this Memorial Day: Kara Hultgreen F-14 pilot in the U.S. Navy, who perished in a tragic accident in 1994. I got to know Hultgreen lo so many years ago while researching Tailspin: Women at War in the Wake of Tailhook. I wrote the book at a tipping point – in 1992, the Navy changed its outdated policies on recruitment, retention, training and selection of occupational fields to be “gender neutral to the maximum extent possible.” Women could now serve in all combat positions except SEAL commando units and submarines, and the top brass was putting them on aircraft carriers methodically, albeit slowly. Of course, women had long served honorably, and they had earned this expanded role.
Just as the book was going to press, Hultgreen died.
When she trained as an F-14 Tomcat pilot alongside men when she didn’t know if she would ever get to serve as anything other than as an instructor. Now that the Navy had changed its rules for women, she would get the chance to go out on real missions. Hultgreen was rangy and brash and smart, like so many of her male counterparts in Navy flying. I had spent hours with her, much because so many people I had interviewed said, Kara, she’s the one you should talk to. She’s the real thing. A real Top Gun. Her handle was The Hulk. Now she had carrier qualified (brought her F-14 to land on the deck of the carrier with its tailhook catching the wire stretched across the deck) and she’d joined the Black Lions of VF-213, who were getting ready to deploy to the Persian Gulf. Her squadron’s aircraft carrier was the USS Abraham Lincoln, or, as Hultgreen enjoyed calling it, the Babe-raham Lincoln – the Babe.
I was writing the last few pages of Tailspin, writing about Kara and the future of naval aviation’s women, when I opened the Times on October 26, 1994 to see her picture. During a practice run over the Pacific, as Hultgreen was readying her plane to land, the aircraft suddenly lost altitude and crashed into the ocean. She wasn’t able to eject in time to survive the accident.
Women in today’s military know the chances they are taking. That old chestnut, She died doing what she loved, is one I have always found a bit dubious, yet in this case it was so true. As you enjoy the blockbuster Top Gun: Maverick, remember Kara as a true maverick and leader in naval aviation.