Sapphire Event Honors First Female Air Force Navigators

  • Published
  • By Capt. Victoria Carman, AFRS Det. 1 and AFRS Public Affairs
  • Air Force Recruiting Service

Aviation enthusiasts, young and old, travelled across the U.S. to attend a March 10-12, 2022, celebration of a barrier-breaking graduation, the 45th anniversary of Undergraduate Navigator Training class 78-01.

Its alumni made history when the first women Air Force officers completed a vital, rated officer training program that continues today all be it with a new name at a Navy base.

“The Sapphire Event celebrates the beginning of barrier dismantlement and the cultivation of our current navigator community while building our future,” said Lt. Col. Jessica Brown, the event director and current Instructor Combat Systems Officer, with the 479th Flying Training Group at Naval Air Station Pensacola.

Since those first five women finished UNT, others like Brown, followed in classes alongside their male counterparts. Today training for navigators, weapons system officers and electronic warfare officers is open to men and women and has been renamed Undergraduate Combat Systems Officer Training. Training takes place at a school house run by Air Education and Training Command’s 479th FTG. Women and men from the group and other stakeholders, including Air Force Recruiting Service’s Detachment 1, participated in the celebration.

Enthusiasm for gender-integrated training was not always so high. Brown said before Class 78-01’s historic feat, society and the Air Force wrestled with the legal question as to whether or not women should be allowed to obtain the highly sought-after aircrew training.

According to Brown’s research, the Air Force’s navigator community in particular understood the challenges women were facing in obtaining opportunities to fly for the Air Force so they championed change within the aviation enterprise.

“In 1975, from a published Air Command and Staff College paper, one courageous major, who was an instructor navigator, stated that excluding women from UNT training was unconstitutional,” Brown said. “Regardless, it would be two more years until the wrong was righted.”

When those first women entered UNT, at the time taught at Mather Air Force Base, California, they were excited, dedicated, and ready to make history. They would attend not only as the first females to start aviation training but also to complete it and then move on to continue breaking barriers for women who would follow in their footsteps.

Class 78-01 included then Captains Betty Jo Payne, Elizabeth Koch and Margaret Stanek; 1st Lt. Mary Kay Higgins; and 2nd Lieutenants Florence Parker and Ramona Roybal.

Several of the veteran navigators were able to attend the Sapphire Event, some with rank that reflected highly successful careers. Each was willing to share their story which invariably included struggles and an appreciation for supporters.

“I applied twice and was denied twice and that was when my mother sat down and wrote a letter to the general who had signed my notification,” said Elizabeth Koch, who was present for the Sapphire event. “It said something like ‘just because my daughter isn’t a senator’s daughter, you’re missing out on a great opportunity.”

Koch was promoted and during her career she served alongside her husband, a fellow Airman.

At Sapphire, Koch joined her colleagues and interacted with junior ROTC and ROTC cadets, contemporary CSOs and students who are enrolled in UCT.

Several of the veteran navigators recalled supportive families and wingmen before, during and after their time as UNT students. For some people, joining the Air Force was contrary to the mold for women of the day.

“I went to a school career day one time, and as the teacher introduced me as a pilot, a little boy shouted ‘that’s not right she can’t do that! Why aren’t you a teacher or a nurse?” said Mary Kay Higgins, a now-retired colonel. “I told him, because I wanted to fly,” she said, laughing.

After they graduated training and became operational in their aircraft, more doors continued to open within the Air Force. Higgins’ journey took her to pilot training. Even though they were rated aviators, there were still instances when the women had to prove themselves capable of their roles and sometimes the stakes were high.

One of the pioneer’s story involved a C-141 Starlifter aircraft rescue mission deep in Iran during a national security crisis. When evacuation of Americans was necessary, she was denied entry into an airfield operations center at the base because of her gender. Ultimately the officer prevailed and she was allowed to join her crew. She planned the evacuation on her own inside her aircraft.

“The C-141 evacuation formation was mission-planned and led by Betty Jo Payne,” Brown said. “It was a historic moment in American aviation that’s not known by many.”

The Sapphire Event continued with special and often symbolic elements including the unveiling of a commemorative painting, an autograph session, and tours of aircraft that had converged at NAS Pensacola specifically for Sapphire.

Each UNT 78-01 graduate addressed the crowded ballroom and answered questions about their experiences. They offered sage advice to current and future service members.

“Never accept the answer ‘no’ from somebody who does not have the authority to say ‘yes,’” Higgins said.

For more on the Sapphire Event check out the videos and stories.