The most shocking thing about flying with Capt. Katie Higgins isn’t surviving three G’s when she rockets her monster airplane into the sky at 375 miles per hour. Or going weightless four times when she dives it, amped on the squeals and screams coming from the passengers behind her. Or watching veteran troops who swaggered onto her C-130 cargo plane lose it in their barf bags, one after another.
The thing that makes your mouth drop is hearing Higgins tell you about the 1940s attitudes she slams into when she’s on the ground.
From girls. Today.
“I’ve had girls tell me that they didn’t even know that ladies could fly aircraft or be in the military,” said Higgins, who is not only a pilot who has logged 400 combat hours for the Marines. But she just made history as the first female Blue Angel.
Sure enough, the very first little girl I talked to at the Ocean City Air Show last weekend, who happened to love the Blue Angels and also happened to adore the very aircraft that Higgins pilots — the round-faced, big-bellied C-130 known as Fat Albert — thought men were the only ones who fly.
“I didn’t know girls can be pilots,” said Grace McClung, 9, when I told her that a pilot named Katie would be flying her favorite plane. “Wow. So maybe I can be a pilot someday.”
That’s the magic right there. Putting a girl in that famous cockpit just smashed a few hundred years of jacked-up attitudes and did more for girl power than a thousand pink, sparkly T-shirts with cute sayings could ever do.
“She broke two barriers. The sound barrier and the gender barrier,” said Michael Masterson, a retired Air Force officer who is an air show regular and knew all about Higgins.
“She has a hell of a lot of experience, and she can do the job,” Masterson said.
Oh, she can do the job.
Besides her 400 combat hours in the cockpit, she’s logged another 1,000 hours in flight. And on her Twitter feed, besides having sweet notes about her one-month wedding anniversary to a fellow pilot (#MRSHIGGINS), she says things like: “This time last year, I was landing in Uganda to evacuate the South Sudan embassy.”
She is also a legacy pilot — third generation. (Her brother went into explosives, so she’s the one who carried on the tradition.)
Higgins, 28, grew up a military kid, which means she has lived all over. She graduated from W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax and then went to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, so she considers Severna Park, where her parents live, her home town.
Seeing her dad fly the F-18 Hornet, the same kind of planes that are the Blue Angels’ acrobatic show ponies, wasn’t what inspired her to be a pilot, though.
It was while she was a midshipman in Annapolis, after flying in her first non-commercial aircraft, that she decided to become a pilot.
Despite support, dealing with the role of gender and her place in American women’s history remains a tightrope she carefully negotiates.
Few people seem to know much about female pilots, present or past.
There’s some debate on which World War I fliers — Turkish aviator Sabiha Gökcen, Frenchwoman Marie Marvingt or Russian princesses Eugenie Shakhovskaya and Sophie Alexandrovna Dolgorunaya — were the world’s first female combat pilots.
The first licensed female pilot in America was Harriet Quimby in 1911.
And remember the Women Airforce Service Pilots, better known as WASP? They flew every plane in the military — including experimental jets — yet none were considered military pilots.
It wasn’t until 1993 that the military allowed women to fly combat aircraft.
So no, Katie Higgins isn’t big on taking credit for breaking barriers.
“Women have been flying for years,” she said. “There are 19 other women on [the Blue Angels]. The Marine Corps is 6 percent women.”
When she applied to the team — the application is about as long as a college application — she never once mentioned her gender, she told me.
She joined the team, however, just three months after it was rocked by a sexual harassment scandal and the removal of their commander Capt. Gregory McWherter.
The Blue Angels have the swagger down. In the hangar where the jets were being prepped, pilots who looked like statues to masculinity carved out of pure gold strutted around in flight suits that looked spray-painted on their bodies.
White teeth, square jaws, aviator shades.
But everyone is flocking to Higgins. “You noticed too?” asked one pilot.
“Yeah, I’m just your average white guy now,” laughed another.
Higgins is clearly making a difference.
She shook girls’ hands and told them to pursue their dreams.
She wowed men when they saw her strut around in her flight suit.
She smiled and encouraged, but was careful not to linger too long on the woman thing. And she was clear on one hope for the future.
“When you’re just there in the ready room, and you’re not the ‘Lady Blue Angel,’ you’re just another pilot,” she said.
“That’s when we’ll have reached true equality.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version incorrectly referred to Higgins as a cadet at the U.S. Naval Academy. A student at the academy is called a midshipman. This version has been corrected.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.