March is Women’s History Month . In honor of the many contributions women have made to the history of our service, we bring you the stories of the female leaders of today’s Coast Guard. This week, we are highlighting the contributions of Capt. Patricia McFetridge, the first female aviator to be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and Chief Gunner’s Mate Kristen Werner , the first female to reach that milestone since 1973 legislation was signed integrating women into active duty.
Written by Dr. David Rosen, Coast Guard historian
It was September 1990 when then Ensign Patricia McFetridge flew as co-pilot of an HH-3F during a daring search and rescue case in the Bering Sea. Cited for extraordinary heroism in an August 1991 ceremony, she and her aircrew were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, marking the first time on record a female Coast Guard aviator was awarded this distinction.
McFetridge’s rescue started when her crew flew out of Cordova, Alaska, in a blinding storm in response to EPIRB distress signals 30 miles to the southwest, where three men were aboard the burning fishing vessel Janice N.
Arriving on scene with 75-knot wind gusts, severe turbulence, 30-foot seas and heavy rain, Cmdr. Donald Estes located the burning wreck while Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Proctor, the flight mechanic, noted that there was no one on board. Powerful waves and wind hampered the search, with a ceiling of 100 feet and visibility about an eighth of a mile. The crew saw the winds blowing several rivers backwards from the cliffs at Hinchinbrook against their normal flow.
Low on fuel after two hours of flying, the crew finally sighted the raft with three faces poking out from under the canopy. Heavy rains cut off the communications gear during the hoists, while the basket was swinging excessively. Proctor and Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Cumberland managed to hoist the three survivors under harrowing conditions, without damage to the airframe. McFetridge relayed the commands to Estes, who maintained the hover for 40 minutes under severely challenging conditions. Relieving the exhausted pilot, McFetridge skillfully flew the helicopter back to Cordova.
McFetridge came to the Coast Guard after serving in the Army and Army National Guard. She graduated from San Jose State University in 1981 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Aeronautical Operations, and joined the Army’s Warrant Officer Flight Training program. She served her first tour in South Korea with the 55th Aviation Battalion out of Seoul, Korea, as a UH-1H Huey helicopter pilot, and followed that tour with the 227th Aviation Battalion out of Fort Hood, Texas, as an OH-58 Kiowa helicopter pilot. She was selected as a Coast Guard Direct Commission Aviator in 1989.
Since joining the Coast Guard, McFetridge has served at five Air Stations – Kodiak in Alaska, Clearwater in Fla., Los Angeles in Calif., Elizabeth City in N.C. and Borinquen in Puerto Rico. She has flown a variety of aircraft as a Coast Guard pilot, including the HH-3F, HH-60J, HH-65 (A,B,C models) and the HC-130H (1500, 1600, 1700 series). While serving at Air Station Borinquen she fleeted up to the executive officer position after her first year. Still serving, McFetridge is currently the project manager in charge of the Rescue 21 project.