Pioneers. Rule breakers. Trail blazers and foremothers. These terms have been used to describe the first women who took to the skies when flight became a reality. They took on a male-dominated field with the thought they too deserved a place in the air.
Many have described their struggles. Women were seen by some as too emotional and not intelligent enough to operate an aircraft. But women like Ruth Law, Katherine Stinson, Amelia Earhart and Jacqueline Cochran proved differently. An entire unit of women, the Women Airforce Service Pilots, flew missions in World War II and became national icons and personal heroes to many young women who dreamed of flying.
These forerunners set the stage for the emergence of some of the finest female pilots in the world. They made it possible for others to follow in their footsteps; to be able to continue the great legacy of female fliers.
The 944th Fighter Wing boasts two of those women in their own ranks.
Following in the footsteps of the WASP, Col. Trena Savageau, 944th Operations Group commander, and Maj. Gena Fedoruk, 944th Inspector General, are also Air Force pilots. Savageau flies the F-16 Fighting Falcon and Fedoruk pilots the KC-135 Stratotanker. They have different missions with their aircraft, but both are invaluable to the Air Force.
Having looked to the skies since she was a young girl, Savageau originally wanted to become an astronaut, but after seeing fighter jets in 1992 during Desert Storm, she decided that was her calling. After graduating from the U.S. Air Force Academy and pilot training, Savageau got her first choice, that of flying the F-16, and has been flying them for the past 21 years. Since Congress lifted the restrictions on women flying in combat, she has logged more than 80 hours of combat flight. This is very different from the women that first flew as military pilots, since WASP were authorized for only noncombat-related missions.
Savageau states that, “Flying as a skill isn’t any less work for a woman than a man. It was people’s attitudes and expectations that created barriers for women pilots in the past. In the sky there are only pilots, and we value skill regardless of gender.”
Savageau has been fortunate enough to have a very welcoming and enriching experience within the F-16 community. As part of the first wave of women assigned to fighter platforms immediately following pilot training, she views her experience as a positive one. However, she concedes that there are still too few women in the aviation industry and says she wants to help girls realize that girls can fly, too.
Less than 1% of fighter pilots are women and only 6% of the pilot corps in the Air Force are female.
These numbers are still about even with times past, as women make up a much smaller ratio of flyers. “We just need more young women to turn their eyes to the sky,” Savageau said, drawing from the pioneering spirit of the women that came before her. Even as the first female commander of the 69th Fighter Squadron, Savageau states that her gender was never a factor.
“I’ve always worked my hardest and given my best,” she said.
Fedoruk, another female pilot, has worked her way through the ranks and made an excellent career for herself, as well.
As the 944th IG, she directs complaint resolution, inspections, and the fraud, waste and abuse programs for more than 2,200 Reservists. Prior to this assignment, she served as an instructor pilot and evaluator pilot on the KC-135. Fedoruk, like so many others, became captivated with flying at a very young age. During a trip to Alaska at age 8, she realized her dream.
“My family and I had an amazing experience on a helicopter flight,” she said. “From that moment forward I wanted to learn everything I could about aviation.”
She kept that promise to herself and became a pilot, learning to fly the KC-135, T-37 and T1A.
In her civilian career, she flies for a major airline and is rated on the Airbus 319, 320, 321 and Boeing 737. As an airline pilot, she is also one of very few females in the industry.
Helen Richey was the first woman to be hired by a commercial airline in 1934, a time that was extremely difficult for a woman to make it as a civilian pilot. It was not until 1976, 42 years later, that Emily Howell Warner was appointed as a captain on a scheduled U.S. airline.
Fedoruk appreciates the importance of celebrating Women’s History Month to show all the opportunities women now have.
“Highlighting these amazing women’s stories pays tribute to their experiences,” Fedoruk said. “They have paved the way for us to fly.”