Written by Cmdr. Liz Booker, U.S. Coast Guard pilot currently assigned to Joint Interagency Task Force South, Key West, Fla.
2013 marked an unprecedented year in Coast Guard aviation with four of its 28 aviation units commanded by women. Prior to these assignments, the service had, at most, only one female aviator in command at a time. The first was retired Vice Adm. Vivien Crea who assumed command of Air Station Detroit in 1992. Following the trail blazed by Crea, the women who fill these roles today are as diverse as the aircraft they fly and the missions their units execute every day.
Captain Donna Cottrell – Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron, Jacksonville, Fla.
Capt. Donna Cottrell assumed command of U.S. Coast Guard Helicopter Interdiction Squadron, Jacksonville, Fla., in June 2011. HITRON is the Coast Guard’s sole provider of forward-deployed armed aircraft in support of counter illicit trafficking operations in high-threat areas. These highly trained crews employ precision flying at low altitude over the water. Their goal is to position a door gunner to fire 7.62 caliber rounds as warning shots and .50 caliber disabling fire into a smuggler’s engines, enabling law enforcement small boats to come along side and conduct a boarding.
Cottrell grew up near a military base where helicopters routinely flew at very low altitude over her yard. She decided that flying helicopters “looked like fun,” so she joined the Coast Guard to fly and because she was attracted by the life-saving mission. In 1983, aviation was not an option for reserves, so she started off as a boatswain’s mate. At her first opportunity, she changed rates to avionics electrical technician. Cottrell was the only woman in her AET school and on the hangar deck where she worked. It was difficult at first; but, according to her, once her male peers saw that she was competent, they accepted her. Following Officer Candidate School in 1987 and a tour aboard a 210-foot ship, she was accepted to Naval Aviation Flight Training in Pensacola, Fla.
Since winging, Cottrell has flown, and instructed, in four generations of the H-65 Dolphin helicopter on search and rescue missions in Chicago, Detroit and Atlantic City, N.J. She returned to NAS Whiting Field’s Helicopter Training Squadron Eight as a TH-57 instructor in 1995 following her first Coast Guard operational tour. Part of her motivation in returning was the fact that there were no women instructors. She felt she was able to fill a gap and provided mentoring to female students who were still underrepresented in flight training.
Cottrell assumed her first command tour as a commander in 2008 at Air Station Savannah, Ga. As she puts it, going into her first command she had all of the ingredients to be a commanding officer, but she didn’t have any ‘bake-time.’ The smaller unit command experience was hands-on; in her command role at the larger HITRON unit, she had to come to terms with being able to take care of all of her people even though she may not know them all personally. She feels she has done so successfully, pointing out that one of her primary roles is to advocate for people.
Cottrell finds strength in her husband, a retired Coast Guard chief warrant officer, and their crew of dogs and cats at home. She stays fit through Olympic lifting and is active in her church. Her advice to young women who would like to pursue a leadership role in aviation is to, “Go for it. Go for it in a way that is more than just a dream. You have to be focused about it—you have to break your goals down and write them down, so you’re constantly moving forward. It will open up opportunities that you never thought possible.”
Captain Patricia McFetridge – Air Station Borinquen, Puerto Rico
Capt. Patricia “Patti” McFetridge commands U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Borinquen, Puerto Rico. Located at the northwest corner of the island, Air Station Borinquen’s four MH-65 Dolphin aircraft and crews provide search and rescue response to 1.3 million square miles of the Caribbean, from Dominican Republic to the Lesser Antilles. They routinely support law enforcement missions to counter drug trafficking, enforce fisheries laws, interdict illegal migrants and conduct homeland security patrols.
McFetridge’s passion for aviation was sparked by her father, a WWII naval aviator, and her mother who was a WWII Army Air Corps flight nurse. From that inspiration, she pursued a Bachelor of Science in aeronautical operations and became a licensed private pilot while in college. Her military career began in 1982 when she joined the U.S. Army and attended Warrant Officer Flight Training at Fort Rucker, Ala. From there she went on to fly support missions in the UH-1H Huey and OH-58 Kiowa helicopters in South Korea and Fort Hood, Texas. before leaving active duty to serve with the Utah Army National Guard in Salt Lake City.
In 1989, McFetridge accepted a commission in the U.S. Coast Guard after her father found an ad in the Navy Times for the direct commission aviator program. She pursued an engineering career track that afforded her the opportunity to fly numerous Coast Guard air frames including the H-3 Pelican, H-60 Jayhawk, C-130 Hercules and H-65 Dolphin. Her assignments have included as many challenging environments: Kodiak, Alaska.; Clearwater, Fla.; Los Angeles; Elizabeth City, N.C.; and a previous tour in Borinquen. She was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross while in Kodiak for a rescue conducted during an Alaskan Gale when her crew hoisted three fishermen from a liferaft in 30-foot seas being whipped up by 100-knot winds.
McFetridge shares the Air Station Borinquen command quarters, overlooking the Mona Passage, with her two dogs. She enjoys a variety of team sports, is learning to scuba dive, loves to swim and run with her dogs in the evenings and is an active participant in the local community events held on base. Her career advice to future leaders is to, “lead by personal example and take responsibility for the welfare of your personnel and their families. Be passionate about your job and never let on that you are having a bad day in the office; after all, we are getting paid to fly and save lives in the process—there is no better job than that!”
Commander Frances Messalle – Air Station Washington D.C.
U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Washington, D.C., located at Reagan International Airport, employs two C37A Gulfstream V aircraft for command and control and transportation for high-level Coast Guard and Department of Homeland Security officials. Cmdr. Frances Messalle assumed command of the unit in 2012. The unique mission of Air Station Washington affords Messalle and her crew the opportunity to fly around the world, often serving as the first, and sometimes the only impression, of the U.S. Coast Guard in foreign nations.
Messalle knew she wanted to fly after her summer experience with the Cadet Aviation Training Program during her junior summer in college with the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Cadets from the academy, located in New London, Conn., participate in a variety of operational training programs during their summers, which familiarize them with Coast Guard operations, assets and career opportunities. Messalle was singularly impressed with the aviators she met during CATP. They were professionals who had a high level of technical proficiency and whose culture and camaraderie she wanted to join.
Following her academy graduation in 1994, Messalle served aboard a 378-foot Coast Guard cutter before attending Naval Flight Training. She went on to fly, and instruct, in three generations of the HU-25 Falcon jet on search and rescue and law enforcement missions around the Caribbean based out of Miami. In a previous assignment to Air Station Washington, Messalle qualified in the Challenger 604, no longer at the unit, and instructed in the Gulfstream V. Her most recent assignment before Washington D.C. was at Air Station Elizabeth City where she flew as an HC-130J Hercules aircraft commander and was also responsible for H-60 operations.
Messalle has successfully coordinated her career alongside her active duty husband. Their son, who is 8, keeps them busy with sports and school activities when they’re not at work. She finds it is a delicate balancing act, but that her family makes her a better leader, able to empathize with, and advocate for, working parents—male or female—and that both of their careers inspire and offer strong role models for their son. For her, the key to making it work is establishing a good support network at home and being willing to adapt. Her advice to new pilots is to, “continuously set the next goal and expand your boundaries to grow in your profession and organization. Take it one day at a time; if you have a bad day, learn from your mistakes and move on. And be sure to take the time to appreciate and enjoy the privilege of flying and serving as a leader.”
Captain Melissa Rivera – Air Station Kodiak, Alaska
In 2012, Capt. Melissa Rivera assumed command of U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak, Alaska. One of the Coast Guard’s most dynamic units, Kodiak is home to H-60 Jayhawk helicopters, H-65 Dolphin helicopters and HC-130 Hercules aircraft that provide search and rescue coverage throughout the rugged Alaskan coastline and Bering Sea. The unit’s operations continue to expand as interest and vessel traffic increase in the Arctic waters.
As a 1991 graduate of the Coast Guard Academy, Rivera began her career aboard a cutter. While on the flight deck equipped 210-foot ship, she had the opportunity to fly with deployed helicopter crews. She was thrilled with the mission and the aviation culture and crew cohesion that she observed. She sensed that each crew member genuinely believed that the other’s success was their own, and she wanted to be a part of this tightly knit team.
Rivera assumed command of Kodiak with substantial Alaska flying experience. Following Naval Flight Training, she served as a search and rescue pilot in the H-60 Jayhawk based in Elizabeth City. She went on to fly the Jayhawk in Kodiak and Sitka, Alaska, and then the H-65 Dolphin in Borinquen. As a lieutenant commander she was dubbed “Chopper Queen” in a 2002 Outside Magazine article about her Kodiak flying adventures. After she and her crew rescued six people from a distressed fish processing vessel in the Bering Sea, she was awarded the Association of Naval Aviation and the Naval Helicopter Association’s Aircrew of the Year awards and the Order of Daedalians Exceptional Pilot of the Year award.
The rewards of command are numerous; particularly one with a righteous mission in a treacherous environment where her crew’s response truly does mean the difference between life and death. Challenges exist too. The large unit, with a crew of 380 people, requires focused effort to set expectations and communicate vision. Rivera also finds it challenging to advocate for women’s issues without seeming biased. She cares for her crew equally as any leader does, but also recognizes that women remain a minority in aviation and that the organization still has work to be done in terms of facilities and professional advancement, especially among aircraft maintenance crews. She does her best to manage the problems that have the most impact on mission effectiveness.
Rivera enjoys the support of her husband, retired Coast Guard, and her two daughters. The isolation of command is accentuated by the isolation of Kodiak Island. She stays balanced through reading, traveling and supporting the kids’ activities. Her advice, to both women and men, is, “think five and 10 years down the road. Decide where you want to be and work backwards.”
All of these highly decorated, experienced, well-educated—all have at least one master’s degree—pilots, have in common a passion for aviation and a commitment to leadership. Their ascension to command in such numbers indicates a critical shift in the role women are playing in Coast Guard aviation today. As Rivera observes, it’s important to recognize where we are as an organization in time relative to the opportunities available only a few short years ago. The fact that we have women leading now, who also have a balanced family life, speaks volumes about our progress in the past decade alone.
Close on their heels is the next wave of women leaders; those in pre-command positions, standing the watch and in flight school. These four women, each a trailblazer in her own way, are beacons for those coming behind them.