A group of Kodiak-based aviators on Tuesday became the first all-female Coast Guard crew to fly an HC-130J Super Hercules aircraft, while conducting a training mission to practice dropping life-saving equipment to a boat on the water.
The crew member in charge of delivering the essential equipment at the right spot and the right time is the drop master. On training flights, the drop master uses bags filled with water to simulate the weight of actual equipment. During real rescue operations, the bags would be filled with life rafts, survival equipment and winter survival gear like blankets and lip balm. Aviators may also drop dewatering pumps and radios.
On the Tuesday flight, amid the screaming of the aircraft’s hydraulics and constant rumbling of the engine, the entire crew exuded energy, excitement and a sense of single-minded purpose.
Drop Master Petty Officer 3rd Class Rexxie Clark stood on the aircraft’s open ramp, looking out onto the Kodiak shoreline and open ocean, waiting for the pilot’s directions to drop the bags.
Wearing an aviation headset to communicate to the other crew members, as well as a helmet and goggles, Clark was attached to the aircraft by a safety harness hooked to the floor.
She listened for the pilot to notify her 30 seconds, and then 15 seconds, before the drop, followed by tense silence until the final go-ahead, Clark said.
“The sooner I can get the bag out, the more accurate it will be,” she said
As the aircraft continued forward, Clark pushed five yellow 48-pound bags off the open aircraft onto the Coast Guard airstrip down below.
During a second drop, Clark knelt down and inched her way toward the edge of the ramp as she readied herself to push two bags onto the airstrip below.
“Nailed it,” she said with a smile after the bags had been sent.
During drops, the pilot drives the aircraft, aided by the co-pilot. The mission systems operators oversee radio communications with the boat that will receive the drop, and checks the radar to verify that there is no marine traffic in the way of the drop.
Tuesday’s training “was a great example of how we learn to just go with the flow around here,” Lt. Michelle Moravek, the pilot in command, said in an email, explaining that a previous plan to go to Homer was changed and the crew accomplished drops on the Coast Guard runway.
“The boat we were supposed to drop practice gear to broke. While we had ground support try to coordinate an alternate practice drop plan (on the airstrip),” she said.
She also noted that flying in Alaska is “the best flying you will do in your career.”
Basic Aircrew and qualified loadmaster Joanna Adams is one of 20 women aviators out of 359 total aviators at Kodiak Station. Out of 60 total pilots, only four are women.
She attended Aviation Technical Training school in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and said “there had never been a female loadmaster in our airframe service.”
Kodiak and Elizabeth City are the only Coast Guard bases with HC-130J aircraft, which have been in rotation since 2018.
Some of the crew members said Tuesday’s flight featured the highest number of female aviators they have ever seen on a Coast Guard aircraft.
“I think it's awesome for people to ... see someone that's like them doing whatever their goal is. So they can see themselves doing whatever it is they set out to do,” Adams said.
While some of the crew said they have never been treated differently than their male counterparts, Clark said there have been times when her abilities have been underestimated.
Adams said assumptions made about women in the service have been a huge hurdle in the past, but are becoming less common.
“Sometimes you show up, and if a guy has only worked with one other girl and she wasn’t awesome, they make some assumptions,” she said.
Adams said she hopes the Tuesday flight shows other women who want to become aviators that “the door is open to them.”
She said that during her 10 years in the Coast Guard, she has noticed an improvement in the leadership’s view of training and retaining women service members.
Basic Airman Trainee Kelley Kavanaugh said that commanding officers have also shown more support for dealing with support females receive in terms of child care.
“I think there is a lot more support for home, a lot better child care and the command supports females when they have a problem at home,” Kavanaugh said. “That's definitely helped out. There are four first class females in the hangar and two are above the cut … (They) will be advancing soon. It wasn’t very common before.”
According to a Coast Guard report published in April, Kodiak’s small percentage of women aviators reflects a similar trend in the Coast Guard nationwide, with women representing 15% of total active-duty service members. Of the total officer corps, women represent about 23%.
Women make up fewer than 10% of Coast Guard aviators, and women in aviation make up less than 1% of the entire Coast Guard workforce, with only 68 of those women in officer positions.
Although the numbers are low, many of the crew members said they have noticed retention of female service members increasing.
“I think we’ve gone from the point of wanting to achieve equality for women in the service to actual integration,” Adams said. “You can be handed an equal opportunity like a seat at the table, but to have a voice at it is the change we are seeing now.”
Co-pilot Lt. Janelle Setta said she learned to fly before learning to drive. Her passion for flying led her to join the military.
“With the exposure I had to aviation as a young girl, and the incredible support I got from my family and peers, it is easy to forget that people still see female pilots as a novelty,” she said.
“Today's flight was a humbling opportunity and it reminded me that what I do for a living is special and unique. I hope that younger generations can see this as a chance to pursue their extraordinary dreams as well.”
Tuesday’s crew also included Mission Systems Operators Rhonda Burnside, Lauren Clifford and Marcia Hays, as well as Load Master Petty Officer 1st Class Amanda Stevens.
The original story misreported the title of Joanna Adams and attributed one of the quotes to the wrong aircrew member.