To Integrate Women Into Combat Units, Focus on Process…Not Outcomes

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

Kara Hultgreen lost her life in a routine carrier landingKara Hultgreen was a promising young U.S. Navy aviator in the early 1990s. She didn’t get an Academy slot, but she graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a demanding degree in Aerospace Engineering. She entered Aviation Officer Candidate School (remember “An Officer and a Gentleman?) and graduated third out of seven in her class, and successfully flew EA-6A Prowlers out of NAS Key West.

In 1993, around the time the Clinton Administration was also trying to drop the prohibition on gays serving openly, the Air Force announced that it would drop the restriction on women serving as carrier pilots.

Kara Hultgreen was among a handful of women selected to train on the F-14 Tomcat – at that time, the premier Navy carrier-based fighter jet. She completed her flight training and was assigned to Fleet Replacement Squadron VF-124, and stationed aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln.

On October 25th, 1994, returning from a routine flight, she overshot the center line on the flight deck and tried to yaw her aircraft back on course. However, when a jet yaws, the air does not flow directly into the engine anymore. The F-14 engines were known to be susceptible to compression power loss as a result of the maneuver – a trait that was widely known among pilots flying that aircraft. Despite a wave-off, her left engine stalled. She hit the afterburners, but only the right engine engaged, flipping the aircraft to the left and upside down.

Her co-pilot ejected successfully at the last instant. Lieutenant Hultgreen didn’t make it. She was 29.

The Navy issued a press release saying that their walking poster girl for female aviation was killed because of equipment failure.

What they didn’t say, though, was that the Mishap Incident Report told a different story: Pilot error was to blame. And that’s when the stuffing hit the fan.

Events that followed revealed a concerted effort on the part of the Navy to make sure Kara Hultgreen and her classmates passed their F-14 Tomcat checkrides – no matter what.

After the Navy published the press release blaming Hultgreen’s death on equipment failure rather than pilot error, they stuck to the story despite the findings of the Naval Safety Center.

One officer who had access to the full Naval Safety Center report decided to leak it to the media, and slipped a copy to Elaine Donnelly, at the Center for Military Readiness – a conservative-leaning watchdog site. Donnelly ran with it – and was hit with a libel lawsuit by one of Hultgreen’s colleagues, another female F-14 pilot named Carey Lorenz.

Lorenz accused the Center for Military Readiness of causing her to lose her flight status when they published their report, Double Standards in Naval Aviation Training. The report accused Naval trainers of ‘fixing’ female Tomcat pilots’ grades to ensure they would pass.

Via the discovery process, the CMR also obtained training records from the Naval flight school at Miramar NAS, California. According to the CMR, a number of independent aviators reviewed Lorenz’s training records and confirmed they were the “worst they had ever seen.”

CMR further discovered documents that indicated that Kara Hultgreen’s flight instructor had recommended that her graduation be delayed or she should be dropped from the program. The Navy overruled her instructor’s recommendation.

From the CMRs’ account:

Patrick J. Burns was a naval flight officer and instructor in VF-124, a west coast (San Diego) squadron that trained Lts. Hultgreen and Lohrenz to fly the F-14 Tomcat. On several occasions, Lt. Burns warned local commanders that the two women were not fully competent to fly the Tomcat in carrier operations, but to no avail. In the post-Tailhook scandal era, the Navy was eager to win a “race with the Air Force” by getting women into combat aviation. At an all-officers meeting attended by Lt. Burns in the summer of 1994, then-Cmdr. Thomas Sobiek, who was the commander of the training squadron VF-124, informed a group of concerned instructors that the women would graduate to the fleet, no matter what. At that point Burns began to realize two things: One of the women pilots would die, and Navy officials would deny reasons why it happened. Lt. Burns asked for the help of CMR because communications up and down the chain of command had completely broken down. During an extensive investigation of sex discrimination in Air Wing 11, which was conducted by the Naval Inspector General in 1996, Sobiek flatly denied that he had made such a statement. Several of the instructors, however, testified to the contrary. During a subsequent interview with Mike Wallace of CBS “60 Minutes,” Sobiek finally admitted that he had made statements that may have conveyed the impression that the women would not be allowed to fail. He added that some female pilots were advanced in combat aviation ahead of many men who were kept waiting or forced to resign.

Lorenz sued Donnelly and the Center for Military Readiness for defamation – an effort that failed in court. A federal judge slapped down Lorenz’s suit against the CMR on the grounds that Lorenz, by virtue of taking the Tomcat billet, was a ‘limited purpose public figure.’

The Naval JAG office pulled out all the stops in attempting to block the truth from coming out – that both Hultgreen and Lorenz were marginally qualified on the F-14. Hultgreen was an experienced and successful pilot on the Prowler platform – but struggled to overcome some bad habits she inherited from the other airframe that made flying the F-14 more challenging and dangerous than it otherwise would have been.

Furthermore, the Navy’s Public Affairs officers went to the mat to conceal the Lohrenz’s poor training evaluations. Per the CMR:

Having exercised care and diligence, not “reckless disregard of the truth,” as claimed by Plaintiff Lohrenz, Donnelly published the CMR Special Report: Double Standards in Naval Aviation in April 1995. CMR was the only organization to spotlight this critical issue, in order to save lives.

A subsequent investigation of possible sex discrimination in Air Wing Eleven by the Naval Inspector General found that at the time Lohrenz was removed from carrier aviation by an evaluation board in May 1995, she ranked 113 of 113, and was washed out because of flying techniques that were “unsafe, undisciplined, and unpredictable.” Senior Landing Signal Officers (LSOs) testified that her flawed “high and fast” flying patterns, combined with her tendency to blame others for her own mistakes and to disregard instructions, made Lohrenz an “accident waiting to happen.”

Fast forward to today.

Since Lieutenant Hultgreen’s death nearly two decades ago, there has been a generation of successful (and not-so-successful) female naval aviators. As we open up thousands of billets to women warriors, our best young women are going to be drawn to the challenge.

But our military institutions, run as they are by flesh-and-blood men and women, who themselves answer to a political establishment with priorities that are not necessarily centered on safety and combat effectiveness, are flawed and fallible. The temptation is always there for officers and NCOs at school cadres to look the other way. The temptation to pass women through courses when they perhaps should not be passed through is going to be strong – and when members of Congress get involved in the process, the temptation to ignore standards and the needs of the military – including the needs of these young women – will be overwhelming at times.

Otherwise we will fall victim to the same quota and PR-driven mentality that caused the Navy to look the other way when Hultgreen and Lohrenz were having trouble flying their F-14s.

The health and welfare of ALL men and women in service should be the goal. Eyes on the prize.


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