Kara Hultgreen Quals at the Boat

After "having had the hell scared out of her," she and Carey Dunai [another female aviator, later Carey Lohrenz], who also had not qualified, were called to the skipper's office. Commander Tom Sobieck said, "It was obvious to me that they had just experienced their first real failures. They didn't know for sure if they could master landing 25 tons of fire-breathing airplane on a ship steaming through the pitch blackness of the night. I told them they each would get a Human Factors Board to make sure there was nothing physically, psychologically, or mentally wrong with them, and then we'd try it again as long as my LSOs said they could work with them."

Kara was disappointed. She said it wasn't easy to land on the carrier at night and being catapulted into total blackness was about as scary as it gets, but she didn't feel it was impossible for her.

Three out of the five in her class failed to qualify. Four other pilots who went to the boat with her class qualified, but they were all doing it for the second time. Kara's class had been hurt because weather and scheduling difficulties had shut them out of training at San Clemente Island, where the runway begins at the edge of a huge cliff beside the ocean and is as close an approximation of landing on a carrier as you can get. "In fact, it's scarier than the boat," is the general consensus. Practice at San Clemente is invaluable for preparing for the real thing. The Human Factors Board took that into consideration and recommended to Commander Sobieck that everyone be allowed to try again.

After she got over her initial dismay, Kara handled this setback the way she did most things she couldn't do anything about—with humor. "I decided on a unique tactic when I went before the Human Factors Board," she wrote on the inside of her Mother's Day card. "I didn't want to admit to trying hard to be so below average, so I blamed my performance on too many all-night drinking binges and roaring around. They said, ‘That's the fighter spirit."'

Because the F-14 is by far the hardest plane to land aboard the ship, the carrier-qualification failure rate is much higher than for other aircraft. Statistics illustrate the disparity between the disqualification rate for F-14 pilots and pilots of other aircraft and put Kara's failure to qualify on her first attempt in perspective. For the 18-month time-frame comprising calendar year 1994 through 26 June 1995, 255 naval aviators attempted to qualify in the Pacific Fleet; 36 disqualified, a failure rate of 14.1%. The failure rate for the F-14 pilots was 33.3%, more than twice as high. Barring extreme circumstances, all the pilots were given a second chance.

Around the end of April, "Waylon" [Jennings] checked into VF-124 for refresher training. He was scheduled to go to the USS Constellation (CV-64) at the same time as Kara, who was making her second attempt."Her demeanor was perfectly suited to being a fighter pilot," he said. "She was good-natured, had a great sense of humor, and was competitive to a fault. If you told a joke, she told one better; if you had a story, she would try to top it. In short, she fit in fantastically. It was solely because of her that I changed my mind on whether or not women would be able to do this job. She made a believer out of me." On 24 July 1994, Lieutenant Kara Hultgreen, U.S. Navy, qualified on the Constellation , ranked third out of a class of seven.

EDITOR’S NOTE: 25 October 1998 marks the fourth anniversary of Kara Hultgreen’s death while on an approach to the USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72).

 

 
 

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