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Marine Corps Captain Becomes First Woman to Fly with Blue Angels

Marine Capt. Katie Higgins, the first female pilot with the U.S. Navy
Flight Demonstration Squadron, or Blue Angels, speaks with media aboard
Marine Corps Air Station, April 9, 2015. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by
Lance Cpl. Olivia G. Ortiz/Released)
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That time she was a child, at an air show, and a Marine recruiter promised a T-shirt if she could hang for a minute from a pull-up bar.
She won – and kept hanging.
Then, that time she was in high school, and there weren’t enough girls for a team, so she played water polo with the boys.
And she kept playing.
And in March, that time, at age 28, she became the first woman to fly with the Navy‘s elite Blue Angels. She broke a gender barrier at 370 mph, in the cockpit of a C-130 Hercules named “Fat Albert.”
“I can keep up with the boys,” she said, “even fly it better.”
Fans named her: “Katie the Riveter,” “Captain Katie,” even today’s Amelia Earhart.
Her name is Katie Higgins, Marine Corps captain. Her parents, Bill and Jan Johnson, live in Severna Park.
She’s a third-generation pilot and 2008 Naval Academy graduate who briefly, as a young girl, considered life as a nun.
Higgins will be in the cockpit for the Blue Angels’ Annapolis air
show May 20. She’ll be in the right seat of Fat Albert, not actually
flying, but performing communications (pilots rotate for shows). She’ll
pilot “Fat Albert” in June for an Ocean City air show.
The Navy’s beloved flight demonstration team formed in 1946 for
recruiting purposes and was named after New York City’s famous Blue
Angel nightclub. Since then, more than 250 pilots have flown with the
Blue Angels, but none of them were women.
“The right candidate for the right team has just not come along,”
Higgins said. “I happened to be the puzzle piece that fit into the 2015
team.”
She was practically born for the role. Both of her grandfathers flew
in the military, also her two uncles and father, Bill Johnson, a 1981
Naval Academy graduate. He works as an engineer for Northrop Grumman.
His advice to his daughter: Compartmentalize steps of flying. Complete one task at a time, best as you can.
Also, her younger brother, Chris Johnson, graduated from the Naval
Academy in 2010. His parents can’t reveal what he does now, they said.
More than a dozen times, the family moved while Higgins was a child.
They followed Bill’s career with the Navy, from California to Japan. She
graduated in 2004 from W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax, Virginia,
then from the Naval Academy in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in
political science.
Her parents moved to Severna Park seven years ago.
In flight school, her notes were so detailed other pilots studied
them. Once, she drew an outline of an airfield, spread it on her back
porch, and walked the flight path to memorize it.
She chose the C-130 Hercules, rather than the F/A-18 Hornet,
because the cargo plane is versatile, capable of refueling in the air
and transporting troops. She can land it on a beach, even a coral reef
island, since prop engines don’t risk sucking in debris like jet
engines.
During air shows, she pilots Fat Albert in 45-degree climbs, then nose dives as steep as 30 degrees.
The Navy estimates that each year 11 million people watch Blue Angels
air shows, which happen weekly, around the country, March to November.
After the Annapolis show, she plans to take her team to Cantler’s Riverside Inn and teach them to pick crabs.
Higgins has deployed to Afghanistan and Africa and flown nearly 400
combat hours. In September 2014, she was selected to the elite flight
team, three months after a former Blue Angels commander, Capt. Gregory
McWherter, was reprimanded for condoning lewd practices, including
allowing pornography in cockpits.
His command of the Blue Angels ended about two years before Higgins
arrived. He was reprimanded, however, in June of last year, three months
before she was selected.
The team was never pressured to pick a woman, she said.
“This team picks the right person.”
In fact, she didn’t think much about being the first woman to fly with the Blue Angels, her father said.
“She was nervous and apprehensive about doing well,” Bill Johnson
said. “But she never considered it a barrier. She never paused.”
She spent winter training with the Blue Angels before her first show
March 14 in El Centro, California. Her parents traveled across the
country to attend.
In the crowd, they met an excited Marine who didn’t know the Johnsons.
He asked whether they realized a woman was about to fly – and they were all about to witness history.

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