A Woman in a Combat Zone
We dive into part two of our interview with Museum docent and Air Force Colonel Peggy Phillips. Peggy remembers her time in the military flying C-141 cargo airplanes, eventually transitioning to C-17 aircraft in 2001 where she became the first female C-17 squadron commander. As noted previously, she was also one of the first women to receive her wings in the Air Force. Peggy was later promoted to a tanker airlift control center, an operation center which controls heavy airlift around the world until she retired in 2010.
If you haven’t heard it already, listen to part I of The Flight Deck’s Peggy Philips interview: https://blog.museumofflight.org/flightdeck/peggy-phillips-and-the-wasps
Peggy and her fellow Women Military Aviators formed a bond with the first female pilots of WWII, the WASPs. They joined together to overcome stigmas and discrimination from the industry. Peggy remembers the Combat Exclusion Policy where women were not allowed to fly fighter aircraft, this was eventually repealed in 1993. She recalls flying to Grenada in 1983 during combat, being awarded a medal along with her entire crew only to have her award revoked because women were not allowed in combat zones… it took about a year and a half to get the honor reinstated.
Peggy addresses her concerns about how we still haven’t done enough to get the word out about women becoming pilots or similar roles. She knows there is a huge need to keep preaching these incredible stories of courageous women who paved the way for all girls interested in aviation. She lists some wonderful resources to help inspire girls and nurture the dream of working in the aviation field.
Transcript after the player.
Resources for Future Women Aviators:
Women Military Aviators: Peggy is one of the founding members of this group of female pilots. Women Military Aviators offers scholarship opportunities to help women of all ages get proper flying experience.
Women in Aviation International: Provides networking, education, mentoring and scholarships for women in aviation and aerospace industries.
Amelia’s Aero Club: This educational initiative was designed to inspire and nurture middle school girls from across Washington State in the exploration of science, technology, engineering, aviation, art, & mathematics.
U.S. Air Force Auxiliary, Civil Air Patrol: The Civil Air Patrol Cadet Program supports those interested in an aviation, space, or military career and pushes kids to new limits.
Producer: Sean Mobley
Webmaster: Layne Benofsky
Social Media Specialist: Tori Hunt
SEAN MOBLEY: The Flight Deck is made possible by the generous donors supporting The Museum of Flight. You can support this podcast and The Museum of Flight’s other initiatives across the United States and the world by visiting museumofflight.org/podcast.
SM: Hello, and welcome to The Flight Deck, the podcast of The Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington. I am your host, Sean Mobley. Today is Part 2 of a 2-part story featuring Museum of Flight Docent Peggy Phillips. To catch up, make sure you listen to our previous episode before listening to this one. You can find that easily on The Flight Deck podcast feed.
Before becoming a docent here at the museum, Peggy rose to the rank of Colonel in the United States Air Force, Flying C-141s and C-17 transport aircraft, and in this episode she and I chatted about some of her actual flying experience, especially some highly contentious time spent in designated combat areas where women were officially not allowed.
She also shared some resources available for girls who want to take to the skies and especially resources for girls who don't yet realize they are even allowed to dream of pursuing flight.
SM: Do you want to talk about your military service in general? We talked about how you started, but can you talk a little bit about your career?
PEGGY PHILLIPS: Sure. I flew 141, C-141s, cargo airplanes for most of my time. I have about 4,000 hours in that airplane and flew all over the world, landed on every continent with that airplane. We used to always joke because, you know, fighter pilots are way more flashy, if you will, but we were always first in and last out because your stuff had to be there when you got there as the fighter pilot, and “Oh, by the way, we had to take your stuff out after you left,” so [laughs]... that was always our kind of little joke about it.
It was aeromedical evacuation missions, it was humanitarian support, it was the mundane supply, but, literally, all over the world is where you would find those presidential support missions, all kinds of things. And then in 2001, I transitioned from the 141, which was being sent to The Boneyard and transitioned to the C-17, which is currently still flying, and in ‒ Of course, we all know what happened after 9/11, and then the C-17 was flying a lot of Middle East missions, and I got to do that as well. And at that time I was also squadron commander. We were activated for two years. So one of those first that I didn't actually realize at the time it happened, but I was actually the first female C-17 squadron commander. And we were activated for two years, and again, it was not “Oh, I'm the first female.” It was like, “No, I'm here to help my troops and my friends, and we're going to do a good job.” And it was very interesting, very stressful, and it was early on in that conflict. And then after two years we were deactivated, and I was promoted and then went on to the Tanker Airlift Control Center for my last five years, which is the operation center that basically controls heavy airlift around the world, and I was the ‒ what they would call the link between the floor, which the floor had maintenance people, air evac people, people who talked to the aircrew, ATAWK [phonetic 00:03:52] which is the cargo in the back, diplomatic clearance, so I was the conduit between all of those people to the generals, and we would make the decisions as to how the airplanes were utilized around the world. And then I retired in 2010.
SM: Throughout your career, you and the other women who were sort of vanguards of female pilots in the Air Force forged an alliance of sorts with the WASPs, the women who flew aircraft for the military in World War II. Can you talk a little bit about that relationship and some of the back and forth and the ways that you were able to help each other out?
PP: Okay. There were a couple of things that in those early days that we were able to work together on and to learn about besides these first, so to speak. There were things that were interesting as far as, you know, we're women, and people were getting married. Of course, in the WASP days, you got married or you got pregnant. Well, then you were done. You weren't able to participate anymore. So, well, at least now we could be married, but when the first of us started to get pregnant, “Well, now, what in the world do we do with these pregnant people?” You know? And there was even one accident that a female pilot was killed in an accident, a training accident, and she happened to be on her menstrual cycle at the time. “Well, of course that's why she crashed.” It's just so peculiar that those then become the go-to reasons for things as opposed to, “Well, maybe the airplane was broken,” you know, something like that. So, in the early days, we were having to join together to overcome some of those stigmas, and I think because we had this group of women military aviators, we could talk about those. And then through our different connections, you know, people fought for things to expand upon it. And then one other very famous piece of it was the Combat Exclusion Clause. In the beginning, when I went, women were not allowed to fly fighter aircraft or any kind of aircraft that would go necessarily into a fight or a combat zone, which kind of became a misnomer because when you are a cargo-carrying airplane, well, you carry cargo to and from the war zone. And the Combat Exclusion Clause was finally repealed in 1993.
However, from a personal experience, in 1983, there was Grenada, and we flew from McGuire down to Grenada, and there was a period of time that was still what was considered hostile territory even though there wasn't ‒ I wasn't part of the ‒ when the actual fighting part was going on. And our whole crew got awards. It was kind of ‒ It was the first war since the Korean War ‒ or Vietnam War, excuse me, and so a lot of people now had been given war experience, if you will.
SM: Military was excited to get some awards out.
PP: Yeah. Well, the VFW was really excited because then they could have veterans again that could ‒ to be joined. The interesting thing was ‒ so our whole crew got an award for having ‒ a medal for having been there, and shortly after that had been awarded, mine was revoked, and we tried to figure out “Well, okay, so did the whole crew get revoked, or was it just mine?” It turned out it was just mine. Well, the reason it was revoked was because women can't be in combat zones, so, therefore, I couldn't have been there, and I couldn't have gotten the award. Well, fortunately, the folks at my base, personnel and the wing commander, they fought for me, so then it was reinstated, but it took about a year and a half for all of the paperwork to kind of get settled out. In conjunction with the WASP and WMA and some senators and reaching out to people that then ‒ not that particular incident but other incidences continue to lead on to ‒
SM: Because there were other women who also flew into what would be combat zones.
PP: Right. Well, during the first Gulf War, for example, 1990 to 1991, we were flying cargo into Saudi Arabia, and, you know, you would be on the ground, you'd be in your chem warfare gear, and there'd be a Scud attack, and you'd have to go to the bunker. But, okay, so is that technically a combat zone? I don't know. They're shooting at you and they're ‒
SM: Would you get combat pay?
PP: We did during the second Gulf War. You would get recognition for that. And, actually, they would cause it ‒ call it hazardous duty pay at that point.
SM: Right, hazard pay.
PP: Yeah. But the interesting thing to me was there was a female helicopter pilot who was killed behind enemy lines in 1991.
SM: What was her name?
PP: Marie Rossi. After the Gulf War was over, which, of course, that time period was just, you know, in January ‒ it was very short ‒ but when they took it to Congress to try to get the combat laws changed, they would say, “Well, you know, what if your wives or mothers or daughters come home in a body bag or they’re POWs?” or, you know, “That's never happened before.”
Well, the reality is it did happen. It happened in World War I and World War II. Nurses, you know, POW camps, all those stories were real. And it was amazing to me almost instantly Marie Rossi’s death that had just happened within a year was forgotten. You know, she was behind enemy lines. And so, fortunately, the fight was won, and in April, on April 28th, 1993, was when the Combat Exclusion Law was repealed.
SM: And what did that do?
PP: So it opened up more aircraft for women. And I'm not as familiar with all the ground rules, but over time more and more career fields have been opened up to women because of that.
SM: As you wrapped up your career and now as a docent here at the museum and you look at the community of women aviators in military, what thoughts come to mind?
PP: It surprises me how much we still have work to do to get the word out to little girls that you can still do this, and I'm so excited over the years ‒ I mean, now we have astronauts, and we have all different kinds of positions that are open to women, but when I go sometimes to conferences or if I have a booth or I meet people who are here in the museum, there's still a significant percentage of people who are surprised that women hold those roles. So I don't think our work is done, and I'm just so grateful that The Museum of Flight has an exhibit for women, and there are so many exhibits within the Museum where they've incorporated just naturally that women have done these things, whether being the reporter or being the first flight attendant when we talk about Ellen Church or when we talk of Moya Lear. All of those people, it's just ‒ it's part of the story, and they're finally getting recognized that they were an integral part of it, and I'm grateful that we're able to do that, but I still think there is a huge need to keep preaching that story.
SM: Do you want to share any resources, especially for those girls who might not realize that they can do this too?
PP: Oh, yes, absolutely. So we ‒ One of the things that Women Military Aviators does do is every year we give two scholarships to help women of all ages and veterans or high-schoolers to get flying experience. And then another great organization is Women in Aviation International, and it helps with all aspects of aviation because, as we know, in the aviation world it's not just about flying airplanes. I mean, there's all kinds of careers in that. So that's open to women and girls of all ages. Obviously, here at The Museum of Flight we have lots of educational programs that are here as well. Women Fly is a program that runs for the middle-schoolers and high-schoolers. Here it will be in May this year. So there are ‒ You have to look a little bit. Oh, and the other thing that I think is so amazing is Civil Air Patrol, kind of a scouting program, but more it's actually an arm of Defense Department, and you get great experience, and that's open also as well for women or young girls of all ages.
Career days at your high school middle school ‒ if your school is not having somebody represented from that field, I encourage the youth to reach out to either Museum of Flight or another organization because there are always speakers who are willing to go and talk to you about that.
SM: Well, thank you again so much for your time, Peggy.
PP: Thank you. I appreciate it.
SM: Thank you for tuning in to this episode of The Flight Deck, the podcast of The Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington. I really hope you enjoyed Peggy's story. It was such a delight chatting with her. And if you didn't hear part 1 yet, go back and listen. It's the previous episode on this feed. We're also including links to the organizations Peggy mentioned in the show notes, so if you or someone you know is interested in those scholarships, you can learn more there. We're also including links to information about Women Fly at The Museum of Flight, one of the many programs we host to help young people and especially young women on their journey to aerospace careers. We've got programs for people of all ages and genders, so no matter who you are, head over to our website, explore it, learn more. Youth, adults, we got something for everybody.
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Until next time, this is your host, Sean Mobley, saying to everyone out there on that good Earth, “We'll see you out there, folks.”
END OF PODCAST