained consciousness to find herself descending oceanwards in her parachute

When I joined the US Navy after I left school my first job was as an enlisted air traffic controller in Hawaii. My supervisor there encouraged me to apply for officer training, and I not only made it through, I ended up being selected for flight training.

On my first day at flight school, I found that I was the only woman in the class. But the guys there were mostly welcoming. I worked hard; I was determined to be an aviator, even though, when I graduated, women were still banned from flying in combat squadrons. So while all the guys went off to fly fighters and other military aircraft in an operational role, I was assigned to a support squadron in Key West training other pilots.

In February 1991, I was flying with a senior pilot off the coast of Florida. We were heading back to refuel after a training mission with the USS Forrestal aircraft carrier, when a light came on indicating there was a hydraulic failure. We radioed in to say we needed to land immediately but then the jet started to roll. More lights on the display panel illuminated – the back-up hydraulics had also failed. The plane began to roll violently. “I don’t have control. Eject!” the pilot yelled. I was stunned. “Eject!” he shouted again.

I pulled the handle and my seat exploded through the canopy glass. I saw a bright light and yellow papers flying around. Then I lost consciousness. When I came to I was hanging in my parachute, descending toward the ocean.

I don’t think I was afraid. It all seemed automatic; I just went through my training procedures.

In the water, I climbed into the inflatable life raft that forms part of the ejection seat and waited. My radio was dead. The other pilot was nowhere to be seen – in fact, he was five miles away from me. I set off some flares, released the sea dye markers into the water and prayed.

I was in the sea for an hour before the other pilot and I were found and taken to hospital. The only injury I had was badly cut hands from broken glass. The instructors always told us to wear our gloves but, like many aviators, I had taken them off once I was airborne. What I didn’t know then was that I was the first woman to eject from the particular kind of ejection seat I was using. At the time there was a lot of debate about women on the frontline and the Navy weren’t keen on my getting lots of publicity – it wouldn’t let me travel to Britain, for example, to get an award from the manufacturer. I heard that the senior military leadership was nervous about highlighting that a woman could eject from a plane and be just as capable as a male pilot. I can’t prove that, but it was the talk at the time.

Two years later though, the combat exclusion law was changed. It meant that I, and other women aviators, would be able to fly in combat squadrons. Some of the men were extremely hostile but I knew I deserved to be there. Eventually, in April 1995, I was deployed to the Gulf. Before leaving, my squadron spent a few weeks onboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. There were fewer than 20 women aviators on the aircraft carrier and we made a point of watching each other coming in to land. One day, I was watching my friend Kara Hultgreen approaching in her F-14 when I realised something was dreadfully wrong. I could hear over the radio the call to eject. I waited for them to say she was OK but it turned out that Kara ejected 0.4 seconds too late. She was killed when she hit the water, still strapped into her ejection seat. She was the first woman to die after the change in the law.

I retired from the military in 2003 and have two sons now. I don’t fly any more, but I wanted to pass on my own story. I’ve written a book, Military Fly Moms, about women who are military aviators and mothers. My career happened at the cusp of a change, and it’s important to me to encourage other young aviators.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

  • Share
  • Print
  • Clip
  • Gift Article
  • Comments

EMAIL BRIEFING


FT Weekend

Get our newsletter by email each Saturday. Alec Russell, Weekend FT editor, handpicks a selection of the best life, arts, culture, property and news coverage

Sign up now

LIFE AND ARTS ON TWITTER

More FT Twitter accounts
SHARE THIS QUOTE