The Navy’s Aircraft Carrier Force Centenary: Women Carrier Aviator Trailblazers

March 22, 2022 | By Regina T. Akers, Ph.D.
The Navy’s centenary anniversary of the commissioning of USS Langley (CV 1), its first aircraft carrier on March 20, 1922, offers a special opportunity to recognize the outstanding achievements of the Navy’s pioneering women aircraft carrier aviators. This occasion also allows us to explore their progress towards promoting diversity, inclusion, and equality in the Navy since the 1970s. This blog profiles a representative sample of these amazing leaders and warriors.
USS Langley (CV-1) at anchor with an Aeromarine 39-B airplane landing on her flight deck, circa 1922. Catalog #: NH 63545.
USS Langley (CV-1) at anchor with an Aeromarine 39-B airplane landing on her flight deck, circa 1922. Catalog #: NH 63545.
USS Langley (CV-1) at anchor with an Aeromarine 39-B airplane landing on her flight deck, circa 1922. Catalog #: NH 63545.
USS Langley (CV-1) at anchor with an Aeromarine 39-B airplane landing on her flight deck, circa 1922. Catalog #: NH 63545
USS Langley (CV-1) at anchor with an Aeromarine 39-B airplane landing on her flight deck, circa 1922. Catalog #: NH 63545.
Photo By: NHHC
VIRIN: 220321-N-AH635-460

Not too long ago, women naval aviators lacked the opportunity to take part in the more career-enhancing assignments that were open to their male counterparts, such as serving aboard carriers and flying combat missions; until 1993 when Congress repealed the Combat Exclusion Law. This left them at a disadvantage in competing for promotions in the Navy’s aviation community for two decades. They had to learn how to navigate the male-dominant aviation culture, while enduring a sometimes hostile and mentally or verbally abusive environment. Women aviators’ commitment, determination, and enthusiasm contributed to their success. They did not permit those who questioned their abilities to sabotage their careers, and stifle their ambition. They endured these challenges with the collective support of each other, their mentors, instructors, and colleagues.

Lieutenant Shannon Workman, Academy class of 1988, responded to her critics by not reacting to every discouraging comment or action. She believed her performance would eventually earn their respect and acceptance. She flew an EA-6B Prowler with VAQ-130 based at Whitby Island, Washington. Shannon became the first female to complete fleet carrier qualifications aboard USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) on February 21, 1994. Despite open hostility from other pilots, she performed well completing patrols over Bosnia-Herzegovian and Iraq.

Description: Painting, Watercolor on Paper; by CDR Monica Allen Perin, USNR (ret); 2011; Framed Dimension 29H X 23W
Serving as Commander, Strike Group Two, RADM Nora Tyson embarked with USS George H W Bush (CVN-77) in the Mediterranean on its maiden deployment in support of operations in both 6th and 5th Fleets (Eastern Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean, Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean.) Admiral Tyson had many firsts throughout her career: the first woman to command the forward-deployed Singapore-based Task Force 73; the first woman to command a battle fleet and the first woman to serve as Commander, 3rd Fleet (Eastern Pacific). In September 2017 she retired with the rank of Vice Admiral after 38 years of service. Description: Painting, Watercolor on Paper; by CDR Monica Allen Perin, USNR (ret); 2011; Framed Dimension 29H X 23W
Description: Painting, Watercolor on Paper; by CDR Monica Allen Perin, USNR (ret); 2011; Framed Dimension 29H X 23W
RADM Nora Tyson, Commander Carrier Strike Group Two
Serving as Commander, Strike Group Two, RADM Nora Tyson embarked with USS George H W Bush (CVN-77) in the Mediterranean on its maiden deployment in support of operations in both 6th and 5th Fleets (Eastern Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean, Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean.) Admiral Tyson had many firsts throughout her career: the first woman to command the forward-deployed Singapore-based Task Force 73; the first woman to command a battle fleet and the first woman to serve as Commander, 3rd Fleet (Eastern Pacific). In September 2017 she retired with the rank of Vice Admiral after 38 years of service. Description: Painting, Watercolor on Paper; by CDR Monica Allen Perin, USNR (ret); 2011; Framed Dimension 29H X 23W
Photo By: CDR Monica Allen Perin, USNR
VIRIN: 201204-N-AA530-4000

Nora Tyson reached many firsts throughout her career: the first woman to command the forward-deployed Singapore-based Task Force 73; the first woman to command a battle fleet and the first woman to serve as Commander, 3rd Fleet (Eastern Pacific).  In September 2017 she retired with the rank of Vice Admiral after 38 years of service.

With humble beginnings, Tyson graduated from Vanderbilt University and went on to earn her wings in 1983. After tours at the Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, and Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, she commanded the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan (LHD 5) during disaster relief on the U.S. Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina. Tyson deployed twice during Operation Iraqi Freedom as the first woman to command a Carrier Strike Group during the maiden voyage of USS George H. W. Bush (CVN 77), operating in the Sixth and Fifth Fleets. Tyson later served as executive assistant to the Chief of Naval Operations and the Vice Director of the Joint Staff. She retired as Deputy, U.S. Fleet Forces Command and Commander, Third Fleet in 2017.

 Sara A. Joyner, Director, Naval Senate Liaison in the Office of Legislative Affairs had a childhood passion for flying. This 1989 merit Academy graduate, has several significant firsts including commanding a strike fighter squadron in 2007. When selected to command Carrier Air Wing-Three, she remarked, “Recognition and respect grew each year as we proved that women could be valuable members of the Navy. We didn’t attempt to lessen the Navy’s demands, but instead worked as part of the team to excel as equals.” Joyner later led Carrier Strike Group-Two and the Navy’s Physiological Episode Action Team, and served as the Director, Joint Chief of Staff, Personnel and Manpower.

Merryl Tengesdal began her naval aviation career in 1994 and retired from military service as an Air Force Colonel in 2017. When male colleagues and leaders doubted her abilities and criticized her work, she disproved them with her outstanding skills and leadership. Lieutenant Ronnie Robinson, her solo flight trainer offered Tengesdal the following encouraging advice: “If you continue to perform at a high level they will have to admit you are good. If they don’t, they are in denial.” Tengesdal completed anti-submarine warfare, search and rescue and special op missions in the Middle East in her SH-60B Seahawk helicopter and flew with the USS Nimitz Carrier Air Group during her first deployment. Later, she became one of eight pilots to fly the Air Force’s elite U-2 high altitude reconnaissance aircraft.
Sara A. Stires, a 1998 merit Naval Academy graduate with a chemistry degree and a Naval Flight Officer, is the daughter of a homemaker and a naval aviator reservist who worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in her home state of Montana. During flight school, she encountered training instructors who hated her and gave her undeserved grades without cause. One of the squadrons delayed their patching until the women pilots departed. Stires is the only Navy woman to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross with Combat “V” for heroism in recognition of her support of Operation Enduring Freedom on November 9, 2001 as a Radar Intercept Officer of an F-14B Tomcat embarked in USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71). She transferred to the Dental Corps because doing 6Gs seven times a day took its toll on her body and to have a better work-life balance. Commander Stires is the first dentist to command the medical clinic at the U.S. Naval Academy.
Caroline Johnson, a 2009 Naval Academy graduate shared the sexism, discrimination, and double standards she endured in her memoir Jet Girl: My Life in War, Peace and the Cockpit of the Navy’s Most Lethal Aircraft, the F/A-18 Super Hornet. In her book she talks about examples of double standards such as male aviators considering being confident, ambitious and aggressive critical to success, but conversely, resenting their female counterparts when they demonstrated those attributes. Johnson and her sister aviators also received assignments that their male colleagues would deem beneath them. Johnson shared with her Navy Air Boss at the time, that the equality and inclusion of women aviators will not happen as long as, “The community refuses to openly address the cultural issues that are driving minorities out of the door. The jet doesn’t know or care who is in the cockpit. The jet only cares that people in the cockpit perform at the highest levels.”The Air Boss agreed, “When you are in a jet, the best operator wins, period.” She replied, “Yes Sir. And when we all believe that, the problem will be solved.” 

ITEM 4: 211111-N-DN347-1090 (Caption: PACIFIC OCEAN (Nov. 11, 2021) Captain Amy Bauernschmidt, commanding officer of USS Abraham Lincoln, speaks during USS Abraham Lincoln’s (CVN-72) 32nd commissioning anniversary and Veterans Day commemoration on the mess decks. Abraham Lincoln is underway conducting routine operations in the U.S. Third Fleet. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Lake Fultz)
 
When Captain Amy Bauernschmidt assumed command of USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) on August 19, 2021, she said, “There is no more humbling sense of responsibility than to know you are entrusted with the care of the people who have chosen to protect our nation.” She joined the elite group of officers commanding the eleven nuclear aircraft carriers, a critical component of our Navy’s ability to project power, deter threats, and protect the national interest abroad. On January 3, 2022, Abraham Lincoln made history with its first carrier strike group deployment with the Marine Corps F-35C Fighter Squadron and a female commander. Regarding gender, Bauernschmidt shared, “Very few times in my life have I actually sat there and thought about the fact that I was a woman doing this because for the most part, I was treated as a naval officer and an aviator. Then somewhere in 5th or 6th place, oh well she’s a woman.”

While women make up 17% of the total naval force today and 29% of the 2025 Naval Academy class, they constitute less than 7% of Navy’s 7,000 aviators and combined aviator/flight officers. Their exceptional achievements contribute to our nation’s defense, pave the way for the next generation, and inspire men and women alike. These profiles reveal women carrier aviators’ fortitude and determination to succeed despite continued hostility and discrimination. Women’s progress toward diversity, inclusion, and equality cannot be fully realized until the aviation culture changes. Males accepting their female counterparts as equals and recognizing their skills and merits is also needed to increase the number of women and to retain them. Bauersnschmidt’s appointment to command a carrier and Joyner’s many contributions to aviation illustrate the strides that have been made overtime in integrating women more fully in to the aviation community.