Undaunted by career roles traditionally occupied by men, six women honored at the 2018 Gathering of Eagles banquet Oct. 13 successfully pursued their dreams, never considering the possibility of facing gender bias.
When someone asked Sandra Miarecki, PhD, a test pilot, retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel and a physics professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy, how she felt about being a woman in a ‘man’s world,’ she said, “I never really thought of it that way. I was the only woman and I looked at it as having 49 big brothers.”
In fact, this year’s Eagle honorees were recognized for their intelligence, stamina, ingenuity and ability to make a difference in the field of aerospace, a difference which improved the lives of everyone. They truly lived up to this year’s event theme, “Breaking Barriers . . . Expanding Horizons.”
Lisa Gray, chairwoman of the Board of Directors for the Flight Test Historical Foundation, welcomed the crowd attending the ceremonial dinner in the H.W. Hunter Pavilion at the Antelope Valley Fairgrounds.
Gray described it as a celebration of women who worked in flight test, women who “dared to dream, then made a plan and obtained the education and experience to make that dream come true.”
She introduced the program’s Master of Ceremonies, Bill “Evil” Gray, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel and the Chief Test Pilot at the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School. Gray acknowledged he is also her husband.
Evil, as everyone called him, announced the honorees, beginning with Florence Lowe “Pancho” Barnes, who was recognized posthumously for her contributions.
He called Pancho a pioneer aviator who broke Amelia Earhart’s air speed record, raced in the Women’s Air Derby, owned the Happy Bottom Riding Club, worked as a stunt pilot in the movies and was “really important to flight test as one of 20th century’s greatest American characters.” Pancho was one of the first female pilots licensed in the United States.
Evil quoted Pancho as saying, “When you have a choice, choose happy,” and asked the assembled guests to reflect on that as they enjoyed each other’s company during the dinner hour.
Other honorees included Cynthia “CJ” Bixby, flight test engineer in Chief Systems Engineering and Integration at NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center; Dr. Eileen A. Bjorkman, flight test engineer, retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, Deputy Director of Programs and Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Plans, Programs and Requirements for the U.S. Air Force; Laurie Grindle, Engineer and Project Manager at NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center; Kelly J. Latimer, test pilot for the Air Force, research test pilot for NASA and pilot for Virgin Galactic; and Miarecki.
George Welsh, curator of the Flight Test Museum and Education Center, told the crowd that the accomplishments achieved by the newest class of Eagles inspire future generations of engineers. He said Star Base, an education program funded by the Department of Defense based strictly on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is conducted in cooperation with the museum.
The event also served as an occasion for the awarding of scholarships for local college students majoring in STEM fields. Scholarships were awarded to Britney Jaworski, a junior at California State University, Long Beach-Antelope Valley Engineering Program; and Sharon Gonzales, also a junior at California State University, Long Beach-Antelope Valley Engineering Program. Both matriculated to the CSULB-AV program from Antelope Valley College.
Jaworski received the William J. “Pete” Knight Memorial Scholarship and Gonzales received the C. Gordon Fullerton Memorial Scholarship. Britney, in the 8th grade, set her sights on becoming an engineer in the aviation field and Sharon is determined to become a mechanical engineer in flight test.
Col. Angela W. Suplisson, vice commander of the Air Force Test Center, moderated a Q & A panel as a highlight of the evening. She asked Bjorkman what inspired her career in flight test.
“I fell into everything. That’s the story of my life,” Bjorkman said. She went into computer science and worked for a year in commercial industry, before accepting a position at Boeing. “They were short of engineers at that time. I realized, if I was going to be in the Air Force, I better learn to fly.”
Suplisson asked Grindle how she came to NASA.
“I was interested in becoming an astronaut,” Grindle said. “There’s lots and lots of applicants, but only a few selected.” She was told, if she liked airplanes, she should be at NASA. She went from being a researcher to becoming chief engineer in seven years.
Latimer said she had a “detailed plan from an early age.” She was in 8th grade, headed to high school and knew she needed a career path. She began researching pilot training at the library and read that she should enroll in a military academy. She informed her parents of her desire to go to the Air Force Academy, fearing they would resist. Instead, they supported her. “It all started in the library,” she said.
“I was also a planner, like Kelly,” Miarecki said. “I watched moon landings on television” She said she was always interested in the stars and astronomy. In high school a guidance counselor suggested that she become an astrophysicist. During her freshman year at the University of Illinois, she told her counselor she wanted to become an astronaut. The counselor couldn’t offer any advice, but suggested she enroll in ROTC. In 1997, she submitted her first application to NASA.
Asked about her best day in flight test, Bixby said, “My coolest day was not in the control room. I was on the X-35 project. There is nothing like standing 15 feet away from 50,000 pounds of airplane.” She said you feel the ground vibrating. Bixby’s path to a career in flight test, after obtaining her degree in physics, included an early position at General Dynamics at Edwards, where she was hired to build a database. Upon completing that project, her boss asked her if she wanted to be a flight test engineer, and her journey began.
U.S. Rep. Steve Knight, son of X-15 test pilot Pete Knight, said the event is great for recognizing accomplishments in aerospace. It provides two great scholarships to “young leaders who will make their mark.”
As far as the fundraising aspect, Knight said, the money raised will help “build the new museum outside the gate at Edwards (Air Force Base). My father was the first chairman of the Flight Test Historical Foundation. He’s been an Eagle twice. This event and the Flight Test Historical Foundation means a great deal to me and meant a great deal to him.”
Kent Burns, chairman of the 2018 Gathering of Eagles, said the event first started in 1998. This year 200 people attended. The honorees were selected from recommendations made by the Board of Directors as well as community members, but the board approves the recipients — typically a tribute made to between five and seven people. Money raised goes into a building fund for the new museum, with an estimated cost that ranges from $6 million to $8 million. Though Burns didn’t disclose how soon the foundation would reach that goal, he said, “We need support. We’re looking to have the community support us.”
Construction on the new museum site is now underway. Even with limited public access due to its current location on Edwards AFB, the museum has hosted 50,000 visitors so far in 2018. The move to the new location outside the Edwards gate, along with increased outreach programs for local students, will make the Air Force Flight Test Museum an important local and national resource for aircraft aficionados, STEM educators and students of aviation history.