Becoming the first woman to perform as a Blue Angels pilot has definitely been a high point for Capt. Katie Higgins. It is an honor to wear the famous blue and gold flight suit, she said, but it might surprise some people to learn that it hasn't been the pinnacle of her career as a Marine aviator.
Higgins will be sitting in the left seat of the cockpit this weekend at the Miramar Air Show, serving as flight commander of the team's "Fat Albert" C-130 support plane. During more than 50 performances across the country so far this year, she has been mobbed by fans who appreciate how she #flieslikeagirl with the Blue Angels.
The fighter pilots on the team used to have the longest lines for autographs, because of their stunning aerobatics in F/A-18 Hornets flying wingtip-to-wingtip. Now with the first woman pilot in the 69-year history of the Blue Angels, the "jet guys" joke good-naturedly about being "just your average white guy."
Higgins downplays her fame as the "Lady Blue Angel."
"I wouldn't say I'm a celebrity. No way. I'm a Marine," she said in an interview before the San Diego show.
"I definitely appreciate the support from the American people, and if I can bring attention to opportunities people have in life, girls included -- that they can join the military, be a Marine, even be a Blue Angel pilot, then that's cool."
If it wasn't being selected for the premiere naval flight demonstration team, then what was her most rewarding experience? The moment when Higgins thought this is it, this is why I joined the Marine Corps, this is why I became an aviator?
That began in Afghanistan in 2013, and finished in Djibouti, Africa.
As a KC-130J Hercules pilot, Higgins is responsible for everything from logistics to transport, air-to-air refueling and close-air support.
During a mission in Afghanistan, Higgins and her flight crew unleashed Hellfire missiles for Marines pinned down under enemy fire.
On her next deployment in Africa, a Marine recognized her voice.
"He thanked me essentially for saving his life. I get goose bumps even now talking about it," Higgins said. "I joined the Marine Corps to support the Marines on the ground, and to know that I succeeded in doing that is the greatest reward that I could ever ask for."
Higgins, 29, is a third-generation military aviator. She claims Severna Park, Md., as her hometown but she grew up on naval bases from Lemoore to Yokosuka, Japan.
Her father, retired Navy Capt. William Johnson, flew the same Hornet jets the Blue Angels do today. As a little girl, Higgins would run onto the flight line to hug him after he flew home in formation from a deployment.
"I grew up with a love for flying because of my family," she said. Then the gunnery sergeants at the Naval Academy hooked her on the Marine Corps.
The best part about being a C-130 pilot is working together as a crew, Higgins said. "We have two pilots on the plane, a navigator, a flight engineer and a loadmaster. So there's five of us that it takes to fly this aircraft."
Why the Blue Angels? Higgins remembers being wowed by a performance in California when she was about 10 years old. Later she was attracted to their mission of helping to recruit the next generation of naval aviators and leaders.
"I loved the idea of going out and inspiring excellence to the American people. Not everybody needs to join the military but if everyone tries their hardest and does their best at the profession that they choose, then it's better for the country and our society in general."
The selection process was intense, including a long application, essays, and grilling by the Blue Angels officers about her personal and professional life. In Pensacola, Fla., it came down to Higgins and a male aviator competing for the same position.
"Finalist week is probably one of the most intimidating things I've ever done," she recalled. It includes "a very long, beautiful table and you're sitting at the end of it and you have 17 pairs of eyes on you asking a gamut of questions."
Higgins has almost 400 flight hours in combat, but she worried she was too young for the Blue Angels. When she called the commanding officer, Capt. Thomas Frosch, to find out if she made it, he told her: "you're really junior, we really liked having you out but maybe if you get some more flight hours..."
"Aw man, I didn't make it," she thought.
"Well, Katie, it was nice talking to you. Oh, and one more thing -- Welcome to the team!" Frosch said. The Blue Angels were all in the room with him and yelled it at the same time.
Higgins was in shock. The gist of her response was oh my gosh, thank you so much, "But I'm a Marine at heart so I think I used some poor language there that I won't repeat."
Higgins already belonged to a very small group as a naval aviator. Only 7 percent of the Marine Corps is female to begin with, and pilots are subject to height and weight restrictions that sideline many women. Out of 5,223 flight officers in the Marine Corps, 197 are female.
"I didn't come to the team to break any barriers or smash any glass ceilings," Higgins said. She was selected because she is the best person for the job, not the best woman, Frosch told her.
"They don't want to fill any quotas. They want to fit the right person, ensuring you're the right puzzle piece for that next year's team."
Some question why it is taking so long for the Blue Angels to select their first female fighter pilot, since Navy women have been flying jets since 1994.
Ron Walters, commenting on the Blue Angels Facebook page, said: "A female flying the C-130, that's some progress but when will the old boys club truly end when they hand a Hornet to a woman? For those who don't know it's Air Force 3, Navy 0..."
The Air Force selected the first female fighter pilot for its Thunderbirds flight demonstration team in 2005, and at least two more later joined.
In 2014, a former Blue Angels commander was reprimanded because of an insider complaint of sexual harassment, but the accusation of gender discrimination in the selection process was deemed unfounded. The investigation revealed an atmosphere in previous years where raunchy photos and sexual innuendo were tolerated in the workplace.
With a new commander and a new leadership structure, Navy officials hope the scandal is behind them.
A small number of female aviators in the Navy and Marine Corps meet the Blue Angels requirement of at least 1,250 flight hours and a demonstrated ability to land on aircraft carriers. Interest in the three-year assignment as well as career timing are also factors.
"I don't think it's a matter of if, it's just when all of those things line up," said Navy Cmdr. Jeannie Groeneveld, a spokeswoman for Naval Air Forces Command in Coronado.
Out of 1,637 Hornet and Super Hornet pilots in the Navy, 31 are women, or less than 2 percent, she said. (The Marine fighter pilot breakdown was not available, public affairs staff at the Pentagon said.)
The Blue Angels performance in San Diego this weekend could boost those numbers. "Having the Blues here will inspire everyone. The precision with which they fly is incredible," said Groeneveld, a former helicopter pilot. "They are a recruiting tool for the Navy because everyone who goes out and sees them wants to be them someday. I speak from experience."
Flying the C-130 in the air show this weekend, Higgins will demonstrate some of the zero g maneuvers they might have to pull in combat -- to evade gun fire and enemy radar, or rapidly descend to base because of a malfunction. Even experienced aviators sometimes lose their lunch in Fat Albert, as their feet jump for the ceiling.
"She's a big girl but we can zip her around pretty well. It's definitely fun. It's cool to be able to show the American people the capabilities of my aircraft," Higgins said.
But her duties on the ground are just as important. "One of the best parts about being on this team is to be able to talk to Americans about those sailors, those Marines, airmen and soldiers currently overseas standing the watch," doing everything from fighting ISIS over Syria to flying transport missions in Asia, she said.
"I get thanked every day for my service, but in reality all those thank you's need to go to ... those true heroes."