The flyover will honor retired Capt. Rosemary Bryant Mariner, a pioneering pilot who died Jan. 24. One of the first six women to earn Navy wings, in 1974, she pushed back against ingrained skepticism within the fleet to become the Navy’s first female jet pilot to fly front-line light attack aircraft, one of the first women to serve aboard a Navy warship and the first woman to command a military aviation squadron.
While Mariner’s husband told NBC News that she would not have considered the flybys all-female composition particularly important, the significance is deeply felt among female pilots whose struggles for acceptance as aviation professionals in 2019 echo the challenges Mariner had to overcome — and actually hark back even further, to the 1940s. Throughout her career, Mariner operated on the principle that there weren’t male or female pilots — just pilots — but gender was, and remains, a defining characteristic for women who want to fly.
Initially admitted to what was known as women officer school in 1973, Mariner had no use for a separate track for female service members. Her role models were the African American soldiers, sailors and Marines who had integrated the military, and she served as a mentor for both men and women.
Still, her very presence as she moved up the chain of command caused a ripple effect that opened doors for other female fliers, and she advocated strongly for repealing restrictions on women flying in combat. When Mariner retired in 1997 after 24 years of service — a career that also included stints on the staff of the Joint Chiefs at the Pentagon and as chairman of the Joint Chief’s Chair in Military Strategy at the National War College — she had logged 17 carrier landings and more than 3,500 military flight hours in 15 types of naval aircraft.
Against the backdrop of the women’s rights movement of the 1960s and ’70s, Mariner and the other determined servicewomen of her generation blazed trails in a military that was, by any definition, male. In fact, when the United States' service academies opened their doors — grudgingly — to female midshipmen and cadets, they hailed them with great fanfare as the very first women to fly for the U.S. military.
But they weren’t.
Forgotten for decades, more than 1,000 young women had taken to the skies in service to their country during the dark days of World War II. Starting in 1942, and formally constituted as the Women Airforce Service Pilots — the WASP — in 1943, this corps of female aviators flew every type of military aircraft the United States produced. They acted as flight instructors for male pilots soon to be sent overseas, served as test pilots, ferried planes from factories to military bases all over the country and towed targets for gunners to practice shooting at — with live ammunition.
They had to prove to the skeptical military men of their day that women were capable not only of flying, but of piloting sophisticated fighters and bombers. And they were; all told, the WASP flew 60 million miles in 78 types of aircraft, delivering 12,650 airplanes.
Still, they were not accorded the respect their service should have earned them. The 38 who died in the line of duty were shipped home, but not at military expense. Their sister WASP sometimes had to take up collections to send the deceased back to their families.
In 1944, with the war winding down, the WASP suddenly became expendable and were summarily sent home with no veteran status, no military pensions, no thanks for their service to the nation that no longer wanted them, no military honors at their funerals.
It wasn’t until the academies opened their doors to Mariner and other aspiring female military fliers in the 1970s — and grandmas all over the country started asking, “First women to fly for the military? What about us?” — were the WASP finally recognized as the pioneers and veterans they were.
Mariner felt a deep sense of gratitude to those who came before and enabled her to pursue her dreams, and the WASP certainly were that. As retired Air Force Col. Nicole Malachowski, the first woman to fly with the Thunderbirds, told U.S.News & World Report, “They made it possible for us to have that opportunity.” Malachowski was inspired by the story of the WASP when she was 12 years old to become a pilot — and she repaid that debt by initiating a campaign to win the WASP the Congressional Gold Medal, which President Barack Obama presented to the 300 or so surviving members of the corps in 2010.
“We are all a part of this long legacy,” Malachowski said during a keynote address last year.
As an instrument-rated private pilot and an air racer for several decades, I have had the privilege of meeting some of the WASP and learning the history of my fellow female aviators. Though the surviving members of the corps are in their 90s now, they remain some of the most determined, competitive and self-assured women anywhere, knowing that they overcame challenges both mechanical and man-made to carve out a place in history.
Malachowski, Mariner and thousands more bold, skilled and dedicated female fliers — including the eight flyover pilots, who are being cheered all over female aviator Facebook groups — are heirs to that tradition. Maybe not the first, but without question among the best.
And so, today, five years after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer, a trailblazing aviator will be laid to rest as the missing woman formation thunders overhead.
As with the WASP, her sisters will see her home.