DETROIT — The flight suits didn’t fit. Colleagues’ wives were jealous. An eighth of an inch almost cost her a spot in the program.
But Mary Livingston of Manistique, Mich., went on to become a member of the first coed graduating class of Air Force pilots. Those 10 women flew into U.S. history 35 years ago.
Then, she was a 25-year-old engineer, who was first taught to fly by a fellow Yooper when she was 16. Today, she’s a 60-year-old retired lieutenant colonel, married to a fellow former Air Force engineer and pilot and the mother of a 22-year-old daughter.
“We knew we were part of the test group. We were blessed with the opportunity to fly for the Air Force and to provide a road map,” Livingston said . “I wanted someone to look at me and what I had done and go, ‘Now what? There’s no problem with other women being pilots.’”
There were bumps during takeoff — and a long way to go before any branch of the military allowed women into combat. Those 10 women knew their options were limited to flying tankers that refuel planes in midair, flying cargo transports or working as flight instructors, teaching the very men who’d go into combat.
To get into the pilot program, Livingston had to pass a physical, an officer qualification test and a pilot navigation test, which was mostly spatial orientation. The women, after also undergoing psychological testing, joined 40 men in the class at the Williams Air Force Base in Arizona.
At 5-foot-4, Livingston barely made it; the aircraft, after all, could accommodate only a certain height range. The flight suits were too big for her, as they’d been designed for men. And the flight caps? An “absurd but amusing” tale, according to Livingston. Three different hats were tried, including a beret, before the women were allowed to wear the same hats as the men.
“In the ‘70s, there were lots of people who didn’t think women could do a lot of anything. It was a time of transition,” she said. “What is a female like who’d like to be a pilot? So every time you met someone, it was like being interviewed. It was always being on stage. That can be tough for some people.”
Tougher still was the animosity Livingston said she and her cohorts faced not from teachers or male classmates, but from classmates’ jealous wives and complete strangers.
“The young men and the instructors universally were professional and supportive. Were they exceptions? But you can always find exceptions. For the most part, I just considered the source. If they had difficulty with women as pilots, they probably had other difficulties in other aspects of their life,” Livingston said. “Men were thrilled we weren’t competing” for combat jobs.
After graduating, Livingston — who was not from a military family; her last soldier relative was during the Civil War — became a pilot instructor, and later an Air Force Academy economics instructor, detachment commander and recruiting squadron commander.
She retired in 1994 to raise her daughter — exactly 50 years after the Women Airforce Service Pilots program was disbanded. Those World War II-era female pilots paved the way for women like Liviongston, flying transport and test planes, helping with training and delivering new planes.
The abolishment of the draft and the growing popularity of the women’s rights movement is what finally drove the military to allow women in significant numbers and roles, according to Judith Stiehm, a professor of political science at Florida International University in Miami and an expert on women in the military.
Slowly, they began to expand their traditional roles of nurses and secretaries, but combat remained a no-no — at least in the Army and Marines. The Navy, however, didn’t want the women working on ships, so they let them fly. That forced the Air Force (which also had cited concerns about women’s legs not being able to reach the controls in planes, while at the same time teaching short men in allied countries to fly) to let women join their above-the-cloud ranks. Now, decades later, Stiehm said, it’s moot as many combat pilots are actually flying drones remotely.
“The Air Force dragged its feet at every opportunity,” she said. “Women are a fascinating way of understanding military men. Women officers saw they were not going to get a star on their shoulder without going into combat.”
Livingston’s 1977 classmate Kathy LaSauce, remembers those days as less than halcyon — everything from being shunned by male classmates and being forced to wear a Playboy patch on her flight suit to the helmet-accommodating short haircuts the women were ordered to get.
“Some of the guys were somewhat supportive, but most were a little jealous and a little annoyed. They didn’t want us there,” LaSauce, 62, of Alexandria, Va., recalled. “The mindset back then was, ‘This is the Air Force Academy and women didn’t belong.’ Because we were able to get airplanes, that meant someone else wouldn’t fly airplanes.”
LaSauce, who retired in 1992 as a full colonel-select, went on to fly transport planes, delivering troops, humanitarian supplies and nuclear weapons.
“My flight jacket’s in a museum out here at Dulles. I do realize what we did and how well we performed had an impact on women coming after us.”
Livingston no longer has her own plane. She gave it up four years ago, when it got to be too expensive. Occasionally, when she’s in a friend’s plane, she’ll take the controls for a bit. Neither her husband nor her daughter has ever flown with her.
She has her memories to keep her in the air: “It was fun. The Air Force was great. What a tremendous opportunity I was given.”