She's Got Grit: What you can learn from three generations of women military aviators

What can you learn about grit from three generations of women military aviators?

A lot, it turns out. Start with these five takeaways:

1. They don’t worry about what other people think.

WASP Edna Davis, test pilot in WWII

WASP Edna Davis, test pilot in WWII

“There’s a certain percentage of the female population that nobody tells no,” says Edna Davis, WWII test pilot. Davis grew up flying with her father in his biplane outside of Cleveland. After he died, the family moved to Los Angeles. Davis wrote to Jackie Cochran when she heard about the WASP program, but never heard back. She went to Mills College, and found a way to sign up there by working with the Civil Air Patrol. (See Davis’ full profile here.)

Davis became the first woman to solo pilot the B-26.

Alyce Rohrer was fifteen when she earned her pilot’s license in Provo, Utah. A daughter born to a Mormon family, joining the WASPs was not what her family or community had planned for her, but she lied about her age and headed to Sweetwater, Texas to train with women mostly four years her senior. 

   Karen Baetzel, one of the first women to fly rotary wing, props and jets in the Navy in the late 1980s, has a thoughtful remembrance of her early days. ”I decided the first “glass ceiling” was in my own head.” she says. “It was time to overcome the doubt and fear and lack of confidence. I went to civilian ground school, took some familiarization lessons in a small plane which helped, but mostly it was an inside job. I looked at my male peers and had to ask myself, what makes you think you can't do this as well as these bubbas?”

“I decided the first glass ceiling was in my own head.” - Karen Baetzel

Tammy Barlette was one of the first women to fly the A-10, and then trained fighter pilots at the Air Force flight school. In the meantime she attended the Air Force Weapons School, a notoriously difficult six month program, just after she gave birth to her second child.

“There were people saying “There’s no way she’ll make it through.” That just fueled my fire. It wasn't easy, but you just don’t quit.” She pauses. “I’ve always been one to ignore what people think.” 

2. They keep a sense of humor.

When Davis made her way to the back of the plane after a bathroom break over North Dakota, the rest of the crew opened the bomb bays to blast her with the frigid air.

She figured she could play that game.

“I said ‘bombs away!’ I never knew what happened to them,” she says.

WASP Alyce Rohrer, test pilot in WWII

WASP Alyce Rohrer, test pilot in WWII

Alyce Rohrer, Davis’ sister WASP, was always sure to have her make up done before showing up for a training day. When her notoriously tough instructor asks her to do a spin below the briefed safe altitude, Rohrer hesitates for only a moment, realizing he doesn’t expect her to do it; then pulls the nose of the airplane into a stall and pulls out of the spin just above 1,000 feet. Rohrer’s stories go on and on, and she can hardly stop from laughing even today.

Forty years later, Baetzel notes that “One of the first tests (for any woman) was whether or not you could take a joke. They were always crude and sexual.”

After working to change Air Force regulations around pregnant women’s ability to pilot RPAs (remotely piloted aircraft), Barlette went back to work in her third trimester actively engaging enemy targets. 

“I shot twice in combat while I was pregnant,” Barlette says. “When you fly the RPAs, you can talk to the guys on the ground from the control station here in the US. After the shot, I messaged the troops on the ground that I was seven months pregnant."

You've got to think she laughed a little when she was done with her transmission. 

3. They connect to their sense of purpose, and do what they love.

Early woman Naval aviator Karen Baetzel

Early woman Naval aviator Karen Baetzel

Davis stayed committed to her love of flying instilled in her as a child. When one door closed, she went looking for another. Her sister WASP, Alyce Rohrer, stayed focused on flying since working toward and earning her private pilot’s at age 15. 

“It wasn’t courage that motivated me,” Rohrer says. “It was the love of the sky.”

Karen Baetzel, early woman Naval aviator, speaks to a strong connection to being part of a strong and high performing team. During her three years in the H-46 vertical replenishment squadron, her unit won the Battle E award for being the best outfit in the Navy three years in a row. Being a part of such a high performing group is one of her proudest achievements. Like others who have talked to the Grit Project, this inclusion as a part of something bigger held tremendous meaning for her.

Barlette refused to be held back by either attitude or regulation. After an injury restricted her from flying, she transferred to a unit flying RPAs, finding a way to stay in the air. When the Air Force wasn’t sure about her flying while pregnant, basing the regulations on a completely different type of aircraft and flight profile, she worked to change the regulations. Barlette just wanted to stay connected to aviation.

4. They know about grit.

Alyce Rohrer says: “Grit is courage, the determination to do what you want to do and succeed at it."

How can grit be developed? Rohrer is less sure of this.

Grit has to be born in you,” she says.

“Grit is courage, the determination to do what you want to do and succeed at it.”- Alyce Rohrer, WASP

Says Karen Baetzel: “You build grit through self awareness, no-nonsense mentorship, challenging goals and objectives, as well as competitive and leadership endeavors.” 

Air Force fighter pilot instructor LTC Tammy Barlette

Air Force fighter pilot instructor LTC Tammy Barlette

Barlette, the new mother who made it through the Air Force’s toughest school, has this to say: “Grit is continuing toward a goal even when it’s more challenging than you had anticipated,” she says. “I don’t think of quitting as an option, and I always figure that if someone else has done it before, I can do it too.”

5.  They understand nobody does anything alone.

As opposed to the women who began integrations in the 80s and 90s, the WASPs were grouped together during training and in many cases, their years of service. For the WASPs, their best allies were each other. Alyce Rohrer barely mentions the frictions in her bay of six women during training; they stayed close friends for the rest of their lives. She is the last of her bay still alive. 

Karen Baetzel, early woman Naval aviator, says “To all young officers, connect early and often with senior enlisted mentors who will speak truth to power.” Her profile and accompanying profile of Patricia Shinnick, her Command Master Chief, speak to the power of this relationship.

Of the advice Barlette would give new young officers, she suggests: “Show respect for the senior enlisted corps,” Barlette says. “They are a huge asset to you.”  

Seventy five years of aviation leadership wisdom. That's something to take into the office today.

“I don’t think of quitting as an option.” - Air Force LTC Tammy Barlette


What do you think about the wisdom passed down from one generation to the next of military aviators? Does this still apply to you today, even in the civilian world?

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