Women’s History Month: Navy’s first Black female tactical air pilot earns ‘Wings of Gold’

Few people are labeled the “first” at much in the U.S. military, but Navy Lt. j.g. Madeline G. Swegle is not your average sailor.

As of July 31, 2020, she’s officially the Navy’s first Black female tactical air pilot, marking a significant milestone for naval aviation.

After completing her final undergraduate TACAIR training flight in a T-45C Goshawk jet, Swegle and 25 of her classmates received their wings of gold during a small ceremony at Naval Air Station Kingsville, Texas. The Virginia native is assigned to the “Redhawks” of Training Squadron VT-21 under Training Air Wing 2.

A T-45C Goshawk training aircraft
A T-45C Goshawk training aircraft, assigned to Training Air Wing (TW) 1, lands on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) in the Atlantic Ocean, Oct. 31, 2019. The John C. Stennis is underway conducting routine operations in support of Commander, Naval Air Force Atlantic. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Grant G. Grady)

Swegle is part of a new generation of TACAIR pilots to qualify on the state-of-the-art aircraft launch and recovery equipment unique to the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford: the electromagnetic aircraft launch system and advanced arresting gear. She completed carrier qualifications in the Atlantic Ocean off the Florida coast in May.

Now, Swegle has advanced to graduate-level flight training. She’ll be an EA-18G Growler pilot and reported in September to the “Vikings” of Electronic Attack Squadron VAQ-129 at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Wash., for training in electronic warfare tactics, techniques and procedures in preparation for her assignment to the fleet.

Student Naval Aviator Lt. j.g. Madeline Swegle
KINGSVILLE, Texas (July 7, 2020) Student Naval Aviator Lt. j.g. Madeline Swegle, assigned to the Redhawks of Training Squadron (VT) 21 at Naval Air Station Kingsville, Texas, exits a T-45C Goshawk training aircraft following her final flight to complete the undergraduate Tactical Air (Strike) pilot training syllabus, July 7, 2020. Swegle is the U.S. Navy’s first known Black female strike aviator and will receive her Wings of Gold during a ceremony July 31. (U.S. Navy photo by Anne Owens/Released)

Starting Out

A 2017 U.S. Naval Academy graduate, Swegle initially reported to the Naval Aviation Schools Command at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., where she completed initial flight screening and aviation preflight indoctrination. She then did primary flight training with the “Boomers” of Training Squadron VT-27 at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas. After selecting the TACAIR — or strike — pipeline, she progressed to intermediate and advanced training with Training Squadron VT-21 at Naval Air Station Kingsville, Texas.

“I was super excited but also really intimidated,” Swegle said. “I remember driving down here for the first time, and it just seemed really daunting. It was crazy to be in such a higher performance aircraft. I was really excited on takeoff — feeling the exhilaration and getting thrown back in the seat a little bit. That was awesome.”

Learning the Ropes

The training isn’t easy, but Swegle said the difficulty is what made it fun for her.

“I know that I had to work to get it to behave, and it took a lot of fighting the aircraft and figuring out how it was going to perform. That was exciting,” she said. “It’s really rewarding to have the plane do whatever you want it to do.”

It took time, but she said she noticed her improvements.

“Looking back, it’s amazing to think about where I started,” Swegle said. “I’d never been in an airplane before, so it’s just one step at a time. And it’s really cool to think of all the things that I’ve done now, which I never thought that I’d be able to do.”

Lt. j.g. Madeline "Maddy" Swegle
Lt. j.g. Madeline “Maddy” Swegle poses for a photograph in front of a U.S. Navy T-45 Goshawk training aircraft during undergraduate Tactical Air (Strike) pilot training syllabus at Naval Air Station Kingsville, Texas. Swegle is the Navy’s first Black female to graduate and become a tactical jet aviator. (U.S. Navy photo by Austin Rooney/released)

Not Aiming for ‘Firsts’

Swegle said being the first at anything was never her goal. Her interests just took her in that direction.

“It would’ve been nice to see someone who looked like me in this role; I never intended to be the first,” Swegle said. “I hope it’s encouraging to other people.”

She credited her parents with letting her dream big.

“They told me that I could be whatever I wanted to be,” Swegle said. “We would go see the [Navy] Blue Angels when they were in town. I don’t remember specifically how old I was, but they were just so cool. I love them. I just love the fast planes.”

Big Shoes to Fill

Swegle follows in the footsteps of Brenda E. Robinson, the Navy’s first Black female naval aviator. Robinson earned her wing of gold on June 6, 1980, and was the 42nd woman to be designated a naval aviator.

“Swegle has proven to be a courageous trailblazer,” said Navy Vice Adm. DeWolfe Miller III, commander of Naval Air Forces. “She has joined a select group of people who earned the wings of gold and answered the call to defend our nation from the air. The diversity of that group — with differences in background, skill and thought — makes us a stronger fighting force.”

“This profession is open to anybody with drive and motivation who wants to put in the work and the sacrifice that comes along with it,” said Navy Cmdr. Matthew Maher, VT-21 commanding officer. “It doesn’t matter who you are, what you look like or where you came from.”

“I think that representation is important because we are a very diverse nation,” Swegle said. “So, I would like everyone to believe that they can achieve whatever they want.”

Lt. j.g. Madeline "Maddy" Swegle
Lt. j.g. Madeline “Maddy” Swegle poses for a photograph in front of a U.S. Navy T-45 Goshawk training aircraft during undergraduate Tactical Air (Strike) pilot training syllabus at Naval Air Station Kingsville, Texas. Swegle is the Navy’s first Black female to graduate and become a tactical jet aviator. (U.S. Navy photo by Austin Rooney/released)

Looking Forward

Swegle’s three years of training were a long journey that she didn’t always think she’d finish.

“That was kind of scary, but I’m glad that I kept pushing, and we’re here, and I get to continue,” Swegle said. “I’m really honored that I get to wear the wings and get to fly planes and call myself a pilot.”

Many of her superiors are too.

“I’m incredibly proud of Lt. j.g. Swegle,” said Navy Rear Adm. Sara Joyner, chief of legislative affairs, during Swegle’s wing-pinning ceremony. “There’s more work to do to make sure that we recruit, train and retain a diverse force that represents the best and brightest of this nation. Everything in naval aviation requires teamwork, and you will be judged by your professionalism, demonstrated capability and leadership.”

As for Swegle’s legacy?

“I guess I hope that my legacy will be that there’ll be a lot of other women and minority women and just different faces that come forward and at least give the pipeline a shot — to be encouraged and know that they have all the tools that they need and to follow their dreams,” she said.

Despite the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, Swegle graduated with the largest class of strike aviators in nearly a decade.

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