Woman aviator helps make history

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Even before Women’s History Month became a national event in 1987, Col. Mary Kay Higgins was well on her way to making history.

As a captain in 1980, Mary Kay Higgins became one of the first woman to earn both pilot and navigator ratings.

"My initial plans were to get as close to flying as I could," said Colonel Higgins, who is now chief of the operations and plans division in the office of the Air Force Reserve at the Pentagon. "And because women could not fly in the Air Force in 1974, I asked for duty as an air control officer."

Although Women's Airforce Service Pilots flew missions ferrying aircraft during World War II, it was not until May 1976 that the Air Force first published its plan for training female navigators with their male counterparts. Colonel Higgins and five others were chosen as the first women to begin Undergraduate Navigator Training on March 10, 1977.

"Allowing women to enter navigator training was an important first step toward integrating them into today's combat-flying missions," said Dr. Kenneth C. Kan, a historian for Air Force Reserve Command headquarters at Robins Air Force Base, Ga.

Colonel Higgins earned top graduate honors and received her navigator wings Oct. 12, 1977. She was assigned to an aircrew aboard a KC-135 Stratotanker performing air refueling missions with Strategic Air Command's 380th Air Refueling Squadron at Plattsburgh AFB, N.Y.

"I enjoyed being a navigator because it came kind of naturally to me, so I was very good at it," she said.

As a licensed private pilot, Colonel Higgins dreamed of becoming an Air Force pilot. In June 1980, she got her chance to fulfill this dream when she entered Undergraduate Pilot Training at Reese AFB, Texas.

"With respect to changes for women, I've noticed many," she said. "I remember being stationed at Offutt AFB [Neb.] in the early 1980s and there was one female colonel, a big deal at that time. Also the lifting of the combat restriction on women in the early 1990s was another significant change."

Colonel Higgins served on active duty for 17 years before taking a five and a half year break to pursue a religious calling. She then joined the Air Force Reserve in 1997.

Today, Air Force Reserve Command has about 75,800 reservists who train and deploy regularly. Of that number, more than 23 percent are women. Of the more than 3,575 aircrew members in the Reserve, 162 are women serving as pilots, navigators and air weapons controllers.

Besides being a pilot, navigator and air traffic control officer, Colonel Higgins has served as a scientific analyst, acquisition manager and air staff planner.

"After Sept. 11, my division's responsibilities on the Air Force Crisis Action Team presented the largest challenge that I had ever faced," she said. "Enormously talented and dedicated people on my staff, and volunteers from all over, rose to the challenge and ensured that the Air Force Reserve was able to efficiently provide tens of thousands of members to prosecute the war on terror."

After 30 years of service, Colonel Higgins plans to retire June 1. (Courtesy of AFRC News Service and Senior Airman Stephanie Witty)