First-class aviator reflects on her storied career

  • Published
  • By Annette Crawford
  • 37th Training Wing Public Affairs

Kathy La Sauce didn’t blaze trails during her 20-year Air Force career. She scorched them.

She joined the Air Force in 1972, after receiving one of only two Officer Training School slots for the Long Island, New York area.

“When I graduated from college, I wanted my life to matter so I looked at joining the Air Force,” La Sauce said. “Fortunately, the Air Force had just increased the number of women that would be allowed to serve, and it opened up some of the nontraditional career fields.”

Her next stop was Chanute Air Force Base, Illinois, where she became part of the first maintenance officer class to include women.

“I spent seven months learning about all the systems of an aircraft – engines, hydraulics, electronics, aerodynamics – and I loved it!” La Sauce said.

Supervising maintenance personnel and coordinating the recovery, repair and launch of C-141 Starlifters, C-5 Galaxies and WC-130 Hercules “Typhoon Chasers” was a great life. She may well have gone on to complete her career in aircraft maintenance were it not for the Air Force announcing a groundbreaking test program. So it was her next “first” that set the course for history – graduating in 1977 as a member of the first Undergraduate Pilot Training class to include women.

“When I learned that they were going to open up flying to women, I was excited about the possibility of the opportunity to learn to fly,” she said. “My technical knowledge and my reputation in maintenance was undoubtedly the reason I was selected to be in the first class.”

La Sauce said she found pilot training to be “extremely demanding but yet thrilling.” While many Americans were celebrating the huge step in equal rights for women, not everyone was on board with the changes.

“Some of our flight commanders didn’t want us there,” she said. “And some of them even said, ‘Well, if I had my way, none of you would graduate’.”

Despite the negativity, La Sauce didn’t let it stop her from achieving her goals. She thought of what it would mean if she didn’t succeed.

“I realized that opportunities for women in the Air Force might have been limited,” she said. “They might not have opened up and removed the combat exclusion laws, so women wouldn’t be flying fighter aircraft, women wouldn’t be flying combat missions, nor be test pilots or astronauts.”

“We were considered a test program – a test program because there were political and military leaders who did not want us to succeed,” La Sauce said. “I knew that my success as a pilot and my career progression was extremely important to future generations of women who would follow after me.”

She trained on T-37 and T-38 Talon aircraft during UPT, and chose to fly the C-141 cargo aircraft after graduating, giving her the ability to fly around the world. While stationed at Norton AFB, California, she achieved three more “firsts” – first woman to be a C-141 aircraft commander, instructor pilot and flight examiner pilot. She was then selected as the first female pilot to fly in the 89th Airlift Wing at Andrews AFB, Maryland. She flew the VC-135 Stratolifter and upgraded to aircraft commander. After a staff tour at the Pentagon, she returned to Andrews AFB, where she became the first woman to command an aerial port squadron – one that supported the president of the United States.

La Sauce considers commanding the aerial port squadron her most memorable assignment.

“While I was there, there was President Mitterand and Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher … an exciting time,” she said. “It was an assignment for me to make a bigger difference.”

She made some changes during her time at Andrews AFB, and while they may seem small, they showed La Sauce paid attention to the needs not only of the distinguished visitors, but her Airmen as well. One of the changes was adding items to the supply list specifically for women. Even though there were many Congresswomen who came through as passengers, there wasn’t a single item on either the aircraft or in the DV lounge that could accommodate their needs. She also obtained funding to replace a 25-year-old pallet scale with a digital one.

“I could make a difference in cutting out a lot of the unnecessary regulations, and letting the young people give me their ideas on how they would like to do things better,” La Sauce said. “My personality was just right for that squadron.”

She added while some of the senior noncommissioned officers initially didn’t want to work for a woman commander, it didn’t take them long to acknowledge she was the best commander they had ever worked for.

“It was a storybook ending to a perfect career,” she said.

La Sauce was interviewed by the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in October 2020, after the museum debuted an exhibit dedicated to the 10 women of UPT Class 77-08. They were also inducted into the Women in Aviation International Pioneer Hall of Fame in 2016.

“I’m extremely pleased and honored that our role in history is finally being told,” La Sauce said. “America knows about the women who flew in World War II, and they know about the women fighter pilots, but I’m afraid history has sort of lost any of the stories of my class, my generation.”

When viewing the museum exhibit, she hopes people realize “equality for women took time.”

“Only recently have I taken the time to look back and reflect on my life, career and accomplishments,” La Sauce said. “I realized I was a part of aviation history. I had a fascinating and fulfilling career!”

In addition to conversations with La Sauce, some information for this article was taken from an interview done by Annette Crawford for the Spring 2020 edition of “Daedalus Flyer,” the official magazine of the Daedalians: Information was also sourced from an interview with the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in October 2020: