Black Female U-2 Pilot Broke Barriers on the Ground and in the Air

Air Force Colonel Merryl Tengesdal, the first black female U-2 pilot.
Air Force Col. Merryl Tengesdal was the first Black female U-2 pilot.

Air Force Col. Merryl Tengesdal started out in the Navy flying helicopters but ended up becoming the first Black woman to fly the Air Force's U-2 Dragon Lady Spy Plane

Tengesdal made a rare cross-rate move to the Air Force after teaching a joint flight program, and in 2004, she qualified to fly one of the most difficult aircraft in the world, the U-2. Tengesdal joins only five women and three Blacks (male or female) ever to participate in the U-2 program.

The U-2 flies at 70,000 feet, and at times while flying, Tengesdal witnessed shooting stars below her. Because of the high altitude, U-2 pilots must wear a full pressure suit similar to those worn by astronauts. The low-altitude handling characteristics of the aircraft and bicycle-type landing gear require precise control inputs during landing; forward visibility is also limited due to the extended aircraft nose and "taildragger" configuration.

A second U-2 pilot normally "chases" each landing in a high-performance vehicle, assisting the pilot by providing radio inputs for altitude and runway alignment. These characteristics combine to earn the U-2 a widely accepted title as the most difficult aircraft in the world to fly.

Tengesdal has flown missions for Operation Olive Harvest in Afghanistan and Iraq and took part in helping combat piracy in the Horn of Africa. She has more than 3,400 flight hours and more than 330 combat hours.

Profiled in a piece on FOXTROT ALPHA, Tengesdal was asked about the significance of her role as the first Black woman to fly the U-2 and said, "It is very uncommon, even for this day and age, to be a female pilot, much less a female minority. ... The Air Force has always been on the forefront of breaking aviation and racial barriers. I am extremely proud of being the first Black female U-2 pilot in history. ... My career field is very male-dominated, but I hope I have helped other females with similar aspirations to realize this is an option. I think we are all limitless as to what we can accomplish."

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