She's Got Grit: A conversation with pioneer Navy navigator Linda Maloney

Now six months in to the Grit Project, we revisit our first Grit Profile, the early naval navigator Linda Maloney.      

Linda Maloney looks just like any other mom you might run into dropping your kids off at school or swim team, shoulder length brown hair sometimes pulled back, glasses and a big smile. Unlike most other moms, though, in her twenties Linda went from 0 to 110 knots in 3 seconds, catapulted off an aircraft carrier into the wide blue sky, one of the Navy's pioneer women aviators.

     Linda's career in Navy aviation and military leadership began in the aircraft control tower years before and required plenty of grit. After growing up in Pittsburgh and yearning for adventure, Linda Maloney enlisted in the Navy as an air traffic controller, soon applying for and being awarded an ROTC scholarship at the University of Idaho. Assigned to a Navy support squadron,VAQ-33, in 1989, “I flew as a naval flight officer in the back seat of an EA-7L and handled all the radios, weapons, and communications equipment. Our squadron provided electronic countermeasures training for fleet combat aircraft and ships. The EA-7L provided real-time simulations of enemy radars and missiles. Of course, I was thrilled to be flying, but @@I wanted to fly in combat, not a support squadron@@.”

     The obstacle in Linda’s — and every woman’s— way was the Women’s Armed Forces Integration Act of 1948. It provided new opportunities for women to serve in the military but also included numerous restrictions, including a prohibition against women being assigned to aircraft engaged in combat missions and aboard most Navy ships, commonly known as the combat exclusion law.

     A year after flying the EA-7L, Linda requested a transition to the two-seater EA-6A. This was a vintage combat A-6 Intruder aircraft, also utilized in an electronic training role with an expanded role for the naval flight officer.  Linda could never have predicted what lay ahead, an experience every aviator trains for, but hopes will never happen.

     “I was flying in the EA-6A for about 6 months when on a warm February day in 1991 I was scheduled to fly an electronic attack aggressor flight with a senior pilot in the squadron. We were flying up Jacksonville, with another EA-6A. The flight would be a training exercise for the USS Forestall and its battle group, about 100 miles off the Florida coast. The pilot of my aircraft was the Mission Commander and he briefed the flight for the two EA-6A’s and all the emergency procedures. The flight would take all day since we would do a couple of ‘runs’ on the USS Forestall and then fly into an Air Force Base up near Tampa to refuel and then fly back out to conduct an afternoon mission. 

     We launched from NAS Key West in our vintage EA-6A and headed up the coastline to work with the carrier battle group for an electronic warfare exercise. It was a beautiful sunny February morning.  It took about an hour to fly from Key West to the area east of Jacksonville, Florida where the battle group was stationed.  I radioed the ship that we were ready to begin our simulated electronic and missile attacks.  After several runs on the ship, about 12:30 pm, we radioed the ship we were complete and would see them later in the afternoon.  We told our wingman to rendezvous and then go to a cruise position. Then we headed for Patrick Air Force Base (AFB), approximately 200 miles away. The area controller cleared us on our way at 15,000 feet.

     As we started our climb, the plane acted a little sluggish. The pilot adjusted the controls. The aircraft fishtailed as though we had flown through some mild jet wash. Then the master caution light on the front display panel began flashing and the backup hydraulics light illuminated. The flight hydraulic system indicated zero pressure. 

     I started going through the procedures for a single hydraulic failure, instructing the pilot to secure the automatic flight control system. He pulled back the throttle to slow down from our 300 knots.  We called our wingman, and discussed options, deciding that we needed to take an arrested landing over at Naval Air Station (NAS) Cecil Field. 

     I radioed to the Air Traffic Controller that we were declaring an emergency and needed clearance to Cecil Field for an arrested landing. He cleared us directly to NAS Cecil Field. My pilot and I quickly discussed our game plan, and then began to climb to 15,000 ft and slow to 270 kts. Neither of us expected what happened next. 

     The master caution light illuminated again and then the rudder-throw light came on. A quick glance showed the combined hydraulic system at zero. No sooner had I noticed the reading, the aircraft began a rapid roll to the left and the nose fell below the horizon. The pilot pulled the stick to the right and aft to no effect. He fed in full right rudder, but @@the airplane did not respond.@@ The aircraft continued to roll left and descend. As we passed through 60 degrees left bank, and 20 degrees nose down, @@I heard the pilot say, “I don’t have control, Eject!@@” 

     I grabbed the upper ejection handle and my seat exploded through the canopy glass. I recall a tremendous explosion, riding the rails of the ejection seat upward amidst the yellow confetti of my kneeboard paper. @@I lost consciousness and when I came to, I was hanging in my parachute descending towards the ocean.@@ I usually would wear my contacts but that day I’d decided to wear glasses. My helmet visor had ripped off from the force of the ejection and my glasses were gone. All I could see was the ocean below me and the shoreline far in the distance." 

     Linda’s emergency gear worked as advertised. She remembered her post-ejection procedures and was picked up by Navy search and rescue. “I still have his nametag in my Navy Scrapbook,” she says, smiling. Later, she would find out that she was the first woman to eject from the Martin Baker Ejection Seat.  

     Linda’s squadron deployed for weeks at a time to conduct training for ships and for combat squadrons. During one detachment to Puerto Rico, an aircraft carrier had pulled in and the aviators onboard the carrier hosted a Focsle Follies, which is a party with skits and jokes for only the squadron members onboard the carrier, though they extended the invitation to Linda’s squadron since they were in the area.

     “I remember thinking it was great to be included, but that changed quickly when several of the jokes and skits were directed towards the women in my squadron.  The A-6 squadron guys stood up, lifted their shirts and yelled towards several women sitting behind them, “Show us your t***!” while the F-14 guys yelled “No c**** except in the rack.”  We were taken aback a bit and not quite sure how to respond.  After the party, they invited us to the Officers Club to have drinks but I remember feeling conflicted and uncomfortable knowing we had been insulted but also expected us to take it as a joke.  

     In 1993, then Secretary Les Aspin ordered the military to drop restrictions that prevented women from flying combat missions, and by April 1994, more than sixty female Navy aviators received orders to combat squadrons. Soon after the law changed, women were assigned to combat ships, including aircraft carriers. This historic change allowed women to serve in all combat aviation specialties and assignments, except special forces.

     “A year after the law’s repeal, I got my wish,” Linda says. “I was assigned to a fleet combat squadron as a naval flight officer in the EA-6B Prowler, a four-seater jammer jet, and deployed on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln heading to Iraq in April 1995.” She deployed with several women aviator friends flying the EA-6B Prowler, FA-18 Hornet and the F-14 Tomcat, including her good friend Kara Hultgreen who she flew with at her squadron in Key West.  

     As with any integration, it was not all smooth sailing. “I didn’t understand the implications of what it was to live under so much scrunity and attention,’ Linda says. “@@It was like living in a fishbowl.@@"

     The integration also happened just after the Tailhook scandal broke. “In my opinion the naval aviation community didn’t handle it well,” Linda said. “We all knew the behaviors exhibited at Tailhook were part of naval aviation…it was part of the ego and camraderie ingrained in being a naval aviator.  But initially, many in the naval aviation community denied there was anything inappropriate going on instead of admitting what we all knew happened at Tailhook and agreeing to change going forward. Tailhook grew into an ugly scandal and along with many careers negatively impacted, the incident pitted many of the guys against the women aviators. The combat exclusion law was officially repealed within a few years of Tailhook, but the whole time period was angst-ridden with strong antagonism by some male aviators toward the women in their ranks.

     It was during her deployment on the USS Abraham Lincoln that Linda learned first-hand that despite her good fortune surviving an aircraft emergency in her earlier assignment, not every flight turns out that way.

Linda's Favorite Books

     “During an October 1994 detachment on the Lincoln, as the squadron duty officer for the day, I was in the ready room, coordinating the Prowlers’ flight schedule, answering the phone, and documenting the squadron pilots’ carrier qualifications. I could see all the aircraft conducting their approaches on the ready room television. When my aviator girlfriends approached the carrier in their F/A-18 Hornets and F-14 Tomcats, I paid particular attention; our excitement and pride at being assigned to combat squadrons remained extremely high. As I documented one carrier landing, I saw Kara approaching the Lincoln in her F-14. Within seconds, I knew something was horribly wrong.

     Horrified, I watched her aircraft lose altitude and start rolling to the left. The landing signal officers screamed, “Power, power, power!” and then yelled for the crew to eject. Kara and her back-seater, the radar intercept officer (RIO), ejected.

     I waited anxiously for the carrier’s loudspeaker to announce that both aviators were safe. The call came that one of the carrier’s helicopters had picked up the RIO, but Kara was missing.

     I watched in shock, unable to believe what was happening, expecting to see the boat’s helicopter land on the deck with Kara aboard. About two hours later, a few women aviators met in one of our staterooms, looking at each other in disbelief, fearing the worst. We kept hoping Kara would be found, until it was obvious she had not survived. Several weeks later, divers discovered her body on the ocean floor, still strapped in her ejection seat.”

     Making the mourning more complicated, using Kara’s death as catalyst some in both the Navy and politics began questioning the capabilities and integration of women. “When we had arrived, the attitude toward us was tentative,” Linda says. “But after Kara died, it went downhill.” As anyone who has experienced traumatic loss knows, grief itself requires grit, and was only compounded by a hostile work environment.

     What would Linda tell a new officer? “@@Become the best at every job you have@@, even if it’s the worst in the command. Strive to be a professional in all aspects of your job. @@Take advantage of every professional and educational opportunity that comes your way@@. @@Be a team player, but stand up for your convictions.@@” She thinks for a moment and adds: “I’d also say to take time to really contemplate what you want in life. The earlier you take time to really listen to yourself, the better the decisions you’ll be able to make along the way.”

     Linda knows about this conflict between being a team player and her own convictions. “When I initially joined the squadron—VAQ-135, the Black Ravens, the command leadership was very supportive of having women aviators as part of the aircrew. However, when a new squadron commander took charge, bringing along several aviators from his previous squadron. The aviators that followed him to our squadron changed the environment of the command literally overnight to one extremely hostile toward women aviators.

     I actually was okay with the men who you knew didn’t want you there. At least you knew where they stood. It was the guys who would act like you were part of the team but would turn on you in a group setting that bothered me. The guys who were the most supportive and trustworthy were the other minority aviators in the squadron. I still keep in touch with some of them and am thankful to have served with them.

     It was a difficult and challenging time. As I look back on it now, I would have handled it much differently. I was passionate and determined but also naïve and immature, and wore my heart on my sleeve too much. Of course I have age and experience now on my side. If I had had a mentor to confide in and with whom to discuss career or professional decisions, and even personal challenges or decisions, it would have made a world of difference.“

     Linda looks back with pride and even affection at her career, but her feelings are mixed.

Linda's book celebrates military pilots who are moms, too

Linda's book celebrates military pilots who are moms, too

     “It’s something I haven’t quite come to terms with yet,” she says. ‘There is still a painful feeling looking back and contemplating the military aviation integration transition and those professional relationships with many of my male contemporaries. I wonder how many of them are dads now, especially dads of daughters. I wonder what they say to their daughters about achieving their goals and aspirations and if their attitudes have changed over the years towards women in non-traditional jobs such as flying military combat aircraft.

     It is interesting for me as a mother of boys now aged 9 and 12 years. I feel like part of my job as a mother is train my boys to be encouraging to their friends and schoolmates, whether boys or girls. I tell them every day that I have confidence in them and they can achieve anything if they are determined and work hard.  I love that they don’t think it is odd or out of the ordinary for girls to want to fly jets or pursue other traditionally male jobs.  To them, life has always been that way.

      “How would I define grit?” she muses. “Grit is doing your job, doing your best, giving your all, even when it isn’t fun or convenient.”

     Linda Maloney has the t-shirt. She’s got grit.

     Linda spent twenty years in the Navy, achieving the rank of E-5 and then, after commissioning, 0-4, before retirement. Today, Linda is the founder and CEO of the Women Veteran's Speakers Bureau, helping other outstanding military women share their lessons with companies and organizations nationwide.     

How do you define grit? Has grit been a factor in your own success, or stories you look to for inspiration?

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