Meet the First American Women to Fly Combat Missions

An Air & Space Quarterly exclusive reveals the names of five pioneering women in military aviation.

A young woman wearing a U.S. Navy olive-green flightsuit and black combat boots perches next to the cockpit of her F/A-18C miltary jet. "Lt Sharon Cummins" is stenciled onto the side of the airplane.
What motivated Deegan (formerly Cummins) to join the Navy was her desire to fly jet aircraft. US National Archives

The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower tore through the waters of the Persian Gulf on November 15, 1994. On the aircraft carrier’s deck, a McDonnell Douglas F/A-18C Hornet’s twin engines roared to life. In just two seconds, a steam-powered catapult accelerated the aircraft to more than 160 mph, launching it toward the threatening skies over Iraq. The sortie was one of the early flights of Operation Southern Watch, a U.S. effort to enforce no-fly and no-drive zones in Iraq in the years following the 1991 Gulf War. Hundreds of other similar Hornet combat missions had been executed, but this time there was a key difference: A woman was at the controls.

On that day, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Kimberly “Face” Dyson became the first American woman to fly a combat mission for the United States. She was one of a cadre of five female Naval aviators to earn the distinction. Dyson’s colleagues in combat included fellow F/A-18C pilots Lieutenant Sharon “Pinto” Deegan (Cummins at the time) and Lieutenant Junior Grade Joy “Trigger” Dean (Adams at the time); Grumman E-2C Hawkeye pilot Lieutenant Lisa “KP” Kirkpatrick; and Sikorsky SH-3 helicopter pilot Lieutenant Lynne Fowler. These women of the Eisenhower—the first U.S. aircraft carrier to operate with a gender-integrated crew—flew their combat missions in 1994 and 1995, starting with Southern Watch in Iraq and continuing into Operation Deny Flight over Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Three of the first American women to fly combat missions—including Joy Dean—were Hornet drivers. Courtesy Joy Dean
The combat milestone achieved by the five women was briefly reported in news outlets at the time but has largely been forgotten—and the names of the women have not been known publicly until now. But when Dyson, Deegan, Dean, and Kirkpatrick sat down for an interview in May 2023, one thing became clear: Their anonymity was, to them, a sign of their success. The women wanted to be recognized as effective aviators, just like the others they served with, regardless of gender. They wanted to be recognized for what they did, not who they were. And they succeeded. Acknowledging significant “firsts” in aviation history is important, but focusing exclusively on such milestones can hide a fuller, more complicated story.
Deegan flies her F/A-18C over Sarajevo in 1995. She participated in the support of Bosnia and Herzegovina during Operation Deny Flight. Courtesy Sharon Deegan

Sea of Sand

“We were ready to do anything,” says Kim Dyson of her first combat flights. “It was a little nerve-racking. But in the end, it turned out to be a normal flight, very much the same as we had done in practice.”

“She [Dyson] was the first to go, and I wish I was launching the same day,” says Joy Dean. “I wasn’t on the flight schedule. But we were all excited for anybody going out on a mission like that.”

Dean got a chance to fly her first combat mission the next day, November 16, along with Sharon Deegan. Their mission was to fly past a missile site in Iraq. “We went in fully loaded with laser-guided bombs and some air-to-air missiles,” says Dean. “Our intent was to identify and potentially engage assigned targets—in this case a SAM site. There was always the possibility we would be cleared to deliver weapons. But on this mission, we weren’t cleared to release the weapons we were carrying.” 

When the USS Eisenhower set sail on a six-month deployment in 1994, it had a gender-integrated crew, including pilot Sharon Deegan (right, in sunglasses) who also worked as a landing signal officer.

Of the mission, Dean recalls: “My entire goal was to be a great wingman and to fly perfect combat spread. I wanted to be ready, have situational awareness, and join up and refuel with the tanker—get in and get out.” Looking out at the “sea of sand, it really hit home,” remembers Dean. “This is the other side of the world, and we’re here doing something that not a lot of people have the opportunity to do. It was probably a one second thought, and then it was right back to flying combat spread.” Like other fighter pilots, the women relied on their extensive training. “The Navy did a great job of getting us up to speed,” says Dean. 

For the airborne early warning part of the missions, Lisa Kirkpatrick flew E-2C Hawkeyes, which carry powerful radars that track aircraft—friendlies and enemies. E-2Cs also facilitate communication across U.S. forces. Kirkpatrick’s missions were intense, but different from those flown by the fighter aircraft. “We weren’t allowed in country—the E-2 is too high value,” she says. “So we just flew on the border between Iraq and Saudi [Arabia] and then sometimes closer to Kuwait.” E-2C crews could have faced a dire end. “We couldn’t eject in the E-2,” says Kirkpatrick. “If we were hit by a missile, we were never getting out of that airplane.”

Flying over Iraq to enforce the no-fly and no-drive zones was risky, but the later missions over Bosnia and Herzegovina were more dangerous. “Those were the ones where they were actually shooting at us,” says Dyson.

The breakup of Yugoslavia had grown increasingly violent. The U.S. participated in NATO efforts to enforce the U.N.-sanctioned no-fly zones and to provide humanitarian aid to civilians. The Eisenhower quickly joined the effort, under Operation Deny Flight.

Dean bristled with anticipation. “It’s going to be my time—I’m going to get to do something,” she remembers thinking. “It felt like there was a higher potential we would be called in.”

Kim Dyson prepares to fly a functional check flight in an aircraft that has just had its center section replaced. Once an aircraft passes a check flight, maintenance teams will paint over the green primer before releasing the airplane back to its squadron. Courtesy Kim Dyson

Dyson’s Bosnia missions were particularly perilous. “I was a decoy for a SAM site,” she says. Dyson was asked to fly over a surface-to-air missile launch site to activate its tracking radar so that Northrop Grumman EA-6Bs flying behind her could attack the SAM site with anti-radiation missiles. “I wasn’t thrilled with that one,” says Dyson.

Acting as bait for a surface-to-air missile could be one of the most hazardous missions a fighter pilot can fly, but Deegan embraced the flights over Bosnia and Herzegovina. Compared with the missions she flew in Iraq, the Deny Flight missions “were a lot more fun,” says Deegan, expressing the bravado typical of fighter pilots.

To enforce a no-fly zone, the mere presence of U.S. fighters was often enough of a deterrent. Delivering weapons was rare. In fact, none of the Eisenhower women were ever cleared to drop bombs on a target: The first American woman to do so is Navy Lieutenant Kendra “Yukon” Bowers (then Williams). In December 1998, Bowers fired missiles and dropped laser-guided bombs on ground targets during Operation Desert Fox in Iraq. She was a member of the VFA-105 Gunslingers, the same squadron for which Dyson and Dean flew. Dean says that Bowers “shares the same desire to not be in the spotlight and to not do interviews.” 

Bowers did give some reluctant interviews, including one for USA Today in which she said: “I was just doing my job. I’m one of the guys to some pilots, a younger sister to others. I really don’t want to stand out.” Her wingman, Lieutenant Commander Greg Fenton, agreed: “To us, she is just another pilot, one we’d send on any mission we would go on ourselves.”

The USS Eisenhower passes through the Suez Canal following a deployment in support of Operation Desert Shield in 1990. An aircraft carrier is a demanding work environment for anyone­—regardless of gender. US Navy/Frank A Marquart

“A Personal View”

The acceptance of these women fighter and attack pilots as a normal part of the combat force was remarkable, given the intense resistance to the idea only a few years before. It had taken decades for the U.S. to remove the ban on women flying combat missions, despite a long heritage of women in military aviation. Women were not allowed to fly for the U.S. military in World War I, but during World War II, women flew in non-combat roles in the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) and the Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD), which merged to form the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP).

In 1948, the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act allowed women to serve as members of the military—but the act contained a special provision that came to be known as the “combat exclusion law.” It stated that women “shall not be assigned to duty in aircraft while such aircraft are engaged in combat missions nor shall they be assigned to duty on vessels of the Navy except hospital ships and naval transports.” In practice, this exclusion led to women being blocked from aviation roles entirely.

By the early 1970s, the women’s liberation movement and the campaign for the equal rights amendment both grew stronger, but military leaders were also concerned with the end of the draft and the ability to recruit enough volunteers. In 1972, the chief of naval operations, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt Jr., directed the Navy to expand women’s roles by allowing them to serve on ships and fly military aircraft. Two years later, six female Navy officers had earned their wings: Rosemary Mariner, Barbara Allen Rainey, Jane Skiles O’Dea, Judith Ann Neuffer, Ana Marie Fuqua, and Joellen Drag. The U.S. Army started a similar program for women aviators in 1973, and the Air Force soon followed with a test program for women pilots in 1976. A year later, the military academies accepted women cadets for the first time.

But the combat exclusion policy still loomed large, and resistance to female combat pilots was fierce. For example, a 1979 article by future secretary of the Navy, James Webb Jr., titled “Women Can’t Fight,” argued that allowing women into military academies was “poisoning” national defense efforts and that women were incapable of combat and command.

The E-2C Hawkeye might look ungainly, but it has no trouble taking off from and landing aboard the deck of a carrier. Hawkeye pilot Lisa Kirkpatrick says E-2s were too valuable to fly into Iraq’s airspace. © Paul Drabot/Shutterstock

Two events in 1991 led to a major reevaluation of the role of women in the military. First, 41,000 women served in the Gulf War, many in aviation roles. In Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, women flew transports, helicopters, airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft, tankers, and electronic warfare airplanes. The definition of non-combat blurred. These women were shot at and shot down; some were taken prisoner and some were killed in action. Secretary of defense Richard Cheney noted: “Women have made a major contribution to this effort. We could not have won without them.” Senator John McCain, a former naval aviator, said in 1991: “I think it is time we reevaluated the combat exclusion policy for women. Clearly, women have demonstrated they can perform any role they are called upon that any male is called upon to do.” 

Yet opposition remained. When the Senate Armed Services Committee conducted a hearing on the issue in June 1991, Senator William Cohen asked the U.S. Air Force chief of staff, General Merrill McPeak, if it was true he would prefer “a less qualified man” for a combat role over a better-qualified, “superior” woman. “That’s correct,” replied McPeak. “So in other words,” the senator pressed, “you would have a militarily less effective situation because of a personal view?” Said McPeak: “Well, I admit it doesn’t make much sense, but that’s the way I feel about it.”

What motivated Deegan (formerly Cummins) to join the Navy was her desire to fly jet aircraft. US National Archives

McPeak admitted that this was a “personal prejudice” that “I have to go beyond.” He added: “The data indicates that there are some women, at least some women, who can do this combat job as well as men. If a woman passes it [the F-15 physical fitness test] and wants to fly the F-15, then in my judgment we should not erect a policy barrier against her doing that in the Air Force.”

Senator John Glenn, a former fighter pilot and astronaut, asked for McPeak to respond to a piece written by a group of fighter pilots for the Air Force Times that argued against women in combat aviation. “I disagree with just about everything in this letter,” said McPeak. “The question is not, ‘Can all women pull nine Gs with a MiG on their tail and go through four engagements?’ The question is, ‘Are there any who can? And do they want to be fighter pilots? And if so, should we slam the door?’ If there are some who can do it, and who want to do it, then I am very—it’s hard for me to say they shouldn’t be allowed to do it.” (As many female aviators are fond of saying: “The airplane doesn’t know the gender of the person flying it.”)

The second 1991 event that pushed the U.S. toward toppling the combat exclusion law was the scandal at the annual Tailhook convention, held at the Las Vegas Hilton in Nevada, where dozens of Navy and Marine Corps officers were alleged to have participated in the sexual assault of 83 women and seven men. For many of the women in the military at that time, the prevalence of assault was linked to combat exclusion. As Rosemary Mariner put it: “Sexual harassment will continue because the combat exclusion laws and policies make women institutionally inferior. If you cannot share the equal risks and hazards in arduous duty, then you are not equal. And if the institution can discriminate against you, then it’s not a big leap for bigots to decide that, ‘Well, I can harass you and I can get away with it.’ ” But she added: “The Navy leadership has always wanted to do the right thing. And Tailhook maybe helped them focus on what the right thing is.” 

All these factors increased the pressure for change, and in April 1993, secretary of defense Les Aspin ordered that women be allowed to fly combat missions. Although the Navy had typically been at the forefront of expanding women’s roles, it got scooped by the Air Force, when, on April 28, McPeak announced that the Air Force would allow women to fly combat missions. He introduced three female Air Force fighter pilots: Jeannie Leavitt, Sharon Preszler, and Martha McSally. The other services soon followed. The Army identified several women to transition into attack helicopters and the Navy began assigning women to aircraft carriers for a variety of fighter, attack, and support aircraft. 

Welcome Aboard

Dyson, Deegan, Dean, and Kirkpatrick had joined the Navy before the exclusion law fell, not knowing such a change was imminent. Despite the limitations in place when they joined, all of them were still drawn to naval aviation. Dean, whose father was in the Air Force, says: “The Navy, they were letting women fly jets. Not deploying, obviously, but letting them fly aggressors [simulating enemy aircraft in combat training].” Says Kirkpatrick: “I just wanted a tailhook, that was all I wanted. Flying in naval aviation off the ship is probably the most challenging thing you can do.” For Deegan, it was simple: “I just wanted to fly jets.”

When the USS Eisenhower set sail on a six-month deployment in 1994, it had a gender-integrated crew. US National Archives

None of them could have guessed they would be the first women to fly combat missions. Although the timing of the legislative changes was fortuitous, it was the long hours they had put into training that enabled them to execute once the law changed.

But not everyone welcomed women aboard the Eisenhower. Dyson was the first to arrive, and her squadron commander gave her an unconventional welcome speech: “Look, I didn’t ask for you. I didn’t want you, but I’m stuck with you. So don’t [mess] up.” But his attitude wasn’t universal. Dyson says about half of her male co-workers supported accepting women into combat roles: “There were times that it was just unbearable, but there were also a lot of times that it was really cool, and you were able to really take pride in what you were accomplishing.”

Adjusting to life on an aircraft carrier—which is an unforgiving work environment—is difficult for anyone, regardless of gender. Over time, though, a person’s actions did the talking. As Dyson puts it: “If you were a good stick, you were a good stick, and they couldn’t take that away from you.”

Long hours spent in F/A-18C cockpit simulators gave Dyson, Deegan, and Dean the confidence to carry out their historic combat missions. Courtesy Sharon Deegan
The biggest challenge for the women was ultimately not their co-workers, but the media. In 1994, the Eisenhower received over 300 requests from reporters about women in combat. Such attention was the last thing the women wanted. “We were a novelty,” says Dean. “We wanted to put our heads down. We wanted to work. We wanted to do the mission. We’re all very self-critical, like every other nugget [new naval aviator] out there. You certainly don’t want to be singled out.” But journalists did nothing but single them out. “They didn’t want to talk to anyone else in the squadron, they only wanted the women,” says Dean. She remembers thinking: “I’m not here for your interview, I’m out here to do my job.”
Joy Dean says Naval aviators are naturally competitive, a trait that only made her a better pilot. Courtesy Joy Dean
Some of the reporters wrote stories that implied women were less capable than their male counterparts. Others repeated false accusations that the Navy had bent the rules to push women into combat roles. This was particularly the case in news coverage of the tragic death of Lieutenant Kara Hultgreen, a Navy pilot who died on October 25, 1994, when her Grumman F-14 Tomcat crashed into the ocean during an attempted carrier landing. In Hultgreen’s case, individuals claiming to be Navy personnel “leaked” fabricated documents to support falsehoods about her career. Deegan wrote about these claims to her parents: “Can you believe this crap? What an incredibly ironic joke to think I was rushed into my current position, when I waited three years longer than my contemporaries to be given an opportunity.”
Dean conducts a preflight inspection of her F/A-18C prior to launching on her first strike mission in support of Operation Southern Watch over Iraq. Charles Beaudin

The character assassination of Hultgreen affected Deegan in other ways. “I have always tried to fight the idea that I have to be the best—because I am a woman—in order to prove to everybody that I have every right to be here,” she says. “That’s why I can’t tolerate making mistakes. The problem is that I continually make mistakes, as do all aviators—even experienced ones. I have tried to force myself to disregard the idea that I need to be better than average, but things like this keep proving to me that I am right in thinking that just being good enough to succeed is not enough.”

But soon, it was enough. After a few months, the Navy put a stop to the slew of interviews and media requests, and the Eisenhower went on with its mission. “We became a pretty cohesive unit,” says Kirkpatrick. “The Eisenhower by the end was just used to women on board—we figured it out. There were problems, yes, there were issues. But at some point, it just wasn’t a thing.”

Perhaps the normalization of relations aboard the Eisenhower is one reason why this story has been largely untold. Other notable firsts, however, have been widely reported. For example, it has long been known that A-10 Thunderbolt pilot Colonel Martha McSally was the first woman to fly combat missions for the U.S. Air Force—also during Operation Southern Watch—in 1995. First Lieutenant Cheryl Lamoureux became the first Air Force woman to deploy weapons in combat, when she fired cruise missiles from a Boeing B-52 over Iraq in December 1998.

Launched from the USS Nimitz, an F/A-18C flies past oil fields near Kuwait City during Operation Southern Watch, nearly two years before the Eisenhower women would fly their own Southern Watch sorties. US Navy/Cmdr T.B. Surbridge

Some of the newspapers who covered the story of the Eisenhower women—along with journalist Jean Zimmerman’s 1995 book, Tailspin—noted that on November 15, 1994, two American women flew combat missions for the first time. This was partially an error: Both Dyson and Deegan were scheduled to fly that day, but Deegan’s jet had a mechanical failure and her flight had to be cancelled. Also, none of the reporting mentioned the names of the women. 

For them, the lack of recognition was a sign of success. “I mean, it’s 30 years later and we’re just now kind of talking about it,” says Dean. “The fact that we did it, and did it without a lot of fanfare, speaks volumes. It really set the precedent for any future integrated deployments.”

Aviation and space history are marked by firsts: The first people to fly an airplane, break the speed of sound, and land on the moon are all well-known. But focusing on firsts tells only part of the story, sometimes reducing complex narratives into mere trivia. As important as these milestones are, focusing only on firsts can obscure a broader truth: The women on the Eisenhower proved that women were just as capable as anyone of flying high-performance jets in combat, yes, but all women aviators have a role to play—firsts or not.

The true measure of success was not that someone achieved a first, but that women in combat aviation so quickly became the norm—a truth experienced by Dean. “I didn’t feel any weight of history,” she says. “I wanted to be judged on my merit, and if I was judged on my merit, then we’d be good to go. And we were.” 

Michael W. Hankins is the curator of U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps post-World War II aviation at the National Air and Space Museum.

This article is from the Winter 2024 issue of Air & Space Quarterly, the National Air and Space Museum's signature magazine that explores topics in aviation and space, from the earliest moments of flight to today. Explore the full issue.

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