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Marine woman flies Blue Angels to new heights

First female pilot on team performs this weekend at Miramar Air Show

Marine Capt. Katie Higginsis the first female pilot with the U.S. Navy
Flight Demonstration Squadron, or Blue Angels. The Severna Park, Md.,
native, is now the newest pilot of “Fat Albert,” a C-130 Hercules flown
by the Blue Angels. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Olivia G.
Ortiz/Released)

Becoming the first woman to perform as a Blue Angels pilot
has definitely been a high point for Capt. Katie Higgins. It is an honor
to wear the famous blue and gold flight suit, she said, but it might
surprise some people to learn that it hasn’t been the pinnacle of her
career as a Marine aviator.
Higgins will be sitting in the left
seat of the cockpit this weekend at the Miramar Air Show, serving as
flight commander of the team’s “Fat Albert” C-130 support plane. During
more than 50 performances across the country so far this year, she has
been mobbed by fans who appreciate how she #flieslikeagirl with the Blue
Angels.
The fighter pilots on the team used to have the longest lines for
autographs, because of their stunning aerobatics in F/A-18 Hornets
flying wingtip-to-wingtip. Now with the first woman pilot in the 69-year
history of the Blue Angels, the “jet guys” joke good-naturedly about
being “just your average white guy.”
Higgins downplays her fame as the “Lady Blue Angel.”
“I wouldn’t say I’m a celebrity. No way. I’m a Marine,” she said in an interview before the San Diego show.
“I
definitely appreciate the support from the American people, and if I
can bring attention to opportunities people have in life, girls included
— that they can join the military, be a Marine, even be a Blue Angel
pilot, then that’s cool.”
If it wasn’t being selected for the
premiere naval flight demonstration team, then what was her most
rewarding experience? The moment when Higgins thought this is it, this
is why I joined the Marine Corps, this is why I became an aviator?
That began in Afghanistan in 2013, and finished in Djibouti, Africa.
As
a KC-130J Hercules pilot, Higgins is responsible for everything from
logistics to transport, air-to-air refueling and close-air support.
During
a mission in Afghanistan, Higgins and her flight crew unleashed
Hellfire missiles for Marines pinned down under enemy fire.
On her next deployment in Africa, a Marine recognized her voice.
“He
thanked me essentially for saving his life. I get goose bumps even now
talking about it,” Higgins said. “I joined the Marine Corps to support
the Marines on the ground, and to know that I succeeded in doing that is
the greatest reward that I could ever ask for.”
Higgins, 29, is a
third-generation military aviator. She claims Severna Park, Md., as her
hometown but she grew up on naval bases from Lemoore to Yokosuka,
Japan.
Her father, retired Navy Capt. William Johnson, flew the
same Hornet jets the Blue Angels do today. As a little girl, Higgins
would run onto the flight line to hug him after he flew home in
formation from a deployment.
“I grew up with a love for flying
because of my family,” she said. Then the gunnery sergeants at the Naval
Academy hooked her on the Marine Corps.
The best part about being
a C-130 pilot is working together as a crew, Higgins said. “We have two
pilots on the plane, a navigator, a flight engineer and a loadmaster.
So there’s five of us that it takes to fly this aircraft.”
Why the
Blue Angels? Higgins remembers being wowed by a performance in
California when she was about 10 years old. Later she was attracted to
their mission of helping to recruit the next generation of naval
aviators and leaders.
“I loved the idea of going out and inspiring
excellence to the American people. Not everybody needs to join the
military but if everyone tries their hardest and does their best at the
profession that they choose, then it’s better for the country and our
society in general.”
The selection process was intense, including a
long application, essays, and grilling by the Blue Angels officers
about her personal and professional life. In Pensacola, Fla., it came
down to Higgins and a male aviator competing for the same position.
“Finalist
week is probably one of the most intimidating things I’ve ever done,”
she recalled. It includes “a very long, beautiful table and you’re
sitting at the end of it and you have 17 pairs of eyes on you asking a
gamut of questions.”
Higgins has almost 400 flight hours in
combat, but she worried she was too young for the Blue Angels. When she
called the commanding officer, Capt. Thomas Frosch, to find out if she
made it, he told her: “you’re really junior, we really liked having you
out but maybe if you get some more flight hours…”
“Aw man, I didn’t make it,” she thought.
“Well,
Katie, it was nice talking to you. Oh, and one more thing — Welcome to
the team!” Frosch said. The Blue Angels were all in the room with him
and yelled it at the same time.
Higgins was in shock. The gist of
her response was oh my gosh, thank you so much, “But I’m a Marine at
heart so I think I used some poor language there that I won’t repeat.”
Higgins
already belonged to a very small group as a naval aviator. Only 7
percent of the Marine Corps is female to begin with, and pilots are
subject to height and weight restrictions that sideline many women. Out
of 5,223 flight officers in the Marine Corps, 197 are female.
“I
didn’t come to the team to break any barriers or smash any glass
ceilings,” Higgins said. She was selected because she is the best person
for the job, not the best woman, Frosch told her.
“They don’t
want to fill any quotas. They want to fit the right person, ensuring
you’re the right puzzle piece for that next year’s team.”
Some
question why it is taking so long for the Blue Angels to select their
first female fighter pilot, since Navy women have been flying jets since
1994.
“A female flying the C-130, that’s some progress but when
will the old boys club truly end when they hand a Hornet to a woman? For
those who don’t know it’s Air Force 3, Navy 0,” said one commentator on
the Blue Angels Facebook page.
The Air Force selected the first
female fighter pilot for its Thunderbirds flight demonstration team in
2005, and at least two more later joined.
In 2014, a former Blue
Angels commander was reprimanded because of an insider complaint of
sexual harassment, but the accusation of gender discrimination in the
selection process was deemed unfounded. The investigation revealed an
atmosphere in previous years where raunchy photos and sexual innuendo
were tolerated in the workplace.
With a new commander and a new leadership structure, Navy officials hope the scandal is behind them.
A
small number of female aviators in the Navy and Marine Corps meet the
Blue Angels requirement of at least 1,250 flight hours and a
demonstrated ability to land on aircraft carriers. Interest in the
three-year assignment as well as career timing are also factors.
“I
don’t think it’s a matter of if, it’s just when all of those things
line up,” said Navy Cmdr. Jeannie Groeneveld, a spokeswoman for Naval
Air Forces Command in Coronado.
Out of 1,637 Hornet and Super
Hornet pilots in the Navy, 31 are women, or less than 2 percent, she
said. (The Marine fighter pilot breakdown was not available, public
affairs staff at the Pentagon said.)
The Blue Angels performance
in San Diego this weekend could boost those numbers. “Having the Blues
here will inspire everyone. The precision with which they fly is
incredible,” said Groeneveld, a former helicopter pilot. “They are a
recruiting tool for the Navy because everyone who goes out and sees them
wants to be them someday. I speak from experience,”
Flying the
C-130 in the air show this weekend, Higgins will demonstrate some of the
zero g maneuvers they might have to pull in combat — to evade gun fire
and enemy radar, or rapidly descend to base because of a malfunction.
Even experienced aviators sometimes lose their lunch in Fat Albert, as
their feet jump for the ceiling.
“She’s a big girl but we can zip
her around pretty well. It’s definitely fun. It’s cool to be able to
show the American people the capabilities of my aircraft,” Higgins said.
But
her duties on the ground are just as important. “One of the best parts
about being on this team is to be able to talk to Americans about those
sailors, those Marines, airmen and soldiers currently overseas standing
the watch,” doing everything from fighting ISIS over Syria to flying
transport missions in Asia, she said.
“I get thanked every day for my service, but in reality all those thank you’s need to go to … those true heroes.”

Marine Capt. Katie Higgins, a Blue Angels pilot who flies the “Fat Albert” C-130 plane, meets fans at the Fort Worth Alliance Air Show on Sept. 13, 2015. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Andrea Perez/Released)

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