Oceana Air Show this weekend in Virginia Beach celebrates 50 years of women in naval aviation

Half a century ago, eight women were the first allowed to enter the Navy’s flight training school in Pensacola.

Six of them earned their wings, blazing a trail for their futures that would light the way for female aviators for generations to come.

“Things are happening now that I could not have even imagined back in the ’70s,” said retired Capt. Joellen Drag Oslund, the fourth woman to earn the coveted gold wings. “Now, we have a woman selected for chief of naval operations. We have a woman, who’s a helicopter pilot, that has commanded a nuclear aircraft carrier — the USS Lincoln. In those days, I wasn’t even allowed to hover over those ships, much less be a commanding officer.”

The Navy is celebrating “50 Years of Women in Naval Aviation” during this year’s Naval Air Station Oceana Air Show, slated for Saturday and Sunday.

Over the past five decades, women in naval aviation have shattered the figurative glass ceiling to literally take flight. In doing so, they had to overcome gender segregation, redefine “traditional roles” and challenge what was once an exclusively all-male career path.

“We had to be the bloody tip of the sword in order to begin the culture change of accepting women in something other than their traditional roles,” said retired Capt. Mary Louise Griffin, the 12th woman to earn gold wings.

Griffin, 74, and Oslund, 73, graduated together in 1973 from Navy Women Officer School, the Navy’s last gender segregated officer candidate school.

Oslund and Griffin both joined the Navy on a whim as college students in search of well-paying jobs with career trajectory. Oslund, the daughter of a sailor, and Griffin, the daughter of a Western Airlines employee, figured the Navy was a good option.

“Growing up, there were two things I knew I did not want to be. I did not want to be a stewardess for my daddy’s airline,” Griffin said. “And I did not want to be a teacher like my mother.”

While Oslund was in the first female flight training program, Griffin was not selected to begin flight training until 1975 when the chief of naval operations directed a second class to begin. Griffin was one of six selected, earning her wings in 1976. She was assigned jet transition training and reported to Fleet Composite Squadron Seven at Naval Air Station Miramar in California. Griffin was only the second woman assigned to fly tactical jet aircraft.

“We had to be twice as good for half the credit,” Griffin said. “I think that was OK to in the long run because they made me better. I would not let them get the best of me.”

Oslund was pinned with her wings two years before Griffin in 1974. She reported to Helicopter Combat Support Squadron 3 in San Diego. Her hands were immediately tied, restricted by U.S. Code 10, Section 6015, a federal law prohibiting women from serving in combat or being assigned aboard ships. This meant Oslund was unable to participate in the vast majority of her squadron’s missions.

“Flight hours were hard to come by and they went to the guys who are getting ready to go overseas,” Oslund said of her challenges to support the mission of her squadron and hit career milestones.

Oslund challenged the law, signing on as a co-plaintiff to a lawsuit spearheaded by the American Civil Liberties Union. It was 1978 before a federal judge deemed the law unconstitutional. The Navy modified the law to allow women to fill sea duty billets on support and noncombatant ships, but they were still barred from serving in combat.

“Your best defense was to be a good pilot and to be a good officer,” Oslund said. “That’s what we tried to do — all of us.”

Oslund went on to be the first female Navy pilot assigned to flying duty aboard a ship and the first female combat search and rescue helicopter aircraft commander.

Since 1973 ,the Navy’s number of female aviators has climbed from six to 1,685. Today, women make up about 18% of the naval aviation team and 21% of the Navy.

Among the newer generations are Oceana-based aviators Cmdr. Melissa Moravan and Lt. Katie Arbuckle.

Moravan, 41, is the commanding officer of Fleet Logistics Support Squadron 56, also called the Globemasters — a C-40 aircraft squadron at Oceana. Arbuckle, 28, is a pilot with Strike Fighter Squadron 81, or the Sunliners, and is also one of the few female landing signal officers.

Moravan joined the Navy in 2004, and said she knows what it is like to be “the only woman in the room.”

“One of the reasons I wanted to keep serving was to make it make it more prevalent. If they see women aviators, girls are more likely to think it is something they can do themselves,” said Moravan, who has two young daughters.

One of her daughters, Moravan said, dreams of becoming a pilot.

“We’ve come a long way, culture-wise. Are there still things that we need to work on? Absolutely,” Moravan said. “I think everybody always has things to grow with. But I’m very proud to be in this organization at this time and to see how far we’ve come and see what’s in our future.”

For Arbuckle, the future is now.

“Most of the challenges that plagued women when they first joined the Navy are over with and it’s been a real blessing for me,” said Arbuckle, who was commissioned as an officer in 2017 after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy.

In celebrating the 50th anniversary of women in naval aviation, Arbuckle said it feels like she is “standing on the shoulders of giants.”

“It is not only a celebration of where women are, but a celebration of the previous 50 years worth of women that went through to pave the way to make it such a relatively easy walk for me to make and for women after me to make,” Arbuckle said.

This year also marks the 75th anniversary of President Harry Truman signing the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, which made women permanent members of the U.S. armed forces. And it is the 30th anniversary of the repeal of the combat exclusion law — a repeal Griffin and Oslund affectionately refer to as “flying untethered.”

“It took 20 of the last 50 years just to get a level playing field,” Oslund said. “And it has taken the 30 years since then to grow the kind of experience and seniority that is needed to fill those positions.”

Taking to the sky Saturday and Sunday during the air show will be Lt. Amanda Lee, the first woman on the Blue Angels demonstration team.

“Some things have taken way too long,” Oslund said. “But that said, it’s amazing how far we’ve come.”

For more information on the 2023 NAS Oceana Air Show, visit the website at oceanaairshow.com. The show is open to the public, and admission and parking are free.

Caitlyn Burchett, caitlyn.burchett@virginiamedia.com