Veteran’s Day always takes me down memory lane…

Years ago, and thrilled beyond measure, I reported to Navy Test Pilot School, prepared to enter the biggest challenge of my career. Patuxent River Naval Air Test Center (or “Pax River” as it is known colloquially) was to become my home for the next four years—one year as a student at TPS, then two years flying test aircraft with a test squadron, followed by a year as an instructor at Test Pilot School.

My TPS class was filled with the best of the best from Navy, Marine Corps, and Army aviation. In addition, we also had one Air Force, one Coast Guard, and two international military students. Several of my TPS colleagues went on to become astronauts. As was becoming a signature of my career in the Navy, I was the only woman in my class of thirty-three students. Yet I had become so used to being one of the few women, or the only woman, I barely noticed. Perhaps it is a self-protection mechanism. Had I focused on the fact that I was the only woman, it would have taken energy away from my work. Instead, I stayed focused on what was ahead, sensing that there were more distant horizons yet to be seen.

Among the TPS classmates, my gender did not matter. By this time, attitudes about women had shifted. We women had been through multiple testing grounds and proven ourselves time and time again. We had graduated from the Naval Academy. We had graduated from flight school. We had become experienced, top-notch aviators.

There was never a question of whether I was qualified. All of us at TPS had been through a challenging selection process—the same process. Gone were the spurious comments that, as a woman, I had taken a spot from a “more qualified” male. Not only was I fully welcomed and accepted, but I was embraced by my male TPS classmates and my instructors. My classmates saw me as their sister, not as their competition.

Test Pilot School proved to be the hardest work I had ever done in my life. Half of our day was spent in class, and the other half was spent flying all sorts of aircraft. Classes, test plans, test flights, test reports—there was always something we were working on.

But despite the workload, we were like kids in a candy store. Our “candy” was every type of aircraft you could imagine and then some. We flew everything we could get our hands on—jets, props, helicopters—old and new. The school had Navy T-2s, A-4s,

F/A-18s (ooh la-la!), Air Force T-38s, Army H-60 and OH-6 helicopters, Coast Guard HH-64s, a Canadian de Havilland Beaver and an Otter (old “tail draggers”) and even a few sailplanes. TPS had other aircraft flown in for us to fly, and sometimes we would go other places to fly.

By the conclusion of my Navy career, I flew over thirty-five different types of aircraft ranging from fighters to attack planes to transports, and nearly the entire gamut of military and civilian aircraft.

Today more than 130 women have graduated from Navy Test Pilot School. Now there are some women veterans to celebrate!

Fly high,


Need some coaching or help identifying what makes you fly high? Drop me a line at CaptainBarbaraBell.com. Want to know more about being a role model? Check out my book: Flight Lessons: Navigating Through Life’s Turbulence and Learning to Fly High – in it I have some great questions to stimulate more conversation. I promise.

#veterans, #rolemodel, #coaching, #mentor, #mentorship, #leadership


US Navy Photo
US Navy Photo