By Eileen Bjorkman
At one minute past midnight on 17 January 1991, US Air Force Major Kathy Rambo-Cosand prepared to take off in a Lockheed C-141 Starlifter from Ramstein Air Base, Germany. It was snowing, and her aircraft was packed with 44,000 pounds of cluster bombs headed for Saudi Arabia. The aircraft was severely overweight: she was authorised to fly at ‘emergency war weights.’ If the C-141 lost an engine on take-off from Ramstein’s short runway, they would most likely crash. She worried about what the cluster bombs might do if that happened. Moreover, an accident was a realistic possibility: A Lockheed C-5 Galaxy had crashed, taking off from Ramstein just a few months earlier, killing 13 of the 17 people on board.
As Rambo-Cosand and her crew waited for their take-off clearance, a call came on the radio: “All missions are cancelled.” The airspace over Saudi Arabia had been shut down as coalition fighters and bombers kicked off Operation DESERT STORM, the coalition effort to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Rambo-Cosand and her crew waited in their aircraft as planners decided what to do. Finally, at 2:30 a.m., she received the call to take off. With the C-5 crash and the enormity of her cargo weighing heavily on her, Rambo-Cosand pulled onto the runway and lumbered into the sky. Unfortunately, the most stressful take off of her career was for naught: when they arrived over Italy, they were turned back to Ramstein.
At that point, Rambo-Cosand had been flying in and out of Saudi Arabia for the past four months, and it would be many more months before she finally returned home to her family. Indeed, the rapid build-up, sustainment, and eventual employment of forces in the Middle East as part of Operation DESERT SHIELD/STORM was only possible because of support aircraft that did everything from hauling cargo to communications jamming. Moreover, it was these aircraft that women like Rambo-Cosand flew since they were not allowed to fly in combat; a provision within the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act passed by Congress in 1948 prohibited that. This article explores the experience of some of those women during DESERT SHIELD/STORM and details some of the challenges faced by US females operating in a combat environment.
The Women Aviators of Operation DESERT SHIELD/DESERT STORM
Despite the combat restrictions, women soon arrived in Saudi Arabia. Some of the first women were pilots, like US Army Captain Victoria Calhoun, a Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopter pilot at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, who deployed on 9 August, two days after Operation DESERT SHIELD began in response to the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. Calhoun had asked to be stationed at Fort Bragg the previous year because she figured if any action happened, it would happen there. She was right, but shortly after arriving, her unit deployed to support the 1989 invasion of Panama, and her operations officer would not let her go, replacing her with a less-experienced male pilot. A year later, she feared the same thing might happen. However, when someone questioned her battalion commander about whether women would deploy to Saudi Arabia, he said, “They have to go. If they don’t go, we’re not mission capable as a unit!”
Calhoun arrived at Dhahran Air Base with an advance party to conduct reconnaissance and prepare the base for more arrivals. At first, there was not much flying for the Chinooks, mainly because the sand in Saudi Arabia caused maintenance nightmares. The missions Calhoun flew transported parts and supplies around to other units, a mission nicknamed “Desert Express.”
Reserve units began activating on 24 August. All C-5 reserve squadrons were activated as the massive cargo aircraft hauled most of the Army’s tanks and larger helicopters to the theatre. Major Stephanie Wells, a C-5 pilot from Kelly Air Force Base, Texas, was activated on 29 August. She was thrilled to be part of the team: when she had initially called her unit on 6 August to inquire about deploying, she was told that women would not be allowed to go. Nevertheless, Wells was soon flying C-5s all over the world. At first, she never knew where she would be going on any given day, but then things settled down, and she began flying missions out of Dover Air Force Base, Delaware.
Technical Sergeant Donna Davis, a C-5 flight engineer in a reserve unit at Travis Air Force Base, California, soon wound up in Germany. When a crew landed, after eight hours of crew rest, Davis says they were normally assigned to an aircraft brought in by another crew. The crews stopped to rest, but the aeroplane kept going. The crews often pulled 24-hour shifts before going back into crew rest, and Davis found it hard to sleep more than about four hours at a time. She was not alone; most of the crews were exhausted all the time and, as she says, “Thank goodness for autopilot.”
As the initial troops and equipment flowed to Saudi Arabia, Rambo-Cosand, who was in a reserve unit at McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey, debated what to do. She had met her husband when she had been one of the first ten women to attend US Air Force pilot training in 1976, and they had just settled with their two children into new quarters after a move to Honduras. She hated to leave her 2-year-old and 7-year-old at home, but she decided to volunteer to fly some missions, thinking that if enough reservists volunteered, her unit would not be activated. However, before she could arrive to begin her volunteer tour, her unit was activated on 9 September. Rambo-Cosand moved heaven and earth to get to McGuire in less than 24 hours, begging the US Embassy to get her on a 6:00 a.m. flight out of Honduras the following day. Even living overseas, she beat several airline pilots in her squadron to McGuire.
After arriving at McGuire, Rambo-Cosand flew first to Zaragoza, Spain, and then began flying shuttles to Saudi Arabia. Working 30-hour days, she and her crew flew 150 hours in 16 days compared to the normal 75 hours they might fly in a month. She recalls, “We were like zombies.” But like most pilots, Rambo-Cosand enjoyed what she was doing. She found aeromedical evacuation flights of wounded personnel to be the most special. Whenever she carried patients, she always went back to talk to them and hold their hand before returning to the cockpit, hoping they would make it.
By early October, enough forces were in place to defend Saudi Arabia should the Iraqis attack. An additional a build-up of forces began in early November to prepare for an offensive operation. In November, the United Nations Security Council also set a deadline for Iraq to withdraw forces by 15 January 1991. The deadline passed, and the air war started on 17 January.
On the first day of the war, US Air Force Captain Sheila Chewing helped two McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle fighter pilots shoot down two Iraqi Mikoyan MiG-29 Fulcrums. She was a weapons controller onboard a Boeing E-3 Sentry, an Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft distinguished by a gigantic disc-shaped radar antenna mounted on top of the aircraft and used for tracking both friendly and enemy aircraft. She spotted the MiG-29s on her radar screen onboard the AWACS and then directed the F-15 pilots until their own radars could track the enemy aircraft and launch missiles at them. Chewing later said, “When that happened [bringing down an enemy plane], we really felt like we were doing our jobs.”
While airlift crews shuttled endlessly among the US, Europe, and the Middle East, some women who flew refuelling tankers and other support aircraft settled at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. Air Force Captain Christina Vance Halli, a Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker pilot, was happy to deploy to support DESERT STORM. She was tired of being at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, where she mostly sat alert with bomber crews and rarely flew. Instead, she and the rest of her crew flew as passengers to get to Incirlik. During a stop in Greece, it was obvious they were getting closer to the action: a man wearing a flak jacket met them at the aircraft and instructed them to low crawl across the ramp to his vehicle.
The aircraft that launched from Incirlik did so as part of a large strike package of tankers, communications jammers (EC-130s), tactical reconnaissance aircraft (RF-4Cs) and the fighter aircraft that would be striking targets deep into Iraq. For most missions, the slower Lockheed EC-130s launched first to get into position to provide jamming protection for the striking aircraft. At the same time or shortly after, McDonnell Douglas RF-4C Phantom aircraft took off and finally, the KC-135s departed, followed by the striking aircraft. A typical strike package had three to five tankers, each servicing four to eight fighters. The refuelling’s were a bit of an adventure, done in radio silence and mostly at night, but the skill of all crews involved prevented any mishaps. The fighters followed the tankers to Iraq’s northern border, refuelling as needed and getting a top-off before entering Iraq. At that point, the tankers did a U-turn and held in orbit, waiting for the strikers to return.
In the meantime, the EC-130s orbited nearby to provide jamming support. Captain Amy Hermes Smellie was an EC-130 co-pilot. She recalls sometimes seeing anti-aircraft artillery in the distance as the strikers reached their targets; on other occasions, she wore night vision goggles look for targets. Unlike the other support aircraft that might carry one or two women aviators on a mission, the EC-130s were often packed with women linguists in the back of the aeroplane. Smellie says the linguists were the driving factor in EC-130s; the Air Force might have been able to fly EC-130 missions without women pilots, but they did not have enough male linguists.
The ground campaign began on early 24 February. That day Major Marie Rossi, the company commander of one of Calhoun’s sister units, appeared on CNN, saying, “[T]his is the moment that everybody trains for – that I’ve trained for – so I feel ready to meet the challenge.” To prepare for the assault, coalition ground forces had quietly moved hundreds of miles to the west, including Calhoun’s CH-47 unit, which moved from Dhahran to Rafha. Instead of flying to Rafha, Calhoun was put in charge of a convoy for the move. However, once at Rafha, she got in on the action. On the second day of the ground war, she flew Chinook missions to move elements of the US 101st Airborne Division to Forward Operating Base Cobra, 93 miles inside Iraq, to provide a logistics base for the 101st as they conducted their assault. Overall, Calhoun flew 22 hours of combat, flying into Iraq and coming within 90 miles of Baghdad.
Offensive operations ended at 08:00 on 28 February, but that did not stop the danger. Marie Rossi, the pilot who had appeared on CNN, died on 1 March, the day after the cease-fire, when her helicopter hit an unlit radio tower.
US Navy women did not get as many opportunities to fly during the war as their Air Force and Army counterparts. A handful of women, mostly in helicopter combat support squadrons, carried personnel and equipment around the Persian Gulf and flew other support missions, including search and rescue. Lieutenant Commander Lucy Young, who had qualified to fly Douglas A-4 Skyhawk strike aircraft and was the US Navy’s first female strike instructor, nevertheless was not allowed to fly in combat. By 1991, she had left the Navy and was in a reserve unit in Atlanta, flying McDonnell Douglas C-9s, a small cargo aircraft like the commercial DC-9. Young’s squadron was never activated, but she spent three weeks flying people and cargo around the Middle East during the build-up in September 1991 while male strike pilots she had trained headed for the war on aircraft carriers.
Captain Peggy Phillips, a C-141 pilot in the reserves at McChord Air Force Base, Washington, says that the women transport pilots were the ‘first in and last out’ of the theatre. This was especially true of the reservists; many were activated in August or September of 1990 and not deactivated until May or June 1991. Another aspect of being an airlifter was that the crews received no parades or big welcomes when they returned home like many of the combat units, who deployed and returned as a group. Instead, the airlifters dribbled over and back, activating, and deactivating on individual timelines. Phillips had a two-day notice to deactivate. She quietly went home with no fanfare.
The Dangers faced by Female Aviators
Going up against the fourth largest army in the world, planners expected the overall battle to be short but potentially very bloody, with as many as 30,000 casualties. Given that the all-volunteer force in place since the mid-1970s was 15% female, at least some of those casualties were expected to be women.
Although the aircraft flown by women aviators largely kept them away from enemy fire, the missions weren’t risk-free. Tankers occasionally flew over hostile territory with their strike package. For example, Captain Ann Weaver Worster reportedly flew her tanker 250 miles inside Iraq on one mission. In another instance, an SA-8 surface-to-air missile exploded above a KC-135 flying out of Incirlik.
Once the Iraqis started launching SCUD missiles during Desert Storm, the transport and other support crews were vulnerable when they landed in Saudi Arabia. For example, Rambo-Cosand received word of a ‘black flag’ SCUD alert during one flight, and the crew donned their chemical warfare gear before landing. Once on the ground, the crew dashed to a bunker in their gear, where they stayed for several hours until their aircraft could be refuelled and reloaded for their return flight.
In addition to dealing with hostile forces, the women aviators also dealt with a hostile environment from their hosts. For example, Saudi ground crews refused to take fuel orders from women crewmembers and women who stayed in Saudi Arabia overnight had to cover up if they wanted to go off base.
Naysayers had predicted that women would become pregnant to avoid going to war. Some pregnant women could not deploy, but it was not only women who wanted to stay home for family reasons. Halli, the KC-135 pilot, recalled that her navigator did not want to deploy because his wife was pregnant; he was replaced with another navigator.
During their deployments, men and women left behind families, including small children. For example, C-5 flight engineer Donna Davis left her son with her parents, although she made it home for Christmas. Unlike crewmembers who lived near McGuire, Rambo-Cosand found it difficult to get home whenever she had a few extra days in the US, although she did make it back to her family in Honduras for a few days about every six weeks. Sometimes childcare took creative juggling. For example, C-141 pilot Peggy Phillips had three small children and an airline pilot husband who was also an activated reservist. The couple served in the same unit at McChord, and their commander allowed them to work their schedules so that while one was flying on a trip, the other worked in the squadron.
Conclusion – An Opportunity for Change
Carolyn Becraft, a significant player in the fight to overturn the archaic combat exclusion law, says activating the reserves had a huge impact on the public’s acceptance of women going into hostile territory. Unit activations turned into local stories, and people saw their neighbours, both men and women, heading to war.
The women aviators in Desert Shield and Desert Storm and other women who served in the Middle East, collectively proved they could participate in combat. After legislation and a Presidential Commission to further study the issue, women aviators finally earned the right to fly combat aircraft on 28 April 1993. However, for most women who flew in Desert Storm, the change came too late in their careers. Tanker pilot Christina Vance Halli left the Air Force and applied to fly General Dynamics F-16s at the Air National Guard unit in Fresno, California. The unit seemed receptive, allowing her to go through a process of visits and interviews before turning her down. Their reason? She did not have any fighter experience.
Eileen A. Bjorkman is a former flight test engineer in the USAF with more than thirty-five years of experience and over 700 hours in the cockpits of F-4s, F-16s, C-130s, and C-141s. Her most recent book is Unforgotten in the Gulf of Tonkin: A Story of the U.S. Military’s Commitment to Leave No One Behind (2020) She is also the author of The Propeller under the Bed: A Personal History of Homebuilt Aircraft and has published articles in the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Magazine, Aviation History, Sport Aviation, the Everett Daily Herald, and the Herald Business Journal.
Header image: Members of the US.’ Air Force disembark from a Lockheed C-141B Starlifter aircraft upon their arrival in support of Operation DESERT SHIELD. This is the type of aircraft flown by Major Kathy Rambo-Cosand and Captain Peggy Phillips as mentioned in this article. (Source: Wikimedia)
 Interview with Kathy Rambo-Cosand, 21 April 2021.
 Conduct of the Persian Gulf War: Final Report to Congress (Washington, D.C.: US Department of Defense, 1992), p. 45
 Interview with Victoria Calhoun, 2 May 2021.
 Jeanne Holm, Women in the Military: An Unfinished Revolution, Revised Edition (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1993), p. 450.
 Interview with Stephanie Wells, 29 April 2021.
 Interview with Donna Davis, 22 April 2021.
 Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, p. 83
 Joby Warrick, ‘AWACS Proves to be Gulf ‘Trump Card,” Air Force Times, 26 March 1991, p. 11, as quoted in Holm, Women in the Military, p. 452.
 Interview with Christina Vance Halli, 30 April 2021.
 Interview with Amy Hermes Smellie, 21 April 2021.
 Holm, Women in the Military, p. 460.
 Calhoun interview.
 Jean Ebbert and Marie-Beth Hall, Crossed Currents: Navy Women from WWI to Tailhook (McClean, VA: Brassey’s, 1993), p. 264.
 Interview with Lucy Young, 29 April 2021.
 Interview with Peggy Phillips, 2 May 2021.
 Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, p. ii; Richard P. Hallion, Storm over Iraq: Air Power and the Gulf War (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992), pp. 2-3.
 Holm, Women in the Military, p. 449.
 Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, pp. 234-235
 Rambo-Cosand interview.
 Multiple women mentioned these issues to me during interviews.
 Halli interview.
 Davis interview.
 Rambo-Cosand interview.
 Phillips’ interview.
 Interview with Carolyn Becraft, 21 April 2021.
 Halli interview.