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Female U-2 pilots say gender isn't a factor

Capt. Heather Fox, a U-2 Dragon Lady pilot with the 99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, stands while Senior Airman Roric Ongaco (right) and Staff Sgt. Lisa Tetrick, 99th ERS physiological support division technicians, help attach the torso harness to her suit.  She was preparing to fly a reconnaissance mission March 25 from an air base in Southwest Asia.  Captain Fox is one of only three female U-2 pilots currently serving in the Air Force.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Levi Riendeau)

Capt. Heather Fox, a U-2 Dragon Lady pilot with the 99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, stands while Senior Airman Roric Ongaco (right) and Staff Sgt. Lisa Tetrick, 99th ERS physiological support division technicians, help attach the torso harness to her suit. She was preparing to fly a reconnaissance mission March 25 from an air base in Southwest Asia. Captain Fox is one of only three female U-2 pilots currently serving in the Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Levi Riendeau)

Capt. Heather Fox, a U-2 Dragon Lady pilot with the 99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, receives 100 percent oxygen while Senior Airman Roric Ongaco, a 99th ERS physiological support division technician, monitors Captain Fox's suit pressure.  She was preparing to fly a reconnaissance mission March 25 from an air base in Southwest Asia.  Captain Fox is one of only three female U-2 pilots currently serving in the Air Force.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Levi Riendeau)

Capt. Heather Fox, a U-2 Dragon Lady pilot with the 99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, receives 100 percent oxygen while Senior Airman Roric Ongaco, a 99th ERS physiological support division technician, monitors Captain Fox's suit pressure. She was preparing to fly a reconnaissance mission March 25 from an air base in Southwest Asia. Captain Fox is one of only three female U-2 pilots currently serving in the Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Levi Riendeau)

SOUTHWEST ASIA (AFPN) -- In its 50 years of flight, only six women pilots have been at the controls of the U-2 Dragon Lady.

Three of those six are currently in the Air Force, and two of those three are currently fighting in operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, flying with the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing's 99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, the only U-2 squadron in Southwest Asia.

Maj. Merryl Tengesdal and Capt. Heather Fox, both U-2 pilots with the 99th ERS and deployed from Beale Air Force Base, Calif., continue to add to women's and the U-2's history, while fighting the war on terror 70,000 feet in the air.

From these altitudes, Major Tengesdal and Captain Fox, along with their 99th ERS wingmen, provide other warfighters with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance of the battle space.

Since its introduction in 1957, the U-2 and the men and women who support it have provided the United States and all its branches of military, with an unmatched upper hand on the enemy by providing high-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to commanders.

"After we've completed a mission and landed the aircraft, it's rewarding to know that we've helped the forces on the ground, and kept them safe," said Captain Fox. "Even after 50 years, the U-2 has a significant impact on the mission."

According to Lt. Col. Thomas Engle, 99th ERS commander, the U-2 is an unforgiving aircraft which requires exceptional airmanship to fly, and is arguably the most difficult aircraft in the world to land. 

Pilots are carefully screened before being accepted for training, to include a three-sortie interview profile to determine the applicant's aptitude for flying the "Deuce." Fewer than half of the candidates invited to interview eventually get qualified to fly combat reconnaissance missions in the aircraft. 

Missions in excess of nine hours wearing a full-pressure suit while flying at extreme altitudes are very fatiguing and require a high degree of professional commitment.

"Major Tengesdal and Captain Fox are both experienced U-2 instructor pilots bringing a high level of maturity and skill to the 99th ERS," said Colonel Engle. "I place a high degree of trust in these officers, as they face tough decisions every day to keep our pilots and aircraft safe while executing the mission; and they do it admirably." 

Fewer than 850 Airmen have piloted the U-2 since its introduction. According to Captain Fox, the small number of women whose names are on that list is just another number.  

"To be perfectly honest I really don't think it's that big of a deal," she said. "The aircraft flies the same for women as it does for men. I'm just glad I'm a part of an aircraft with such a great mission."

According to Major Tengesdal, every contribution in the military is important to winning the war on terrorism.

"As a pilot, all that matters is the mission, no matter if you're male or female," she said. "We get it done out here, and I'm happy to be a contributing member of this team. It's an honor to be a part of the U-2 heritage."

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