First All-Female C-130 Crew to Fly in Combat Looks Back on Mission

From left to right, Staff Sgt. Josie E. Harshe, flight engineer; Capt. Anita T. Mack, navigator; 1st Lt. Siobhan Couturier, pilot; Capt. Carol J. Mitchell, aircraft commander; and loadmasters Tech. Sgt. Sigrid M. Carrero-Perez and Senior Airman Ci Ci Alonzo, pause in the cargo bay of their C-130 for a group photo following their historic flight. (U.S. Air Force/ Tech. Sgt. Louis Vega)
From left to right, Staff Sgt. Josie E. Harshe, flight engineer; Capt. Anita T. Mack, navigator; 1st Lt. Siobhan Couturier, pilot; Capt. Carol J. Mitchell, aircraft commander; and loadmasters Tech. Sgt. Sigrid M. Carrero-Perez and Senior Airman Ci Ci Alonzo, pause in the cargo bay of their C-130 for a group photo following their historic flight. (U.S. Air Force/ Tech. Sgt. Louis Vega)

A C-130 Hercules aircrew transported 151 Marines and equipment in and out of Iraq on Sept. 26, 2005.

It was a normal, everyday operation for the crew, hauling cargo to airfields in the Middle East. But it marked the first time an all-female crew would take on the mission.

"Frankly, we were disappointed that it was 2005 before an all-female C-130 crew flew in combat," Lt. Col. Carol Mitchell, 310th Airlift Squadron commander, said in a news release.

Mitchell was a captain and the aircraft commander during that flight, according to a recent Air Force release that coincided with Women's History Month in March.

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"We were just doing our everyday jobs, so there was nothing unusual about that day for us," she said, reflecting on the historic flight under the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing.

She added, "We didn't want an all-female crew to be unusual; we wanted it to be normal. Unfortunately, it is not normal yet. In order to get there, we have to stand out to show the rest of the world what we are capable of."

The crew included Mitchell; 1st Lt. Siobhan Couturier, pilot; Capt. Anita T. Mack, navigator; Staff Sgt. Josie E. Harshe, flight engineer; and loadmasters Tech. Sgt. Sigrid M. Carrero-Perez and Senior Airman Ci Ci Alonz. All were from the 43rd Airlift Wing at Pope Air Force Base, North Carolina.

Some of their perspectives have evolved. Back in 2005, Mitchell felt that women shouldn't necessarily be singled out for doing their jobs just because of their gender.

"I enjoyed flying with this crew, but I don't think we should go out of our way to have all-female crews," she said then. "It took a long time for women to become accepted as aircrew members and, now that we are, we would be taking a step back by singling ourselves out rather than blending in with the rest of the Air Force."

The message resonates 13 years later: Don't treat us differently because we're women.

"I was happy to be doing our primary mission: delivering beans and bullets on time and on target," said Mack, now a lieutenant colonel and Air Mobility Command deputy division chief.

"We get to have a direct impact on the folks in the field, bringing them the supplies needed to do their job and then flying them back to go home. There is a real sense of responsibility to do the best job you can do when people are depending on you," she said in the release.

The crew would also fly to Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa during their deployment.

Mack said performance and value are the real milestones for her career, regardless of her gender.

"While it was special to be a member of this crew, I want to emphasize I have always focused on being a great navigator and officer first, rather than a woman in the Air Force," she said.

Duff, nee Harshe, now a registered nurse with 96th Medical Group at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, was the flight engineer at the time. She looks forward to the day a female crew becomes the norm, hopefully in the near future.

"If we want women serving in the military to be treated equally and for gender not to be an issue, then we should not put our gender in the spotlight and make it something 'special,' " she said.

As the Air Force continues its breaking barriers initiative, Mitchell said the service as a whole should recognize women as a crucial part of the conversation.

"We need to do a better job of educating society and our youth so they understand that there are no longer obstacles preventing girls from doing whatever they decide to do, even if that's being an Air Force pilot," she said.

"Brave, pioneering women painstakingly removed those obstacles for us, and we need to take advantage of the opportunities they have provided," Mitchell said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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