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Women wanted to fly jets in combat. Breaking that barrier would be the fight of their lives.

In the early 1990s, few corners of the military were as misogynistic as the world of fighter pilots. This is the story of the women Navy officers who overcame that culture to fly the formidable F-14.

The F-14 Tomcat was a Rorschach test of a fighter jet. Some considered it an unwieldy monster. Others said it commanded grudging respect. Still others compared the 25-ton jet to an elephant — huge, powerful, and stubborn. Whatever you called it, the F-14 was as storied as it was formidable. It reigned for years as the workhorse among US Navy air combat machines.

For Lt. Kara Hultgreen, the F-14 started out as a consolation prize. The 29-year-old hotshot had wanted to fly an F/A-18 Hornet, the sharpest and newest member of the Navy’s fleet. But after a few months of training, the F-14 won Hultgreen’s heart. She came to consider it a remarkable plane, complicated and humbling.

Hultgreen lived in Solana Beach, California, a half-hour north of Miramar Naval air base, where she was headed the morning of October 25, 1994. She got up early that day. She debated what to wear out the door — khakis or her flight suit. Wearing flight suits through the gate was frowned upon. But since she’d have to change clothes right away, she decided to blow off the rule and go with the suit.

She was excited about the detachment. The night before, she’d taken her gear to her stateroom aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, including a beloved down comforter grown scruffy and clumped over the years. She liked to wind herself in it when she slept. “I’m going to the boat next week until 9 Nov. Should be fun,” she wrote in a letter to her father. “I’m also in November issue of McCall’s magazine.”

Hultgreen wasn’t the first woman to fly a Tomcat, but she was the first to fly one operationally, tactically, and to land it on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. And she was the first woman in the US Navy to qualify as a combat-rated jet pilot.

Associated Press photo; illustration by Clark Miller for Epic

In the process of becoming the first, the outspoken Hultgreen had come to occupy a special place in the history of women in aviation. Also special was the particular plane Hultgreen piloted off the coast of San Diego that afternoon: It was one of the Tomcats that shot down two Libyan jets over the Gulf of Sidra in 1981. The incident, recreated in Top Gun, was one of the most dramatic moments in modern air warfare.

The mission that afternoon: to take off from Miramar, fly to the Lincoln 50 miles offshore, and set down 50,000 pounds of fighter jet on the ship’s deck to begin the 16-day detachment.

By 2:30 pm, Hultgreen was on the runway with her favorite backseater, radar intercept officer Matthew Klemish. Klem wasn’t a nugget — Navy lingo for a first-tour flight officer — but he wasn’t exactly seasoned. Hultgreen had fewer hours in the F-14 than Klem but nearly double the total flight hours. They’d shared eight of their last nine flights together, and they trusted each other.

Hultgreen was Lt. Neil “Waylon” Jennings’s wingman in a two-aircraft flight. In the squadron’s ready room, Waylon briefed the crews on the sortie. After they completed a visual inspection of their jet, Hultgreen and Klem climbed into the F-14, strapped in, taxied to the warmup area near takeoff, and gave Waylon the thumbs-up. They were cleared for takeoff. Hultgreen ran up the engines to test them, and Klem checked the RPM, turbine temperature, fuel flow, and other instruments. Everything looked good. Hultgreen gave Waylon another thumbs-up.

Hultgreen pushed the throttle into afterburner and, in what would become one of the most significant moments in female aviation history, the jet exploded forward. In 10 seconds they were in the air. Hultgreen accelerated to 200 knots to join Waylon, and the pair of jets hurtled across an azure sky, the wind at 9 knots, a crystalline view up the coastline and over to Catalina Island. Hultgreen banked southwest toward the carrier. It was a perfect day to fly.

To appreciate what it meant to see a woman in the cockpit of a US Navy fighter jet in 1994, you need to understand that until just 18 months before, there was only one role in the US government where women could not legally serve: active combat.

Women had been fighting for decades to make inroads into the military. Before World War II, women could enlist only as volunteers, often serving as nurses or clerical workers. In 1943, the Women’s Army Corps was created, permitting women to obtain full Army status for noncombat positions. Five years later, in 1948, Congress passed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, a law that granted women permanent status in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force while also placing tight restrictions on what roles they could fill. Over time, the law was repealed piece by piece, until the last remaining restrictions were those banning women from service on combat ships and aircraft.

Through the 1980s and early 1990s, women lobbied hard for the right to serve in combat. And even after they succeeded in 1993, there remained few corners of the military as overtly macho, if not downright misogynistic, as the world of fighter pilots. In the months after Congress reversed the combat exclusion policy, any woman who sat at the controls of an F-14 faced enormous scrutiny. “You don’t necessarily want to be the chick that everyone talks about that screwed it up,” Hultgreen said.

She was specifically referring to flying a jet poorly. But, perhaps unwittingly, she meant much more than that. She meant no woman in the military wanted to damage their collective cause, the years of public advocacy and letter-writing and trips to Washington to cajole lawmakers to do the right thing; she meant no woman wanted to screw up what they’d fought so long and hard to win.

But several members of that generation of women who broke through the combat glass ceiling had an even loftier goal in mind. Hultgreen and others had their sights set on becoming astronauts, and piloting a fighter jet was a means to that end. But this was no ordinary stop on the road to NASA. In the process of chasing one dream, they found themselves living another.

Growing up in Ontario, Canada, Kara Spears Hultgreen spent most of her childhood out-running, out-skating, and out-swimming all the other kids. According to Call Sign Revlon, the book Sally Spears wrote about her daughter, Kara liked to tell people that she raised herself, as neither of her parents had much time for her. (Call Sign Revlon’s thorough retelling of Hultgreen’s life and career was a vital source for this story.) Sally, a lawyer, and Kara’s father, Tor, a wood pulp distributor, both worked long hours, often leaving at the crack of dawn and not returning until after dinner. One morning when Kara was little, she ran away. No one noticed she was gone, and scarcely noticed when she returned later that day.

Kara pushed limits. As a small girl, she would horse around, but when others stopped wrestling, she kept going — and going hard. As her mother wrote, “Kara lacked the cutoff valve, inborn in some people, that signals enough is enough.” She had to learn that social cue.

Kara adored her older sisters, Kirsten and Dagny. She wanted nothing more than to be around them and, textbook older siblings, they wanted nothing to do with her. She began life affectionate and eager to please, but in the face of constant rejection, she began to change. One day, when she was 9, Kara followed her sisters to the family room. They told her to scram, then locked the glass door behind them.

“I’m coming through that door if you don’t let me in,” the furious child warned.

The older girls laughed and taunted her from behind the heavy plate glass. Kara raised her arm in front of her like an offensive lineman throwing a block and ran straight at the door. When Dagny and Kirsten realized she wasn’t going to stop, they jumped back. Kara sailed through the glass and landed on her feet on the other side of the door. Shards of glass were everywhere, some of it hanging from the door frame. But Kara hardly had a scratch on her.

Emerging unscathed from her impulsive act taught Kara what her mother called a “flawed and treacherous lesson” — that she was invincible. Until her sisters watched, speechless and afraid, as Kara charged through that glass door, the older girls had lorded over their little sister. And until that moment, she had let them do it. That’s when Kara made a promise to herself that her mother recalled in Call Sign Revlon: “She would never be a victim again.”

National Archives photo; illustration by Clark Miller for Epic

Hultgreen’s parents had separated during her childhood, and when Hultgreen was a teenager, she moved with her mother to San Antonio and finished high school in Texas. There, she blossomed, excelling in the classroom and at every sport she tried. She was drawn to science and math, and her dream of becoming an astronaut began to take form. She would spend hours watching Star Trek, but while most kids of her generation simply watched it, Hultgreen pledged to live it. Doubt never entered her mind.

After high school, she attended the University of Texas at Austin and majored in aerospace engineering. She made the engineering honor roll most semesters and began knocking down, one by one, the obstacles that lay between her and outer space. When she graduated, she found herself at a crossroads: She could pursue a PhD in engineering or become a test pilot. For daredevil Hultgreen, the choice was obvious. She had read The Right Stuff, including the passages about test pilot Chuck Yeager, the first aviator to break the sound barrier. Even his name oozed swagger. He was the prototype of the “shit hots,” the name test pilots called themselves because they were better than damn good. They were superb.

That was the route for Hultgreen. In July 1987, she entered Aviation Officer Candidate School (AOCS) in Pensacola, Florida. The 14-week program was created to put college graduates on the fast track to aviation officer status without passing through the US Naval Academy or ROTC. To pass the physical requirement, she got Monique Kleck, her best friend from high school and a star athlete, to pace her running the mile. “You just stay on my heels,” Kleck said when they began training, but Hultgreen still came hot off the blocks, burning out after a few laps. “That was her nature and her personality for sure,” Kleck said.

The first time Hultgreen ran the obstacle course in AOCS, a drill instructor offered to let her skip the 12-foot vertical wall made famous in the Richard Gere film An Officer and a Gentleman.

“Long hair,” he said. “You can go around the wall.”

“Permission to go over the wall, sir,” she replied.

He shook his head. “Long hair,” he said, “I’ve never had a female officer candidate make it over the wall. Non-males don’t have the upper-body strength.”

She looked at him, grabbed the rope, and walked the wall effortlessly. “I thought it was pretty easy, actually,” Hultgreen wrote to Kleck. Her classmates — all men — called her an inspiration.

Another AOCS rite of passage is the helo dunker, the most dreaded obstacle in all naval training. It consists of a helicopter fuselage replica that gets submerged in a pool of water to simulate a crash landing. Once the fuselage fills with liquid, the officer candidates must calmly extricate themselves and swim to the surface. But that’s not the end of it: Candidates must go through this nightmare scenario multiple times — while upright, while upside-down, and while blindfolded.

Once, when Hultgreen was both blindfolded and inverted, her seat belt got stuck. She tugged on the buckle, trying to unfasten the latch. Nothing. She did it again. Nothing. Time was running out. She needed to get out before she drowned. She signaled to the safety diver for help. Though unable to see what was going on as he swam to her and started pulling at the strap, she stayed calm. He struggled at first, but finally got her free. “Kara was very good under pressure,” Kleck recalled. “The idea of her panicking … it was not in her DNA.”

At advanced flight training, things got more intense. Hultgreen flew solo for dogfighting practice for the first time, and her instructor was a woman. Hultgreen described it as “a big catfight — meowr!” She wanted to show this woman that she wasn’t one iota less aggressive than a man.

As it turned out, this was the first time she would earn her jet cowboy spurs. That afternoon, as she was following the instructor’s aerial maneuvers, Hultgreen suddenly realized she’d lost control of her plane and had entered a violent spin. She recalled the incident in gripping detail a few years later to Jean Zimmerman, who was writing Tailspin, a book about women in the military. “I’m getting smashed up against the canopy,” she told Zimmerman. “I’m like, ‘What the hell?’” The gauge on the altimeter was falling, and fast.

In most military jets, if you’re out of control passing 10,000 feet, the rule is unambiguous: eject. But here was Hultgreen, tumbling out of the sky at 11,000 feet. She put the controls in neutral and waited for her plane to recover. All she could think was that if she ejected, she wouldn’t get her wings the next month. To hell with 10,000 feet, she decided, and at 7,500 feet she pulled out of the dive and executed a dramatic turn to rejoin her instructor, after which they resumed their dogfight and flew back to the base.

US Navy photo; illustration by Clark Miller for Epic

“I compete with everyone not to prove anything, but as a way of life,” Hultgreen wrote to a friend. And nowhere would her competitive instincts kick in with more thrust than at the Naval Air Station Key West in Florida, where she reported for duty with squadron VAQ-33, the “Firebirds,” in March 1990. And it was at Key West that Hultgreen drew a bead on Lt. Susan Still, call sign “Shine,” four years older and a few years ahead of Hultgreen in the Navy pipeline.

Susan Leigh Still (now Kilrain) caught the aviation bug in high school, when she spent a month-long independent study learning to fly a single-engine Cherokee Warrior. By the end of the month, Still knew she wanted to fly much higher and faster than any starter plane could take her. Money was tight when she was growing up in Augusta, Georgia. Still’s father would go on to become a successful physician, but at the time he was supporting the family of six while still in medical school, and an affordable group outing often meant taking the kids to Daniel Field, the tiny local airport, to watch planes take off and land.

Still’s dream of becoming an astronaut came from flying, but also from serious stargazing. “I would spend hours just looking at the night sky and dreaming of being among the stars,” she said. There was no family television at home, so Still missed the first moon landing in the summer of 1969. But for the Apollo 12 mission four months later, her third-grade teacher wheeled a television into the classroom, and inspiration roiled inside Still as she watched Alan Bean and Charles “Pete” Conrad traverse the lunar surface.

Still revered her father, and she spent months drumming up the courage to tell him that she dreamed of becoming an astronaut. She was scared — not because her dad was rigid or mean or narrow-minded. He was none of those things. She was scared because she had yet to meet a woman performing anything beyond a “traditional female job.” How does a girl who grew up around secretaries, teachers, and stay-at-home moms tell her parents, the world, or even herself that she wants to do something no woman had ever done?

When she was 14, Still seized a moment to blurt out her ambitions when she was alone with her father in the kitchen. “You can be anything you want to be,” he said, and he meant it. To this day, she is impressed by his response. “I’m fascinated that he had that instant wisdom to say that without any qualifiers,” she said.

Still earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in aeronautical engineering, and after a brief stint as a wind tunnel project officer for a defense contractor, she applied to become a test pilot with the Air Force. But recruiters told her they weren’t accepting any more female pilots that year. She joined the Navy instead.

When Still arrived at aviation officer candidate school, she was one of six women in a class of 60. She knew the physical requirements would be brutal, but she made sure to stay on equal footing with the men. By the end of the first week, she was the only woman left. By the time she graduated, Still had the best overall marks in academics and physical fitness, and she was voted regimental commander. “That’s what made me so proud,” Still said, “that these guys voted for me.”

Yet no matter how successful Still was at winning her male peers’ trust and admiration, she could do little to overcome Navy policies that discriminated against women. At the beginning of her career in the mid-1980s, most planes in the Navy fleet remained off-limits to female pilots. “It never occurred to me that women couldn’t do all the stuff that men could do,” she said. “That was a little shocking.”

Hultgreen and Still met when they were both stationed in Key West, training to operate the EA-6A, an aircraft designed to jam enemy communications and weapons systems. The earliest models of the plane had played an important role in Marine Corps tactics during the Vietnam War. The EA-6A was a sturdy, if clunky, two-seater — a world away from the sleek fighters Hultgreen yearned to fly — and by the time Hultgreen and Still began piloting the bumblebee-shaped planes, the aircraft had already been outdated for almost two decades. “Who would choose to fly the EA-6A?” Hultgreen wrote. “No one, that’s who.”

Susan Still with an EA-6A in 1992.
Courtesy of Susan Still Kilrain

As a squadron, the Firebirds were a motley crew. For Hultgreen and Still, Key West was a way station on the road to something much bigger. But many of the male pilots were there because, for one reason or another, they hadn’t made a fleet combat squadron. If you were at Key West and you were a man, you might have been medically disqualified from serving on an aircraft carrier, or maybe you hadn’t been able to land an aircraft on a carrier. So in those years before the ban on women in combat ended, a lopsided dynamic emerged between a handful of hard-charging women at the top of their class and a bunch of, well, rejects.

When Still arrived in Key West in June 1990, she had never been in a squadron where she wasn’t the only woman. But the Firebirds had several female naval flight officers (NFOs) — aviators who occupy the second seat of two-person aircrafts — and Still was looking forward to working with other women. When she got there, though, she sensed a level of zero-sum competitiveness that left little room for camaraderie.

Hultgreen arrived at Key West at around the same time. She was larger than life, radiating energy and charisma, and eager to take the competition among women — and men, for that matter — to a new level. “She was the most competitive person I’ve ever met,” recalled Linda Heid (now Maloney), one of the squadron’s NFOs. “She always had to be one step ahead.”

As soon as Still joined the squadron, Hultgreen targeted her as the woman to beat. Still was known for being an outstanding pilot, singularly focused and in perfect physical condition. “I might as well just go ahead and hate her,” Hultgreen once joked. “It’ll save time.”

The similarities between Still and Hultgreen ended with their shared goal of becoming astronauts. Otherwise, they couldn’t have been more different. The domineering Hultgreen, who seemed born with her dukes up, wore her ambition on her sleeve, while Still was earnest, laser-focused, and quietly strategic. Even with 1,000 flight hours, experience as a flight instructor, and seniority over Hultgreen, Still found herself in constant competition with her new squadron-mate. “There was a lot of tension,” Still said, “but it made no sense. We weren’t going to be competing against each other for evaluations, nothing.”

Nevertheless, Still couldn’t help but admire Hultgreen’s skill as a pilot. Still had finished first at AOCS and second in her advanced jet training. She wasn’t surprised to learn that Hultgreen had graduated in the top third of her pilot class in academic and flight performance, or that she received commendations for superior performance in precision bombing practice.

One of Hultgreen’s most impressive feats came when she managed to land an EA-6A without one of its wheels — the right-side landing gear got stuck. “We are pretty much heroes for saving the $4 million pod and sustaining only minor wing tip cosmetic damage,” Hultgreen wrote to a friend. Months earlier, when another fleet squadron encountered the same problem, the pilot bungled the landing. They “missed the wire, went off the runway, and had over $200,000 damage to their jet,” Hultgreen wrote. “So what’s my point? It really makes me look that much better!”

Hultgreen’s superiors called her “an extremely impressive naval officer in all respects.” In the squadron, she was known as a “decisive leader” with “boundless enthusiasm and superior dedication.” Even so, or perhaps precisely because of Hultgreen’s success and swagger, many of her male counterparts had it in for her. “She wasn’t paying them what they deemed the proper respect for being senior, more experienced, older,” Still said. “Anytime something bad happened, the men would jump on that and try to crucify her.”

Men and women alike pegged Hultgreen as arrogant. There’s no doubt that she was confident. When a reporter asked if women should be considered for combat roles, she answered: “Why not? My fangs grow as long as anybody else’s.” With that, her squadron mates gave her a new call sign: “Fang.”

But Fang wasn’t all bravado. Over the course of her career, she grew close with many female aviators. She wrote chummy, heartfelt letters to friends, multi-page missives in which she aired her career frustrations, offered advice on how to avoid “insecure assholes,” and shared her thoughts on the latest Navy news. Some letters were handwritten in her distinctive all-caps scrawl; others were typed out on her computer so she could save the copies. “I’ll need these when I write my memoirs,” she wrote to one friend.

Then things started to go wrong on flights Hultgreen piloted. In the pitch black of a January night in 1991, she and her navigator were approaching the runway at Jacksonville’s Cecil Field for a landing. Thunderstorms in the vicinity limited visibility from the cockpit, with clouds blanketing the sky as low as 800 feet. Hultgreen could see neither the horizon nor the ground. She felt like the plane was slipping, as everything around her started spinning.

Pilots are trained to handle sudden bouts of vertigo caused by spatial disorientation. They’re taught to trust their flight instruments and the guidance from the tower. But in Hultgreen’s plane, a poor radio signal made instructions from the runway below arrive full of static and on a lengthy delay, and her backup instruments were behaving erratically. Her navigator, Lt. Downey Ward, call sign “Psycho,” tried to help, but he too was disoriented. They only knew they were somewhere in the sky.

At 400 feet and still in trouble, Hultgreen managed to pull the aircraft’s nose up and raised its landing gear and wing flaps. But without its landing flaps down, the jet didn’t have enough speed to stay in the air and descended rapidly towards the trees. Hultgreen realized her mistake and quickly put the flaps back down. At an altitude of 100 feet, the jet finally began to climb back into the landing pattern. A different controller took over, and Hultgreen landed the plane. The close call left her shaken. “I nearly kilt Psycho,” she wrote in her journal that night.

During a harsh review session conducted at an all-officers meeting after the incident, Hultgreen was asked why she hadn’t ejected. Still, who was in attendance, recalled Hultgreen’s answer: “It never occurred to me. I was so busy trying to recover.”

Later, Still pulled Hultgreen aside and asked again why she hadn’t ejected. “Because,” Hultgreen said, “I’m a woman.”

“So you were willing to die and kill your right-seater instead of looking bad as a woman pilot?” Still asked.

Hultgreen’s response: “All women pilots would pay for it if I ejected.” That answer would stay with Still for years.

A few months later, Hultgreen and Linda Heid flew to an aviation symposium at Whidbey Island, Washington. Before they took off, their executive officer told them to bring the plane in straight and level and avoid speeding as they began their approach for landing. In aviation terms, they were to avoid “coming in hot.” But as they began their descent, Hultgreen and Heid chose to ignore him. “The weather was beautiful, everything was operating normally, and she and I just said, ‘You know what, let’s go into the break,’” Heid recalled.

In a naval landing pattern, aircraft fly upwind over the runway at 800 feet. About halfway down the runway, the lead aircraft makes a 180-degree left turn — also called a “break” maneuver. Subsequent aircraft each wait a few seconds before following the lead plane to allow for spacing between the aircraft and the bleeding off of airspeed in order to lower the landing gear and decelerate to touchdown speed. The faster you fly into the break, the more G-force is required to slow down. “Kara liked to show off a little bit, like all aviators do,” Heid recalled. “And so we came screaming into the break, and it sounded like the rivets were popping out of the wings when we landed. I mean, it felt like it was too much. And I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, Kara.’”

After the pair returned to Key West, more than 100 fuel leaks were found in the plane’s wings. It had been overstressed and needed substantial repairs. When their commander asked Heid about the damage, she blamed it on Hultgreen’s showboating. “I had to be honest about it,” she said.

After the flight, neither Hultgreen nor Heid checked the G-meter, an accelerometer that measures the change in gravitational force acting on the plane. A G-meter read would have told them definitively if Hultgreen was responsible for the overstress. Instead, it was Heid’s word against Hultgreen’s.

Hultgreen, incensed, believed the damage had occurred on a different flight. Two other aviators had flown the same plane after their sortie in Washington, and the plane only started leaking fuel after that second flight. She complained that she hadn’t received due process. “They naturally assumed that I was responsible for the overstress and that I covered it up,” she wrote to a friend. “They talked to the other two pilots and instead of me they asked Linda. … And Linda said, ‘Yes, I think she did overstress it. … I thought I could hear the rivets popping when we were in the break.’ Oh fucking great answer.”

The maintenance officer told Hultgreen she misjudged the plane’s capabilities. “[He said] I blatantly disregarded the aircraft’s limitations,” she wrote in the same letter. “I was trying to fly the EA-6A like it was an F/A-18. I told him I was painfully aware that the A-6 was not an F/A-18.”

The Whidbey incident stuck in Hultgreen’s craw. She was angry that she got blamed and angry that she was piloting Vietnam War–era planes that couldn’t maneuver like the state-of-the-art F/A-18. She was angry because she knew a woman’s screw-up would get more attention than a man’s.

And in this case, even Hultgreen’s biggest rival agreed that the process seemed unfair. “It was almost a witch hunt,” Still recalled. “It doesn’t surprise me at all that she got too fast and overstressed the airplane. But then she had a lot of compelling arguments as to how it wasn’t her.”

National Archives photo; illustration by Clark Miller for Epic

In August 1990, Iraq invaded — then swiftly annexed — neighboring Kuwait. Five months later, a US-led coalition of nations formed the largest military alliance since World War II and embarked on a six-week bombing campaign to destroy Iraq’s war machine arsenal. In what came to be called Operation Desert Storm, the US and its allies flew more than 116,000 combat missions and dropped more than 88,000 tons of bombs. US Navy combat and support aircraft played a key role. It was an exciting time to be a combat pilot.

Hultgreen’s frustration only grew as she watched many of the men she had trained with leave for the war in the Persian Gulf. Hultgreen was furious that they got to see combat while she and other women were kept away from the fight. She became a fierce advocate for the lifting of the combat exclusion policy. Throughout the summer of 1991, she wrote to members of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees. She visited Washington, DC, to meet with any lawmaker who would see her. “Let’s just say I haven’t been making a lot of friends by being so vocal,” Hultgreen wrote, but “if the president signs the defense authorization act it will have all been worth it.” She believed that women should have the same right as men to be put in harm’s way for their country. “It’s destiny,” she said, “and I’m gonna be a part of it.”

While preparing for an interview with NBC Nightly News, Hultgreen wrote out some talking points:

It’s about being an individual and realizing your potential as an individual, not being a man or woman.

You cannot convince me that women can be protected from the horrors of war. … No one seems to care if I get raped on the way to my local grocery store. I’m just not allowed to get raped by the enemy.

Despite her efforts, Hultgreen sensed that other women in the military weren’t joining her call for change as enthusiastically as she had hoped. She was especially unhappy with Still, who declined to get involved with the effort. Still didn’t need to fly fighter jets in order to pilot a space shuttle; she needed only test pilot credentials. And Still remained shrewdly determined to keep her reputation intact. She stayed away from anything that might label her a troublemaker.

Still (front row, second from right) was the only woman in her commissioning class at Officer Candidate School.
Courtesy of Susan Still Kilrain

In August 1991, Hultgreen made lieutenant. She had four years of service, more than 1,000 flight hours, and a reputation as an unflappable pilot. What happened the following month in Nevada, though, would test her composure like never before.

That September, a sizable contingent from Key West descended on Las Vegas for the most prestigious (and wildest) convention in their field, the Tailhook Association’s 35th annual Naval Aviation Symposium. Hultgreen, Still, and one other female officer from their squadron attended, along with a gang of their male peers. They all knew they’d be flying into a weekend-long drunken brawl — because that’s how the three nights of Tailhook always played out.

According to one retired rear admiral, “The Tailhook Association started as an old man’s drinking club.” The first gathering took place in 1956 on a beach in Rosarito, Mexico, some 30 miles south of San Diego, and it didn’t take long for the event to become a yearly rite of excess held in the spirit of Chuck Yeager’s aviator credo: “flying and hell-raising — one fuels the other.” The group named itself after a vital piece of aircraft equipment: the claw-like hook at the rear of a military plane designed to snag an arrestor cable stretched across an aircraft carrier’s deck upon landing.

Over the years, the Tailhook Association matured into a full-fledged professional organization, whose stated mission was to build camaraderie among naval aviators. The group continued to expand its membership and ambitions, and its annual confab moved to Las Vegas in 1963. By the time Hultgreen and Still attended in 1991, Tailhook was among the largest aerospace industry trade shows in the nation, with an agenda stacked with lectures and panel discussions and an exhibit hall packed with more than 150 booths.

But no matter how legitimate the event became, it would always be best known for the raucous party scene and the nights of debauchery that followed each day of professional development. So predictable was the yearly property damage bill that the host property, the Las Vegas Hilton, began charging the Tailhook Association thousands of dollars in advance for anticipated cleanup costs.

Heading into Tailhook ’91, that atmosphere felt supercharged by the residual energy the male attendees brought home after the Gulf War. Men returned stoked from the United States’ swift triumph over Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces. Never mind that some 32,000 women had served in non-combat roles among the 540,000 troops who had deployed to the Persian Gulf, including nearly 6,000 women in the Navy and Marines.

At the time of the Gulf War, women were still barred from US military warplanes and combat ships, but that didn’t prevent female soldiers from losing their lives while deployed. Thirteen American women were killed during the conflict; five were killed in action. Two other women were taken prisoner. In other words, women were excluded from the combat theater but not from the dangers of war.

When the first Tailhook weekend after the Operation Desert Storm rolled around, some confrontation seemed inevitable between male aviators amped up on battlefield glory and the women of equal rank and ability who resented being held out of combat. That summer, women stepped up their efforts to force a repeal of the combat exclusion policy, and just six weeks before Tailhook, a congressional vote to study the issue had been front-page news. The convention, already infamous for hard drinking and “hell-raising,” was shaping up to be a powder keg — right on top of a beer keg.

Tailhook’s traditional ground zero for booze-addled revelry was known as “the Gauntlet,” a hallway on the third floor of the Las Vegas Hilton flanked by some two dozen “hospitality suites,” all rented by different military units for the weekend. At early Tailhook conventions, the scene on the third floor included aviators lined against the wall and cheering as women passed through the crowded hallway. During those years, a number of the women attending evenings at Tailhook “could be described as prostitutes,” according to a 268-page investigation report the Defense Department released in 1993. Over time, as the number of female aviators in attendance grew, so did the level of rowdiness. The cheering and catcalls turned to grabbing, groping, and hazing.

Female aviators weren’t coerced to visit the third-floor hallway, though some were lured. Yet despite the Gauntlet’s grotesque reputation, many women, including Hultgreen, chose to go. “When I went to Tailhook I certainly knew what Tailhook was all about,” she said. “I had heard about the third floor.” She and everyone else knew that the third floor was the hub of the party scene that weekend. How could a few loud drunks spoil the action? She was the best of the best — what could happen that she couldn’t handle?

So on Thursday, the first night of the event, Hultgreen went to the third floor to look for a few friends — everyone who was anyone was there. Already, the entire hallway smelled rancid. Hultgreen found herself standing with a couple of guys in a hospitality suite, drinking beers and having the same old argument about women’s rights and fitness to serve in combat. She wasn’t yielding, and neither were they. But they kept it civil, and there were no hard feelings.

Suddenly, she felt a hand on her thigh, working its way up her skirt. She swatted it away and kept talking. But the hand returned. Now she was irked. “Will you hold my beer a sec?” she said to one of the men and handed him her plastic stadium cup. Hultgreen wheeled around, grabbed the guy who’d been touching her by the collar, and pushed him against the wall. “Look,” she said. “I’m an officer. I’m an aviator. You touch me again and I’ll kill you.” She retrieved her beer and resumed the conversation.

Adobe stock photo; illustration by Clark Miller for Epic

The next thing she felt was a bite on her right buttock. (This practice was called “sharking,” and it was a common form of Tailhook harassment.) Again, she asked the man she’d been speaking with to hold her beer. Then, quickly and definitively, she elbowed the biter in the back of his head with all her might. “Get the hell away from me,” she snarled. He fell to the ground and crawled out the suite door and into the hallway. With a roll of her eyes, Hultgreen returned to her conversation. She wasn’t touched again.

If the biter had attempted what Tailhookers called “butt rodeo” — clasping onto Hultgreen’s buttock with his jaw until she could shake him loose — who’s to say what she might have done to him. As it was, Hultgreen dismissed the encounter as an annoyance.

On Saturday morning, Hultgreen attended the conference’s keynote event, the Flag Panel, where high-ranking officers take the stage for a no-holds-barred Q&A with the rank-and-file. Anyone in the audience could ask any question, and the military brass pledged to answer. As the session began, the room was packed and thick with tension. Hultgreen came ready with her question: When would policy change to allow women to fly in combat? But another female aviator — Lt. Monica Rivadeneira — stood up first and asked that very question.

The reaction from the mostly male audience was swift and unambiguous. Before the nine male officers onstage could give much of a response, boos, hisses, and catcalls rained on the room. There was no mistaking these jeers for good-natured or sarcastic ribbing. These calls had a vicious edge that reflected not just institutional misogyny — which the Navy had in spades — but also an anxiety among naval aviators that the military might not need them for much longer. The Cold War had all but ended, and the danger of Soviet nuclear attacks felt remote. Naval aviators had played a large role in the Gulf War, flying escort missions to protect bombers and patrolling the skies to enforce US air superiority over the battlefield. But now that was over, too.

These men already felt threatened by changing approaches to warfare and rumors of looming budget cuts. Now they were facing competition for a limited number of roles from an entire population they’d never had to contend with before. They watched as women inched closer, first training alongside them at the Naval Academy and then at the Naval Air Training Command. It was only a matter of time before they’d be forced to share their exclusive domain — the cockpits of fighter jets — with women, too.

When Rivadeneira spoke, all of the men’s frustration and fear surfaced in the boos they directed at her and every other woman in that room who dared to upend their world. Once the shouting died down, Vice Adm. Richard Dunleavy, assistant chief of naval operations for air warfare, began to answer Rivadeneira’s question. He seemed uneasy. The Navy would do as Congress directed, he said. This prompted one male officer to stand and voice his objection to women in combat. Men in the audience erupted in applause.

Susan Still also attended that Flag Panel session. She witnessed the exchange between Rivadeneira and Dunleavy, and she felt the hostility humming through that crowd. Yet her response remained measured as ever, and she resisted taking a side in the dispute. “It was an interesting choice of questions in that audience,” Still said. “And anybody who wasn’t expecting those results was fooling themselves.”

The tension in that audience didn’t dissipate after the Flag Panel; instead, it traveled straight up from the ballroom of the Las Vegas Hilton and came to settle on the third floor of the hotel, specifically in the Gauntlet. Saturday night, men stationed at the end of the hallway screened every woman who approached with shouts of “clear deck” (attractive) or “foul deck” (unattractive). In the hallway and suites, men grabbed women by the crotch and committed other humiliating acts of abuse, including “sharking” (the aforementioned butt-biting), “zapping” (slapping squadron stickers on women’s breasts and buttocks), and “ballwalking” (exposing one’s testicles). Some women had their shirts or blouses pulled off. Others were lifted up and carried through the crowd. One woman was carried out of a helicopter squadron suite and then passed along the hallway while men removed her pants and underwear.

By Sunday, at least 83 women had been sexually assaulted. An initial investigation by the Navy, released a few months after the Tailhook weekend, identified 26 victims and only three suspects for indecent assault. The report also stated that the women who attended Tailhook “should have expected and accepted” what happened on the third floor of the Las Vegas Hilton.

Unsatisfied with what they considered a perfunctory job, several members of Congress called for a more thorough investigation. After Lt. Paula Coughlin, a naval aviator who testified to having been assaulted, went public with her story, the Pentagon’s criminal investigative division initiated its own inquiry into the weekend. It took 10 months to complete. DOD investigators interviewed 2,911 people. In the end, 140 officers were implicated.

The DOD report also plumbed Tailhook’s history of excess. “The emerging pattern of some of the activities, such as the gauntlet, began to assume the aura of ‘tradition,’” the report reads. “There is even some evidence to suggest that Tailhook ’91 was ‘tame’ in comparison to earlier conventions.”

Displaying a striking lack of contrition, many of the men who had committed abuses told investigators that their behavior sprang from Navy tradition and should have been excused. Some cited their heroism in the Persian Gulf as justification. Still others likened Tailhook to an overseas deployment and the “anything goes” mindset that soldiers adopt while on liberty in foreign ports.

Still and Kara Hultgreen at the Tailhook Association’s 1991 Naval Aviation Symposium. The raucous — and violent — behavior toward women at Tailhook eventually became a national scandal.
Courtesy of Susan Still Kilrain

Hultgreen didn’t return to the Gauntlet after Thursday night, but she was identified in the report as Victim 5. She bridled at being labeled a victim of any kind. “What happened to me was irritating, and easily handled, and then blown out of proportion,” she wrote in a journal entry after a television interview in 1993, adding that the line of questioning made her uncomfortable. “I didn’t want to sound like a macho bitch that ran around beating men up.”

As far as Hultgreen was concerned, she knew what she was getting into when she stepped off that elevator. When some buffoon tried to grope and then bite her, she held her own, decked him, and watched him crawl away. End of story.

These events occurred in 1991, more than 25 years before the Me Too movement put sexual misconduct against women top of mind. Back then, vulnerability was seen as a liability — especially in the military — and victims got torn apart. Hultgreen understood this, and she refused to let anyone paint a target on her back.

“Certainly nothing happened to me that I didn’t handle,” she said. That sentiment — whatever flies at me, I can manage it — wasn’t unique to Hultgreen. It was ingrained in all aviators, male and female. They needed to believe in their own invincibility to be able to climb into the cockpit of a fighter jet and face death over and over again.

The Tailhook investigators also spoke to Still, who had visited the third floor on Thursday but didn’t report any abuse. On Friday and Saturday nights, she steered clear of the Gauntlet, choosing to spend the evening down at the blackjack table in the hotel casino. This wasn’t her first time at Tailhook. “I knew it would be out of control Friday and Saturday,” she said. “[I] had enough street smarts to know there was nothing good that could come of going to the third floor.”

Tailhook ’91 was to become the most sordid and divisive episode in the history of the US Navy. Fourteen admirals and almost 300 aviators received punishments that ended or altered their careers. Less than a year after the incident, Navy Secretary Henry Lawrence Garrett III resigned. Even though Hultgreen and Still plowed ahead toward their goals, the Tailhook scandal would loom over the Navy for years to come.

Hultgreen poses in front of an EA-6A during her time with the Firebirds.
Gloria Ferniz/San Antonio Express-News via ZUMA Press

Life after Tailhook wasn’t any easier for female aviators. “Women were the enemy in so many ways,” Still recalled. She was surrounded by men who cracked cruel jokes about the scandal, including one aviator who said, “I feel sorry for the girl who wasn’t assaulted at Tailhook because she must be a real dog.” Still was hurt. For the first time in her military career, she found herself thinking of leaving the Navy.

All this, and women remained barred from combat.

In early October, just four weeks after Tailhook, Hultgreen submitted an Officer Preference and Personal Information Card — known informally as a “dream sheet” — listing her preferences for her next assignment. On the form, she indicated that flying F/A-18 Hornets was her top choice. As soon as the law allowed, she wanted to pilot fighters. Known for its twin engine, single seat, and advanced attack technologies, the F/A-18 was fast, sleek, and tantalizing. Every pilot wanted to fly one. Hultgreen had filled out several such preference cards since she arrived in Key West, always listing the Hornet first, but the Navy had never granted her requests.

Then, on December 5, 1991, exactly two months after Hultgreen submitted her dream sheet, the combat aviation ban was finally repealed. Ironically, the Tailhook scandal might have finally spurred Congress to act. Military sociologist Charles Moskos, a member of the presidential commission on women in the military, explained the Navy’s change of heart on women in combat to the Washington Post: “It’s ranged from, ‘You tell us what to do’ to ‘We think it’s a good idea.’ That would not have been nearly as pronounced in the pre-Tailhook era.”

Even after the policy was reversed, however, the Navy didn’t immediately integrate combat squadrons. Although combat exclusion was a thing of the past, the presidential commission needed to conduct a study before the armed forces would implement change. More than a year after the repeal, Hultgreen, Still, and all the other female aviators who hoped to fly fighter jets were still chasing a dream denied. If the Navy didn’t integrate combat squadrons, Hultgreen’s career would likely hit a dead end. She could continue flying A-6s in a reserve unit, or she could get out of the military. Neither option appealed to her.

In April 1993, Hultgreen attended the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services’ spring meeting in Washington, DC. Gen. Merrill McPeak, the chief of staff of the Air Force and a prominent opponent of combat roles for women, gave the opening remarks. When McPeak opened the floor to questions, Hultgreen couldn’t hold back. “I immediately sprang to my feet and peppered him with several pointed inquiries,” Hultgreen wrote to a friend, “McPeak was stunned. … I was a hero to all the [female] Air Force pilots that were too afraid to stand up.”

Later that month, Defense Secretary Les Aspin officially opened Navy combat roles to female aviators. Hultgreen was overjoyed. “This is historic,” she told a reporter. “Sort of like being able to vote. I feel super, I’m ecstatic, I’m thrilled.”

Scarcely a month later, Hultgreen received orders to join a tactical fighter squadron. Only she wouldn’t be flying F/A-18 Hornets; the Navy had assigned her to an F-14 Tomcat squadron based at Miramar, in San Diego.

She left for California that June to begin training, disappointed about not getting her preferred plane but enthusiastic about the new chapter in her flying career.

Cmdr. Tom Sobieck would oversee the instruction. Sobieck had served in Vietnam before settling in as an instructor at TOPGUN, the Navy Fighter Weapons School dedicated to training the top 1 percent of its pilots. Sobieck also showcased his flying skills behind the controls of an enemy fighter in the original Top Gun movie. “When you fly fighters, you don’t get in the jet. You put it on and it becomes part of you,” Sobieck told his students, by which he meant that you become as powerful as your airplane. “Your envelope should be as big as the airplane’s, but that will only come with practice and experience. Stay out in front of it and never turn your back on it, or it may bite you.”

In California, Hultgreen settled into a condo in Solana Beach. Her furniture was all new, her kitchen cabinets meticulously organized, and her refrigerator door was a shrine to the life she had chosen: a magnet in the shape of aviator wings, a drawing of an F/A-18, and the quotation “I have not yet begun to fight.”

During training, the Navy’s rush to integrate women into combat roles seemed destined to stoke resentment between male and female aviators. Sobieck had orders to get the women under his tutelage ready to deploy in short order, so he accelerated their training. Hultgreen and her female peers started Tomcat training almost immediately, while men who’d been waiting for months were left in the lurch. When women served aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, they were given cushy living conditions. No matter their rank, female aviators slept in staterooms meant for midlevel officers and senior lieutenants. “The worst thing about the room assignments was that it gave people who didn’t want women on the ship a clear example to point to of us getting preferential treatment,” wrote pilot Loree Draude in her memoir. “I’m sure the Navy was trying to be considerate when these rooms were delegated to us. But in reality, the rooms made matters worse.”

During his welcome speech to the class, Sobieck hemmed and hawed while trying to explain certain ground rules in front of Hultgreen and Lt. Christine Greene. “You can’t be … um … dating instructors … and you can’t be …”

Hultgreen stepped in. “Skipper, why don’t we put it in fighter pilot terminology, something we can all understand,” she said, turning to Lt. Greene. “Don’t fuck the help.”

Sobieck laughed and slapped the table: “We’re all speaking the same language. All right!”

Hultgreen felt right at home with the fast pace and rigorous demands of life at Miramar. From the day she arrived, she said, “They just hook up a fire hose to your mouth and say, ‘Here, drink this and don’t spill any.’” Not only was there a lot to learn; there was a lot to unlearn. Hultgreen had spent the past three years flying A-6s, which were comparatively easy to control.

The Tomcat was a different beast. The twin-engine supersonic jet, first deployed in 1974, was designed to be the first line of defense against Soviet nuclear bombers. An intercept-and-destroy aircraft, it could climb to 30,000 feet in a minute and fly at twice the speed of sound. Go supersonic behind the controls of an F-14 and suddenly you’re at 6 Gs, or six times the force of gravity, and you might start to black out, all while operating 25 tons of warplane. It was a notoriously difficult jet to pilot, but Hultgreen had longed to fly fighters since joining the Navy, and she wasn’t going to let the Tomcat get the better of her.

During the initial phase of ground training, Hultgreen performed well with the new jet, ranking second in a class of five. As the exercises progressed, though, she struggled with the transition to flying Tomcats. The unforgiving F-14 made the already challenging task of landing on aircraft carriers — whose narrow, 300-foot runways are almost 27 times shorter than standard commercial runways — even more formidable. Many aviators considered the Tomcat more difficult to land than any other jet in the Navy. A quarter of F-14 pilots failed to qualify for carrier landings on their first attempt, a greater portion than with any other plane.

To land — or “trap,” as they say in the Navy — on an aircraft carrier, a pilot must snag the jet’s tailhook on a high-tensile steel cable stretched across the ship’s deck. Each cable is strong enough to stop a 30-ton aircraft going 150 miles per hour within a couple of seconds. The process is as precise as it is unforgiving.

In order to correctly land and catch an arresting wire with the hook underneath the jet, the pilot must approach the deck at just the right angle of attack. Landing signal officers (LSOs) standing on the left side of the carrier help guide the pilot down, and if the pilot strays too far off course, the LSOs wave the jet off for another attempt. Pilots reference a series of lenses located on the deck near the LSOs to guide their descent. The lenses focus light into narrow beams directed into the sky at different angles. If the plane is on target, the pilot will see an amber light, dubbed the “meatball,” in line with a row of green lights. If the amber light appears above the green lights, the plane is coming in too high; if the amber light appears below the green lights, the plane is too low.

A pilot might take two or three or however many passes are needed to trap the wire. Then, as soon as the landing gear hits the deck, the pilot pushes the engines to full power, instead of slowing down, to bring the plane to a stop. This is done because if the tailhook fails to catch the steel arresting wire, the jet needs to be moving fast enough to take off again and attempt another landing.

US Navy photo; illustration by Clark Miller for Epic

And then there are night landings. Setting down a jet on an aircraft carrier in the pitch black of night is among the most difficult and terrifying things a human can do. As a pilot up in the sky, all you see is a tiny speck of light miles away in the void. That tiny white dot is the carrier. You follow it down as it grows to the size of a postage stamp, then a small building. If conditions are ideal, the sea is calm and the night air clear, you’re in luck. But if the wind is high, or the skies are stormy, and that point of light you are approaching is pitching and heaving in the chop of the sea, you have no idea whether it’s your plane that’s moving or the ship. You know only that you’re headed straight for a 60-foot wall of steel and a few hundred feet of runway.

Talk to seasoned aviators and they’ll say carrier landings are no big deal. “But at night, or in bad weather, they’re always hair-raising,” Still explained. “You never get used to them.”

Hultgreen’s F-14 landing training would begin with days in flight simulation, followed by flights taking off from and touching down on a model runway constructed to simulate an aircraft carrier’s flight deck, and then, finally, night landings on the mock runway. Once she passed those milestones, she would qualify for exercises on a real carrier.

It didn’t come easily. Like many other aviators, Hultgreen failed her first carrier qualification. Not to be defeated, she doubled her resolve and slowly but surely got the hang of landing Tomcats. A few months later, she qualified to fly F-14s and was assigned to a new squadron, the VF-213 Blacklions, whose decades-long association with the Tomcats she planned to do proud. Her call sign was “Hulk,” a play on her last name that also referred to her physical strength. After she appeared on television wearing conspicuous makeup and false eyelashes, the squadron gave her another call sign: “Revlon.”

Hultgreen was ecstatic. “I made it to the fleet,” she wrote in a journal entry that August. “It wasn’t long ago that we were all in DC trying to make this happen.”

Hultgreen grew to love the Tomcat. She lived for the adrenaline jolt that she got after she pushed the throttle all the way into afterburner, when twin white-hot flames would shoot from the plane’s exhaust nozzles and the magnificent silver machine would thrust forward. She told one reporter that flying the F-14 was like dancing with an elephant: “You can kind of nudge it over to the right and ease it over to the left. But when it decides it’s going to sit down, there’s not a thing you can do about it.”

She became one of the F-14’s biggest champions. In early 1994, a retired rear admiral wrote to Sobieck after Hultgreen had given him a tour of the F-14. He praised her to the skies, noting her deep knowledge of the plane, high morale, and esprit de corps. “In an earlier era, I would have been pleased to have Lt. Hultgreen in one of my at-sea commands,” he wrote. “A commanding officer of a combatant ship of the line can make no higher observation.”

After she had qualified for carrier missions, Hultgreen told a reporter that a measure of invincibility had set into her mindset. “You just feel bulletproof after that,” she said. She told another reporter that the adrenaline rush from carrier landings was so great, she could barely remember her first official traps. “All I could think of was, ‘How can I work the rest of my life to buy this drug?’”

Hultgreen’s Firebirds squadron in 1993.
Florida Keys Public Libraries, Wright Langley Collection via Flickr, used under CC BY 2.0

Like Hultgreen, Still also wound up flying Tomcats. Yet once again, their paths couldn’t have been more different. In 1993, after Still finished Test Pilot School, another stop on the long road to NASA, she was offered a spot in the same F-14 squadron as Hultgreen. Still turned it down.

“I didn’t want to be part of the media circus that was following them out,” she said. “The admiral on the phone said, ‘Well, you may not get a chance to fly fighters,’ and I said I was okay with that.’” Still was on a mission to become an astronaut, and she was determined not to let anything — especially bad press — get in her way. She had already put in her application to NASA. She had no desire to be part of that first group of female combat aviators, because as much as they were being celebrated, they were also being questioned, with every one of their mistakes put under a microscope. “I was trying to get to NASA,” she said. “I couldn’t afford to have negative publicity.”

But soon after she’d declined the offer, Still was given the option of flying Tomcats on the East Coast, at the Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach, Virginia. There wasn’t the same media interest in that squadron — perhaps because camera-ready Kara Hultgreen wasn’t in it — so she accepted. And just as Still had hoped, she stayed out of the public eye. “No one from the media interviewed me at all while I was in the training command on the East Coast,” she said. “Not one time.”

Still had a strategy: to keep her head down and work hard. “I was totally under the radar,” she recalled. “Nobody knew anything about me.” She wasn’t in the game of ruffling feathers; she didn’t want to be the face of a movement. “I wasn’t the first to do anything,” she said. “I wasn’t the first woman engineer, first woman test pilot, first woman aviator, or astronaut.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Hultgreen, whether or not she intended to, became a pioneer: She was the first woman to qualify for a fighter jet in a combat squadron, and once she was assigned to the USS Abraham Lincoln (one of the Navy’s first gender-integrated aircraft carriers, which earned it the name “Babe-raham Lincoln”), she became a media darling. In November 1994, McCall’s magazine listed her as one of 15 up-and-coming women of the 21st century.

In interviews, Hultgreen was humble about her motives. “I certainly didn’t want to do this because I wanted to blaze a trail for women,” she told one reporter. “I wanted to do this because this is what I wanted to do. I was being underutilized and discriminated against because I’m a woman. Now I’m going to give it my best shot. If I don’t make it, it won’t be for not trying.” She was willing to accept the costs of being the first if it helped her break through in the positions she coveted, but she didn’t always relish the attention. “I almost wish the publicity would go away now that the policy has changed,” Hultgreen wrote to a friend.

Autumn in Southern California has its own magic. The days are crisp and clear, the nights cool. In the fall of 1994, Hultgreen had recently taken up surfing with a passion that surprised no one. She was living a block from the ocean in Solana Beach and loved cruising along the Pacific Coast in her Alfa Romeo convertible. She had been a fleet aviator for nearly three months and landed an F-14 on a carrier four dozen times when she drove to the base on October 25 to begin a two-week detachment on the Lincoln.

When it came time to fly to the ship, Hultgreen and her backseater, Matthew “Klem” Klemish, inspected their jet. Klem found some fasteners that needed tightening, but other than that, everything looked fine. They taxied to the warmup area and waited for their flight leader, Neil “Waylon” Jennings, to take off before the tower cleared them to join him.

Less than a minute later, they were in the air and climbing to 14,000 feet. “This is so great!” Hultgreen told Klem. “Going out to the Lincoln for two weeks of flying every day.”

Klem laughed. “I can tell you haven’t had a tour at sea yet,” he said. “You’ll be ready to come home after two weeks on the ship.” As they soared through the air, Spears writes in Call Sign Revlon, Hultgreen started joking. She went into her favorite Monty Python routine, about the difference in wing velocity between the African swallow and the European swallow.

The plan for landing was to descend through the clouds on Waylon’s wing, with him guiding them on instruments until he saw the ship. Waylon leveled at 1,200 feet, 10 miles from the carrier. At three miles, they could see the Lincoln’s wake, white at the stern as the carrier plied the calm sea. When the two Tomcats were level at 800 feet and traveling at a speed of 375 knots, they began their count. Hultgreen knew they’d have 17 seconds after Waylon landed and cleared his plane from the landing area. She counted. Klem noticed their approach was a little wide — Hultgreen had failed to make a tight enough turn into the landing pattern, causing the plane to be too far from the carrier. She corrected the course and they descended to 600 feet.

Waylon, in the meantime, was waved off and told to fly back around while the carrier’s crew finished clearing the deck. “He’ll be hatin’ that,” said Hultgreen, who knew Waylon well enough to guess he’d be miffed at having to make a repeat approach.

As Hultgreen was leveling her wings for final approach, she noticed she was right of the centerline, and started to correct her position. Suddenly, something wasn’t right. The plane was yawing to the left. Klem heard an unexpected popping sound behind him; the left engine sputtered and seemed to fail. “Kara, you’re 10 knots too slow,” he said. “Get some power on this jet.” They were plummeting at 1,200 feet per minute.

The landing signal officer on the ship was alarmed. “Power! Power!” he shouted. A few seconds later, the plane rolled sharply to the left. Another landing signal officer came on the radio. “Wave off!” he told them. But the window for bringing the jet under control had shut. The plane was now in extremis, only 150 feet above the water and headed straight for the ship. “EJECT!” commanded the tower. Klem pulled the ejection handle. Less than a second later, the jet’s canopy was jettisoned and Klem’s seat was propelled out just above the horizon, with a slight upward trajectory. Four-tenths of a second later, Hultgreen was ejected. But with the jet in a roll, she was shot straight down into the ocean. The plane followed her into the sea.

Rescue divers were in the water at once. They made it to Klemish quickly and within a few minutes had retrieved him from the water. His injuries were minor. Hultgreen’s situation, however, appeared far more grave, and the sailors who witnessed the fiery plume of Hultgreen’s ejection, plus its perilous trajectory, feared the worst.

Their concerns were all but confirmed when the rescue team returned to the ship without Hultgreen. A search was conducted through the rest of the afternoon and night using the carrier, ships in the vicinity, rescue boats, helicopters, and land-based aircraft.

Two days after the crash, a Miramar spokesperson told the San Antonio Express-News: “We have not said she is dead. All we know is we can’t find her.” In its article about the crash, the New York Times made a point of mentioning Hultgreen’s status as one of the first class of women allowed to fly Navy fighter jets in combat missions.

The Navy pulled out all the stops in its search for Hultgreen, spending an estimated $100,000 on the salvage effort. On November 13, nearly three weeks after the accident, the team found the sunken aircraft at a depth of 4,000 feet, resting on the ocean floor. Kara Hultgreen’s body, still strapped to her seat, was 90 yards away.

US Navy photo; illustration by Clark Miller for Epic

When a pilot dies, the subtext is often this: He must have done something wrong. Even accident reports that clearly demonstrate technical failure are often met with festering doubt. Make that pilot a woman, and things get ugly fast. The attacks on Hultgreen — now a proxy for all women who had the audacity to think they could do something only men should be allowed to do — were swift and brutal. Anonymous faxes arrived at the newsroom of the San Diego Union-Tribune, pointing out all of Hultgreen’s supposed shortcomings: She had failed in her initial qualifying attempt; after she did qualify, her grades on landings had remained lackluster; she couldn’t control her $40 million aircraft; she had no business being in the cockpit of a fighter jet.

Critics called her an accident waiting to happen, a substandard F-14 pilot whom the Navy had been pressured to qualify in order to meet its quota for women. “Lt. Kara Hultgreen was an F-14 pilot with limited abilities, who, had she been a male, would arguably never have graduated to the fleet,” wrote a “concerned individual” to the Center for Military Readiness, a nonprofit that works against women in combat and against the inclusion of LGBTQ people in the armed services. “The White House and Congress’ political pressure to get more women in combat is the direct cause of Hultgreen’s death,” argued conservative economist Walter E. Williams in his syndicated newspaper column.

Hultgreen was buried in Arlington National Cemetery on a gray, misty day in late November. Her casket, wrapped in the Stars and Stripes, lay on a caisson pulled by horses. The Navy band played as the procession made its way to Hultgreen’s final resting spot. “Not every military person is entitled to be buried at Arlington,” Tim Trant, the Navy’s head casualty assistance officer, said to Hultgreen’s mother, Sally Spears. “A full body burial is reserved for those who have died on active duty and a few special others.” Top-ranking officials, including the secretary of the Navy, attended the service. Hultgreen’s detractors were incensed that she had received such an honor.

The vitriol was so pervasive that even Hultgreen’s fellow aviators who considered her well-qualified to fly F-14s started to question what happened. “The stories I was being told was that it was all her,” said Still, who couldn’t help but recall their heated exchange a few years earlier, when Hultgreen said she didn’t eject during a life-threatening mishap because she was a woman. “It certainly entered my mind when she didn’t initiate ejection before it was too late on the day she died,” Still said.

Technical issues had plagued the F-14 since the aircraft’s introduction in the 1970s. Of the 632 F-14 Tomcats built for the US Navy, 144 crashed between 1970 and 2004. Six pilots had died in F-14 accidents caused by stalled engines in the almost 20 years since the plane was introduced. In one 48-hour period in 1976, a streak of deadly F-14 accidents swept Miramar, killing four men. Hultgreen’s was the third Tomcat crash in a little over a year, and the Navy was in the process of replacing the engines on all remaining F-14s. Despite the Tomcat’s lengthy record of technical failures, many voices within the Navy and from outside continued to scapegoat Hultgreen.

In early 1995, the findings of two Navy investigations into the crash were released. The left engine had experienced an interruption of airflow that caused it to stop producing thrust, which in turn caused the left wing to drop, with the jet’s nose pointed fatally far to the left. Could another pilot have done better than Hultgreen under the same circumstances? Perhaps so. “Had she not overshot the runway and had there not been a compressor stall, Kara would have lived,” Still said. “Had she responded to the stall immediately and properly, she would have lived. So ultimately the crash was due to mechanical failure compounded by pilot error.” But after a recent rereading of one of the investigation reports, Still said, something struck her: Hultgreen likely had no idea that the engine had stalled. “She was so busy trying to correct for centerline, she might not have noticed the asymmetrical thrust she was getting,” Still said. “And don’t forget, this all happened in about two seconds.”

Some months later, pilots from one F-14 squadron flew multiple simulated versions of Hultgreen’s accident as a training exercise. Even knowing exactly what was going to happen and when, just one of the aviators, a commanding officer with years of experience, managed to salvage the plane.

Yet some critics remained determined to blame Hultgreen, no matter the evidence. “What if the simulator tests were, in effect, rigged to preclude almost any pilot from avoiding a crash?” read an opinion piece in the San Diego Union-Tribune. “Would that exonerate Hultgreen, or indict those who tainted the tests by imposing nearly impossible conditions?”

The coup de gr​​âce came when someone claiming to be a Navy pilot faxed a six-page document detailing Hultgreen’s F-14 record to news outlets throughout San Diego. The document was rife with errors, including the false assertion that Hultgreen had failed to land on the carrier while attempting her first night trap. As the rumors spread, public opinion began to accept the notion that Hultgreen had received special treatment and shouldn’t have qualified to fly Tomcats.

So offended was Hultgreen’s mother that she went public with her daughter’s F-14 training grades. “In spite of the Navy’s vigorous defense of Kara’s qualifications, gossip continues,” Spears wrote in a note accompanying the nine-page document she released. “The best answer to gossip is the truth.” Hultgreen’s grades showed that she had been at the top of her class for day landings and ranked third overall in a class of seven. She had been a very fine F-14 pilot.

Still, who remained in the Navy until her retirement in 2005, was all too aware that she had been spared the roll of the dice that had led to Hultgreen’s death. “I am absolutely convinced that Kara did the best that she could, and probably the best any new F-14 pilot could have done,” Still said. “We’ve all been in situations that we only got out of by sheer luck.”

As the ’90s wore on, the Navy’s remaining Tomcat jets started to require more and more expensive maintenance. In 2006, the military retired the jet altogether. In retrospect, the F-14 has been remembered by some as the Troublesome Tomcat and by many others as an iconic plane, the aircraft that represented a generation raised on Top Gun. A few dozen F-14s found their way to aviation museums. The rest of the original planes were scrapped to prevent rival nations from using them as a source of spare parts. One old Tomcat made a cameo in the climactic scene of Top Gun: Maverick, this summer’s reboot of the blockbuster franchise.

Those years were trying times for female aviators in the Navy. Of the first five women assigned to combat aircraft on the Lincoln, Hultgreen died, three others were grounded, and one asked to be transferred from the ship.

These days, when Still talks to her Navy friends, they occasionally reflect on Hultgreen’s legacy. “Kara definitely broke down some barriers,” Still said. “Although many male Navy pilots were outwardly vocal against all women pilots, most respected Kara and her flying skills. She showed them that the airplane is indifferent to the gender of the pilot in control. She was also an inspiration to countless young girls.”

Over time, the progress that began with pioneering female fighter pilots like Hultgreen and Still has continued. Women now make up 12 percent of naval aviators, and a third of the pilots in Hultgreen’s former squadron are women. With the Tomcat no longer in use, the Blacklions now fly a modern version of the F/A-18 Hornets, which Hultgreen always listed atop her “dream sheet” of preferred assignments.

Hultgreen was a fighter. She never shied away from a battle, no matter how big. She championed the cause of female fighter pilots, even if it made her a target. She worked tirelessly to master the F-14, even if the margin of error was razor-thin. Fearless, tenacious, and charming, Hultgreen soared as high as she could. And, like Icarus, she paid the ultimate price.

US Navy photo; illustration by Clark Miller for Epic

On December 7, 1994, NASA called Still to inform her that she had been selected for the next astronaut class.

“I’m sure had Kara not been in the wrong place at the wrong time, you’d be watching her launch in a couple of years,” Still wrote to Hultgreen’s mother shortly before her first launch. “I often come across a video tape with her on it or an old card and think how crazy the world is.” In that same letter, Still offered to take something of Hultgreen’s into space with her.

On April 4, 1997, after two years of training, Still lived out her dream, piloting a mission on the US space shuttle Columbia. “I would be up in the cockpit all by myself, looking out at the stars, and you could see the North Star and the Southern Cross at the same time,” she said. “You can’t do that anywhere on Earth. I’d been working for decades to get to that point, and it was everything I had hoped.” On board with her were Kara Hultgreen’s gold Navy pilot wings.

Still aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 1997.
NASA/National Archives

Journalist and author Katie Hafner is host and co-executive producer of the Lost Women of Science podcast. Her novel, The Boys, will be published in late July.

Sophie McNulty is an audio producer and writer from New York City. Most recently, she was the senior producer for Lost Women of Science.

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