Former Navy lieutenant Carey Lohrenz, 53, always knew that she wanted to fly fighter jets. Her father was a Marine Corps pilot who greatly influenced her passion from an early age. But 30 years ago, when she began Aviation Officer Candidate School, women were banned from flying jets in combat.
“I wanted to fly fighters because those pilots were the cream of the crop,” she says. “I thought to myself, Well, it takes about two years to get through this program. So maybe by the time I’m done, they will have lifted the law.”
In 1993, on the day her class was told to fill out their “dream sheet” by listing their top six assignment preferences, the Department of Defense ended the ban on women flying in combat.
“I was so stoked. When those assignments came out, based on my performance, I was assigned to fly the F-14 Tomcat,” Lohrenz says.
The F-14 had been popularized by the 1986 blockbuster film Top Gun.
“This airplane is challenging,” says Ward Carroll, a 15-year Tomcat radar intercept officer and popular YouTube host. “You’re traveling at supersonic air speeds. So, your adaptability in the airborne environment has to be 110 percent. Not everybody walking into the front door of flight school possesses that.”
The aircraft would begin its flight from zero to over 200 mph in just under two seconds by launching off an aircraft carrier deck via a catapult. The pilots would go to extremes, from conducting low-level flights at 500 mph to climbing to such high altitudes that, on some days, they could see the curvature of the earth.
Carroll says that at the time Lohrenz was granted her assignment, she was entering a very “machismo” space where physical strength and the ability to sharply land an aircraft was seen as something that only men could do.
“When you hear these little comments, whether it’s about your fingernail polish or your hair or what you’re wearing at the time, it can feel like the slow drop of Chinese water torture,” Lohrenz recalls. “When you’re there to fly this magnificent fighter jet, it chips away at you.”
Lohrenz and the other inaugural female Navy fighter pilots were perceived as taking jobs away from their male counterparts, which caused some service members to actively work against their success, she says.
“All I wanted desperately was just to blend in and be a fighter pilot, not a female fighter pilot,” she says. “The plane doesn’t know what gender you are. The plane just wants to fly.”
Despite the aerial feats the Tomcat was able to perform, it was one of the more difficult planes to land on an aircraft carrier.
“It was big, it was heavy and it tended to be slightly underpowered,” Lohrenz says. “You’re coming across the back end of that aircraft carrier, going about 165 miles an hour, and you slam down on that deck and come to a complete stop in just under 1.2 seconds.”
In 1994, Lohrenz was the only female F-14 pilot on the USS Abraham Lincoln, making her feel very isolated.
“The missteps that would normally be attributed to just being a first tour pilot are suddenly attributed to the fact that you’re a female pilot,” Carroll says.
Lohrenz recalls how the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), home to the first females to ever fly military aircrafts in World War II, were told they were no longer needed after the war, despite flying over 2 million hours in the 1940s.
“So, knowing that history and understanding that every day I showed up, I was standing on the shoulders of greatness,” she says. “Calm is your superpower, but the relentless scrutiny simply because I was a woman, that was nonstop.”
When the F-14 fighter jet was retired in 2006, 144 of the 632 Navy Tomcats had crashed. But only one of the crashes involved a female pilot.
Scrutiny to power
In almost a decade in the Navy, Lohrenz flew five other types of military aircraft in addition to the Tomcat, logged almost 1,000 hours of flight time and had 172 carrier landings.
“I faced a lot of up and downs. But, I started my career in the cockpit and I ended my career in the cockpit. I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she says.
After leaving the Navy, she didn’t know what she was going to do with her future until one day she was outside her home with her kids playing with sidewalk chalk. A neighbor who worked as an executive at a major food company came up to her because he was having a difficult time with a product rollout.
“I’m like, ‘OK, what are your resources? What are your threats?’ And then in big jumbo sidewalk chalk I drew this strategic plan for him in under 10 minutes. And he ran in, got a camera and took a picture,” Lohrenz says. “And next thing you know I'm starting a strategic planning consulting career.”
That evolved into being a keynote speaker, appearing on television and authoring two books on leadership that later went on to be Wall Street Journal best sellers.
“At the end of the day it’s not about me. It’s what can somebody do with the lessons that I learned. If there’s part of my story that I can share — or if there’s somebody who looks at me and thinks, Oh my gosh, maybe I can do that too — then it’s worth it,” she says.
Carroll says, “Because Carey’s efforts to kick in doors paved the way for female integration, compressively, now, if you visit a squadron you will see a large number of female naval aviators. And you will see the attitudes of their male counterparts. There is zero stigma. There is no differentiation. It is a regular thing.”
“Courage does not mean the absence of fear, it means you have to feel the fear and go for it anyway,” Lohrenz says.
This is the eighth episode from AARP Studios’ new documentary series Reporting for Duty. Each month you can expect a new inspirational story about veterans and military families at YouTube.com/aarp.
Aaron Kassraie writes about issues important to military veterans and their families for AARP. He also serves as a general assignment reporter. Kassraie previously covered U.S. foreign policy as a correspondent for the Kuwait News Agency’s Washington bureau and worked in news gathering for USA Today and Al Jazeera English.