For Rosemary Mariner, her first flight in a new fighter jet — in this case, a Navy A7-E Corsair she was winging over north Florida in the mid-1970s — ordinarily would have been a chance for a woman and her plane to get know each other a little bit.
But nothing was ever quite ordinary for Mariner, a pioneering female aviator, and 10 minutes into the run, her radio crackled with orders to return to base. There were reporters waiting to speak to her.
Mariner’s commander at the time was a Navy officer named John McCain, a recently returned Vietnam POW still years away from his political career. But he already had a keen sense of media relations, and if the papers wanted a story about the first female military jet pilot, he was ready to oblige.
“McCain made her land so they could make their 4 o’clock deadlines,” recalled Mariner’s husband of 39 years, Tommy Mariner, himself a retired Navy lieutenant commander. “She was mad as she could be because she just wanted to take that jet out and have fun.”
Such was the highflying life of Mariner, a born pilot who broke not so much the glass ceiling as the crystal sky by becoming one of the first women to earn her Navy wings in 1973, the first woman to fly a tactical fighter jet a year later and, in 1990, the first to command a squadron in the run-up to the Gulf War.
Mariner died Jan. 24 of ovarian cancer at age 65. During her funeral in Tennessee on Saturday, the Navy honored her cloud-breaking career with another first: a flyover of fighter jets piloted exclusively by women. It was a remarkable moment.
It was not so hard anymore to find enough female fliers to fill the cockpits, noted Mary Louise Griffin, 69, a retired Navy pilot who was with Mariner in the first class of six women to become naval aviators.
“One of those young women [flying in the tribute] was born the year Rosemary took command of her squadron,” Griffin said from her car as she traveled to her friend’s funeral, where she was expected to be joined by at least 40 others from an organization of female military pilots that Mariner helped establish. “She would have liked that. We spent almost 20 years getting doors open, and we just keep rocking on.”
Mariner, born Rosemary Bryant in Texas in 1953, wanted to fly before she could even drive. After her father, an Air Force pilot, was killed in a plane crash, she washed airplanes to make money for flying lessons at a small field near San Diego, where she lived with her mother and two sisters. She soloed on her 17th birthday.
“She took me up in a Piper Cub and showed me our house,” said Libby Merims, younger by five years and always comfortable with her big sister at the controls.
While a junior studying aeronautics at Purdue University in Indiana, Mariner’s mother sent her a newspaper clipping: Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, chief of naval operations in the early 1970s, wanted to open military flying jobs to women. Testing out of her remaining courses and graduating at 19, Mariner was in officer candidate school within months and then in Pensacola, Fla., for basic flight training.
Mariner was among the first of the women to be certified for propeller aircraft, but they were still barred from the fighter-jet track, the holy grail for most Navy pilots.
“That’s what almost all of us wanted,” said Griffin, who also was steered toward prop planes. “But there were still limits.”
But that barrier came down unexpectedly. Mariner’s next commanding officer needed more jet pilots and gave her a chance to sign up. Without fanfare, she became the Navy’s first female tactical fighter jet pilot.
“She was very determined, very methodical,” said longtime friend Martha Raddatz, an ABC News correspondent who will attend the funeral.
The two met at an event when Raddatz was covering the Pentagon and Mariner was pregnant. “I asked her, ‘Oh, do you work?’ And she said, ‘I’m a tactical jet pilot for the Navy.’”
Mariner’s career rose steadily, with bigger planes and bigger jobs to come. She was eventually cleared to land on aircraft carriers — another threshold the Navy was reluctant for women to cross — and she was one of the first women to serve aboard a U.S. warship, the USS Lexington. In the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War, she flew combat support missions to help prepare the fleet for Desert Storm. In 1990, she took command of a military aviation squadron based at the Pacific Missile Test Center at Point Mugu, Calif., becoming the first woman to hold such a post.
With every new challenge, she faced resistance, according to those who knew her.
“She would say the problem first was that men were afraid they couldn’t do the job,” said Raddatz. “And then they were afraid that they could.”
Often, she faced more criticism outside of the Navy, where the culture war over gender roles was heating up in the 1970s. She usually felt comfortable and at ease within the ranks, according to her husband, although she did learn to avoid some of her colleagues long before the #MeToo movement.
“There were certain people that Rosemary knew not to be left alone with in an office,” Tommy Mariner said.
After accumulating more than 3,500 military flight hours and achieving the rank of captain, Mariner retired to a life of scholarship, punditry and, of course, more flying. She died with her husband present after a visit from their daughter, Emmalee Mariner, a student at Duke University.
Many of her fellow pilots knew her by her call sign: Viper.
Her husband had another one for her: Rosebud.
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