The timing was right when she decided to fly
By William H. McMichael
LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE - It was the summer before her senior year at the University of Texas at Austin, and officer candidate Cathy De La Garza was headed to an air base in Florida to spend two weeks "shadowing" an active duty officer. The idea was to get a taste of the real Air Force before she graduated.
The officer was an F-15 pilot. And De La Garza had always wanted to fly.
"I got a couple of rides when I was down there," she said, "and that just brainwashed me."
De La Garza knew what she wanted to do. And the timing was right. That spring, the Pentagon had begun allowing women to compete to fly combat aircraft.
Today, De La Garza is one of only seven woman F-15 pilots in the Air Force. For the past two years, she has flown the F-15C, a powerful air-to-air combat version of the jet, for the 71st Fighter Squadron at Langley Air Force Base. It's a tour of duty that has included two deployments to the Persian Gulf region and roughly 50 flights over the "no-fly" zone in southern Iraq. Now a captain, she also recently earned an upgrade to "2-ship flight lead"; that means she can lead another jet out on a combat mission.
Yet this combat pilot's idea of a great time is hanging around the house with husband Jack, curling up to read a good biography or walking her two Dalmatians in the park.
"It pushes me to do a lot of things I wouldn't do normally," De La Garza said during a recent interview at Langley. "It just forces me to use all my skill, everything they taught me. It just puts me out there."
Perhaps De La Garza, an even-tempered sort, simply has a comfort zone that balances home life and the demanding, dynamic nature of military flight duty. Like others in the military, she tires of being away from home so much -- "You learn how to deal with it," she said -- but she also loves her job.
"It's never mundane," she said. "The environment's always changing. You've got 15 million things you've got to do. You're almost overloaded -- but that's what they teach us to handle."
She's aware that others still view her as a curiosity -- including, upon first meeting, the wives of her male squadron mates, even though she's married. She's also fully versed in the short history of women in combat jets, including the controversy that swirled around the first women combat pilots in the Navy. She insists she hasn't been granted special favors or considerations during her five-year career.
"I think I've been treated fairly and allowed to succeed or fail like everybody else," she said. "I was not given preferential treatment. I can tell you that."
It's easy to assume that women who fly combat jets must be overachieving hard-chargers -- women aggressive enough to hold their own in a testosterone-rich environment. De La Garza, a woman of medium height and build who enjoys lifting weights at home with Jack, seems plenty self-assured, but in a soft-voiced, girl-next-door, affable sort of way. She's confident, but not cocky.
"If there's any need to overachieve, it's probably something personal," she said. "But I would say that's more of a characteristic of anybody in this line of work. It's very competitive. It's just not a career field where you can be lazy."
Or thin-skinned. It begins early in a military pilot's career. During training, for instance, nearly all student pilots earn themselves a call sign that is less than flattering. De La Garza's was "Chocks." That was awarded at the outset of her very first F-15 ride, when she tried to taxi the jet forward on the ground while its wheels were still chocked, earning guffaws from her instructor in the back seat.
At squadron headquarters, where mistakes invite merciless ragging by fellow pilots, De La Garza said she gives as good as she gets. Early on in her career, she said, "I pretty much took the 'big girl' approach -- where if I was ultra-sensitive about issues, then I wouldn't be in this line of work."
At the 71st, De La Garza is known as "Spyce." She won't reveal the name's origin other than to say it was conferred by her fellow pilots after her first six months in the squadron, when she earned her F-15 combat qualification and was "initiated" -- nothing lewd or crude, she assures -- into the squadron.
The banter flows today. But it took awhile. "People are tentative at first, just because of the environment that we live in today, with sexual harassment cases," she said. "I think people are cautious of what they say, how they act, until they get to know you personally."
For De La Garza, that wall began to crumble during her first deployment to Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia -- an austere environment where every day has a mind-numbing sameness.
"You become good friends," she says. "There's a lot of camaraderie, because there's nowhere to go." Those relationships, she says, are important.
"You know you have to rely on these people when you go to combat," she says.
As for their wives, she said, "You get to know 'em. I'm as good friends with them, in some cases, as I am with their husbands." But she understands the concerns, she said. "People are, in general, a little leery of change," De La Garza said, "until they get to know you."
De La Garza grew up in Austin, the daughter of a Japanese mom and Irish dad, the latter a retired Air Force chief master sergeant. Her two older brothers were pilots; one flew C-130s for the Air Force, the other Army helicopters. "I kind of looked up to them, I guess," she said. In addition, a brother-in-law flew F-14s for the Navy. By the time she got to high school, she'd decided she wanted to fly, too.
So did other women, and they have. But change is coming slowly. Women make up less than 1 percent of the Air Force's fighter pilots, and De La Garza is the only woman fighter pilot in 1st Fighter Wing, the unit that commands the 71st. Asked if she foresees a day when just as many women as men are flying combat jets, De La Garza said it will depend on the level of interest. If she were to ask a room full of young women what they want to do in life, she said, "I don't think too many women would say, 'I want to fly jets.'"
Ultimately, the attempt to integrate women into combat roles "may fail miserably," De La Garza said. "Who knows? We haven't had the history to make that decision. But I think everybody should have the opportunity" to fill such roles, she said. De La Garza hopes she's one woman who is breaking down barriers to those opportunities.
"The more they encounter me, or other women that do this, I think it's just not going to be as big a deal as it started out to be."
Many thanks to William H. McMichael and the editors of the Newport News Daily Press for granting permission to reprint this excellent article that appeared on March 15th 1999. Photos by Adrin Snider/Daily Press.
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