Former Lt. Commander Linda Maloney
“The U.S. Navy argued for years that combat missions were too dangerous for women, but it wasn't concerned with us flying the oldest aircraft in the military!” Fifteen years after retiring from a 20-year career as a Naval Flight Officer, former Lt. Commander Linda Maloney is still baffled.
It was in one of these ancient aircraft, a twin-seater EA-6A* that on 11th February 1991 Linda and Lt. Commander Stan Parsons were flying about 160 kms off the Florida coast when the aircraft suffered a total hydraulic failure. At 13,000 feet Parsons ordered her (twice) to eject. “It was 1 o'clock and I remember a burst of light and then yellow paper like confetti flying all around me – I'd had my notepad on my knees – and then I passed out briefly. The tug of the parachute brought me round and I realised I was heading out towards the ocean.” She lowered the inflatable raft that every Martin Baker ejector seat contains and about 10 feet above the water she released her parachute. “I then had to swim a short distance to reach the raft and then I sat in it for an hour until a Navy Search & Rescue helicopter arrived. It was a very windy day, my radio was dead, I had a hole in my chin and my knuckles had sliced open because I wasn't wearing the gloves I should have been, but apart from that I was fine. And then when the rescue swimmer swam over to me his first reaction was 'oh my gosh, you're a girl!'”
Unbeknownst to Linda, she had just become the first woman to successfully eject from an aircraft in a Martin Baker seat and only the third to eject successfully at all. The first was U.S. Navy student pilot Ensign Linda Shaffer who ejected from a TA-4J on 24 July 1981, followed by Lt. Kathryn Cullen, a U.S. Naval Flight Officer and from the same squadron as Linda, who ejected on 25 May, 1985 from a Navy T4-A Skyhawk.
Martin Baker, the British manufacturer of the ejector seat, organised a ceremony for Linda during which Diana, Princess of Wales, was to present her with a specially designed pewter pin. “But the Navy denied my request to travel to England for the presentation, stating that military members couldn’t be perceived as endorsing a company or product.” Probably more to the point was that the Navy did not want to put the spotlight on a woman aviator who had ejected and survived when it was still arguing that women should not be given combat duties.
It took her a while to “digest” her ejection. Just two weeks after, she found herself in another emergency situation and thought “this can’t be happening again” but she and the other aviator immediately addressed the emergency and landed safely. Then, a couple of months later, Linda was undertaking a cross-country flight in an EA-6A with pilot Lt. Kara Hultgreen** “and our canopy popped open at 26,000 feet. We were able to close it immediately, but my blood pressure skyrocketed as I had images of another ejection!”
Linda left home when she was 16. “I was not in a good place with my troubled family environment, resulting from my parents’ divorce. My older sister had joined the Navy, so I did too when I was 17.” She enlisted as an air traffic controller. “Eight months into my tour, my supervisor (...) encouraged me to apply for an officer programme, and I was accepted. I still wish to this day that I could thank [him] for seeing something in me that I didn’t see in myself and encouraging me to shoot for the stars.” Thanks to a Naval scholarship, she gained a degree in computer science from the University of Idaho. “I've never used it, as such,” she laughs but she won her commission as a Navy ensign.
Not having noticed any disparity as an air traffic controller, Linda was surprised when she returned as an officer in 1986. “That's when I came across bias. Military aviation is a very male-dominated arena and I understood that, but it made no sense to me that many of the male aviators were against having women in their ranks and flying alongside them.” Her dream of becoming a pilot was dashed because she did not have 20/20 vision. But she was selected for naval flight officer (NFO) training. NFOs handle an aircraft’s communications and navigation gear, the radar and weapon systems. She was the only woman in her class at flight school and graduated top of her class . But because of the combat exclusion law in the United States at the time she could only be assigned to a support squadron. These played the role of “enemy” to train combat aviators. “We were 10 women in this unusually large 500-person squadron. None of us were pleased to be there. We were thrilled to be flying but we were frustrated by the law, we'd had the same training as the men, we were proud to be in the military, but we wanted to do more. We felt like we were being held back,” she says.
When the combat exclusion law was finally repealed in April 1993 Linda joined a combat squadron and was deployed to Iraq during Operation Enduring Freedom aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. “It was very challenging with the guys,” she says, pauses, and adds: “some of them made our lives hell.” She explains the “Black and Hispanic aviators were very supportive because they knew what it's like to be a minority. I'm still friends with several of them,” she adds, but says that even today she “wouldn't give the time of day” to some of her former male colleagues. “The plane doesn't know if there's a male or female at the stick! I'm not a feminist but I do believe in equal opportunities” which, clearly, she feels these pioneering women aviators were not getting. “None of the women I knew wanted to be given anything... we wanted to earn our way,” Linda explains.
Lt. Kara Hultgreen's crash made things worse. The accident was used to try and prove women were incompetent. “Things went to hell in a hand-basket,” Linda says glumly. She blames the higher echelons. “The commanding officer was a good old boy and although he didn't join in he didn't nip it in the bud either,” she says, and adds acidly that “not one has ever apologised.”
Linda concedes that at the time she was “insecure and immature” and that “other women handled it better.” But she says it was a “really good learning experience and taught me how to raise my own boys,” who are now 12 and 15 and apparently unimpressed by their mother's past!
When she was 37, unmarried, “no boyfriend”, she made a decision: “the best one I ever made.” It was time to pay attention to her personal life, so she stopped flying and moved into procurement and programme management. Two years later she was married with a stepdaughter and bore her two sons when she was 42 and 45.
Since then she's gained an MBA, written an award winning book “Military Fly Moms ~ Sharing Memories, Building Legacies, Inspiring Hope”, and is now CEO of WomenVeteranSpeakers, the first speaker’s agency of its kind offering women military veterans as event speakers, trainers, coaches and facilitators. She herself speaks in schools throughout the United States on topics such as Passing Down Legacy, Leadership & Women, Women & Non-traditional Careers, Margin & Life Balance, Transitioning from Military Leadership to Business Leadership, and, of course, Aviation.
* Phased out of front-line service in the mid-1970s, then used primarily for training until finally retired in 1993.
** Kara Hultgreen, the first female carrier-based fighter pilot in the U.S. Navy, died on 24 October 1994 at the age of 29 when she ejected from her F-14 which was tipped over at 90 degrees, so she was launched into the ocean, killing her instantly.