Nine female pilots at Naval Air Station Oceana, Virginia, say they feel privileged to be selected as volunteers to perform the "missing woman" formation this Saturday for an aviator who paved the way for their success: U.S. Navy Capt. Rosemary Mariner, who died last week at 65.
"We're fortunate to be chosen," said Cmdr. Leslie "Meat" Mintz, executive officer of Strike Fighter Squadron 213 (VFA-213). Mintz, a career weapons system officer on the Super Hornet, spoke to Military.com on Thursday ahead of the flyover.
The tribute, announced by the Navy this week, will take place as Mariner receives a full military graveside service at New Loyston Cemetery in Maynardville, Tennessee.
The pilots have performed other flyovers, Mintz said. But "it's certainly the first time I've done this for a female aviator. Everyone is truly humbled to be a part of it."
Mariner was one of the first eight women selected to fly military aircraft in 1973, according to her obituary. A year later, she became the Navy's first female jet pilot, flying the A-4E/L Skyhawk and the A-7E Corsair II. She died Jan. 24 after a years-long battle with cancer, the service said.
She was also the first female military aviator to command an operational air squadron, and during Operation Desert Storm, commanded Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 34 (VAQ-34), the Navy said.
Among other achievements, she executed 17 arrested carrier landings in her career, and, as an advocate for the pilot community, helped pave the way for those who came after. Mariner retired in 1997.
"She shaped generations of people with that confidence in them and helping them find their path," said Katherine Sharp Landdeck.
Landdeck, an expert on the Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II (WASPs) and a professor at Texas Woman's University, told NBC News on Thursday she saw her friend Mariner as a brave "and badass" pilot.
"Landing on carriers? That's pretty badass. You're not just landing a jet. You're landing a jet on a runway that's rising up and down in the seas, and I think, as a woman doing it, you've got everybody on deck watching. Very cool under pressure," Landdeck said in the NBC News interview.
Mintz will be flying alongside Cmdr. Stacy Uttecht, commander of Strike Fighter Squadron 32 (VFA-32); Lt. Cmdr. Paige Blok, VFA-32; Lt. Cmdr. Danielle Thiriot, VFA-106; Lt. Cmdr. Jennifer Hesling, NAS Oceana; Lt. Christy Talisse, VFA-211; Lt. Amanda Lee, VFA-81; Lt. Kelly Harris, VFA-213; and Lt. Emily Rixey, Strike Fighter Weapons School Atlantic.
On Saturday, like any mission, the women will brief the plan before four F/A-18F Super Hornets and a single F/A-18 E-model launch from Oceana, roughly 400 miles from Mariner's burial site. One of the jets will act as a backup in case something in the flight plan gets reshuffled, Mintz said.
The jets will hold until the signal is given for the missing formation "so that the timing is perfect," she said.
Uttecht will lead the formation. Mintz will be backseat in a jet on the flank as Thiriot pulls up thousands of feet into the sky.
The crew appreciates "the outpouring support, the text messages, the Facebook messages, for what we're doing," Mintz said.
"It's truly an honor to do this … for Capt. Mariner. I've been in this business for 19 years. I really haven't thought about male vs. female gender issues because it's strictly merit-based. 'Can you fly? Can you perform?' [but] really I owe that to her," she said.