Sunday, May 09th

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Merryl Tengesdal: From Space Dreams to Spy Planes


As the Space Shuttle Discovery glided home on its final flight, an aviator here on earth noticed a door closing on one of her childhood ambition. Lt. Col. Merryl Tengesdal turned her eyes to the skies as a youngster watching Star Trek on television. She imagined one day stepping into the space suit of a NASA astronaut.

America will soon retire her only manned rockets and end flights for astronauts in the shuttle program. Plans for future space missions are uncertain. The next generation of U.S. space planes appear to be years away from blast off. Yet, Col. Tengesdal is not ready to relinquish her dream of roaring into outer space.

“If someone came up to me today and said we have a spot for you, I’d take it,” states the U.S. Air Force officer. “If someone came up to me and said we’re looking for someone to go out into space or fly tourists around, I would do it. There would be no hesitation.”

What else would you expect from the first African American woman to ever fly the U-2 spy plane? Tengesdal accomplished amazing aviation goals to make her way from a Bronx, New York neighborhood to the Air Force’s elite First Squadron. She is only one of six women to pilot a reconnaissance plane with the capacity to soar above 70,000 feet.

“Going into the U-2 program, I never thought about being the first black female. I considered myself as another pilot in a special breed of a special group of people,” says Lt. Col. Tengesdal. “There were less than 1,000 pilots in the history of the U-2. Just to be a part of that group, you’re like one of a kind.”

Her pride emanates more from serving her country than from being an African American first. Tengesdal flew the U-2S Dragon Lady in support of several U.S. military operations including Olive Harvest, Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom and Horn of Africa.

“To represent your country in a positive way is a good thing. To fight for your country when called upon is definitely an honor,” Tengesdal added. “It’s something I’m proud to do. I wish more people would join.”

Tengesdal’s military career began at Officer Candidate School where she was commissioned as a U.S. Naval Aviator. She flew the SH-60B Sea Hawk Helicopter on several deployments before starting instructor pilot training in June of 2000. Today, she serves as a Joint Staff Officer at the North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command. Advancement has put her love of flying on hold for awhile, but she still remembers the thrill of piloting her first military aircraft.

“It was a good feeling to be in control of a machine that you could make do whatever you want. The T-34 is a pretty agile aircraft. You can do aerobatics,” Col. Tengesdal recalls. “It was exhilarating, kind of freeing. It felt good.”

Looking back on the people and principles she counted on to earn a Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and a Master’s degree in Aeronautical Science, the Lieutenant Colonel sees two constants: strong support from her mother and mentors, and her own discipline and determination.

“I never thought it was something that I could not do. No one ever told me I couldn't do it, so I just kept pressing on,” says Tengesdal.

Speaking engagements give the Air Force officer a chance to encourage girls and young women to develop the same fortitude along with a solid foundation in math and science. She also advises them to develop a tougher exterior, especially if they want to excel in a male-dominated field.

“You have to be able to take criticism. You’ve got to be able to do better,” she states. “You have to be able to push beyond your comfort level whether it’s in the aircraft, on the ground or talking to people.”

The former U-2 instructor stresses that female aviators have the same skills as their male counterparts, and actually tolerate G-forces better in some cases. She expresses why in her opinion, gender issues are far less significant than the rigors of military pilot training:

“There are always going to be obstacles that you are going to have to face. You can’t avoid them. You can’t work around them. You have to face them, and how you deal with those is going to make you the person you are. To become a pilot in the military, to do things that you like is difficult. If it were easy, everyone would do it.”

As formidable as Tengesdal is in her profession, her life is not all left-brain logic and analytical thinking. She relaxes by playing different instruments, writing lyrics and recording songs in her music room at home.

“Just getting up and challenging myself every day. That’s a good thing whether it’s on a snowboard or doing music. It’s fun,” says the married Tengesdal.

The Lieutenant Colonel would like her husband to hear one of her songs in a Gatorade commercial someday.

“It does take a special guy and a guy who is very confident in his abilities to deal with a woman pilot in the military. I’ve been lucky and I found one. He’s a great guy,” says Tengesdal.

There’s no point in betting against it. After all, she has already succeeded in making U-2 history, building an aviation career and finding love in the military.

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