Editor’s note: This is the first essay in a 10-part Women’s History Month series entitled, Honoring Our Nation’s Women Veterans. In February, we asked readers to submit essays about their time in service or women who have served our country.
There are people who say they are colorblind when it comes to race…well, this Connecticut tomboy was “gender-blind” when it came to challenges. Growing up with two brothers–one a year older and one younger–we developed camaraderie through competition, which followed me onto the football field and then on to my U.S. Air Force career.
My first challenge was working on the Norton Air Force Base flight line as a C-141/T-39 aircraft electrician. With the nickname of “Ready Kilowatt,” I went temporary duty to austere forward locations as an Aircraft Control Element electrician specialist and worked with our sister services ensuring the aircraft were flight-ready. I was the first woman flight engineer for the 14th Military Airlift Squadron at Norton. Because of my past C-141 system knowledge, I was chosen to fly specialized missions throughout the world. My C-141 system knowledge led to permanent change of station orders to become the first woman flight engineer instructor in Altus, Oklahoma. However, I had just married a Norton reservist and opted to join his unit as a flight engineer and flight safety noncommissioned officer for the wing. Our daughter was born a few years later and I was again selected to become a flight engineer instructor.
On my 33rd birthday, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. After Operation Desert Shield had gone on for months, our aircraft was the last “heavy” to fly into “Military City” on the Kuwait-Saudi Arabia border, loaded with missiles just hours before the Jan 16, 1991, return of fire. Our number three engine experienced heavy vibrations on the inbound sortie. Amid the taunting Iraqi Scud missile warnings, we wore our chemical mask pouches on our hips and started to troubleshoot the engine. My second flight engineer Cheryl and I grabbed the ladder, popped open the cowl doors, and tightened a loose pneumatic ducting clamp. We got airborne before Iraqis targeted the field we had just departed with Scuds. A few hours later, on the BBC radio airwaves and over the Red Sea, I was patched into a phone call with my 5-year-old daughter back home in California.
After our Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm medals were pinned onto our uniforms and our wing realigned, I shifted my attention to a new challenge. In May 1994, I became the first woman chief flight engineer in the Air Force, managing 76 flight engineers. My last challenge as a chief came in October 1997, coordinating–through the secretary of defense–the low-level flyby over the Women In Military Service For America Memorial’s opening ceremony in Washington, DC. Our Air Force C-141 led the way for aircraft flown by women from the Army, Navy, Marines, and the Coast Guard.
During my 23 years of military service, my gender never became “the challenge.” It only enhanced the challenge and was a mere “G code” on my flight orders followed by the designations of my flight qualifications and rank.
Jacki Mortenson is currently a U.S. Air Force contractor in Airfield Management on the weekends and works as a Risk Manager for a large firm in Ontario, CA.