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Gaining Altitude

Tustin-based 1st Lt. Sarah Deal is an athlete, a 'country girl at heart'--and the first female Marine pilot. She's confident flying a combat helicopter but less certain of her role as a pioneer.

April 21, 1996|NANCY WRIDE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

We're in the bathroom of America's first female Marine Corps pilot, and let's see . . . there's moisturizer, a curling iron, hair scrunchies, a Goofy clock, Pep Boys heavy-duty grease cleaner. Oh, and a helicopter pressure guard chart.

"I look at the mirror," says 1st Lt. Sarah Deal, drying her face with a towel, "to see my limitations."

Some people would probably be referring to their looks. Deal, 26, is talking about that chart taped to her mirror.

"If you lose your rotor speed," she explains, "it's your life."

Such are the concerns of a woman who makes her living flying one of the world's largest combat helicopters, armed with twin machine guns.

Loved ones and fellow Marines at her Tustin air base squadron would tell you she's as fierce a flier as she is a surfer or basketball player. But she wears her role as pioneer less comfortably.

Yanking her white-blond hair into a ponytail, Deal flicks off the light of her bathroom and adds: "Really. I was just at the right place at the right time."

Although Deal understands and accepts the fan mail and attentions of admiring schoolgirls and servicemen, she sees the fuss as "kind of unnecessary."

She has sacrificed nothing, she says, to reach this coveted and elite club that is military aviation.

She has committed to at least five more years with the Marines. After that, who knows? She is planning a large wedding at the Lutheran church in her Ohio hometown next spring. A country girl at heart, she also hopes eventually to settle and raise children in the Great Lakes region--somewhere with enough space around her so she doesn't have to listen to her neighbors' stereo, smell their food or hear their arguments. A place where you can swim down at the lake on a starry night.

Her immediate goal is earning the rank of aircraft commander as she prepares to go to Okinawa in May for a six-month tour; her supervisor expects Deal will earn it around June. Before then she will have spent a week--voluntarily--at prisoner-of-war survival training, then will meet friends and family in Hawaii for a vacation.

It seems about the only thing this lean former tomboy could improve is her diet: Most days it consists of M&Ms, Kool-Aid and frozen anything that can be zapped in a microwave.

"I don't think I've given up anything; I've gotten everything I wanted personally," she remarks during a session with journalists. Despite her Midwestern manners, she is enduring this press te^te-a-te^te as a duty.

But whether it's in the cockpit of a Super Stallion CH-53E helicopter or hanging out in her Lake Forest rental, one can sense that her dreams are coming true.

Not that it was always easy. She figures half of her fellow flight school students--yes, all men--urged her to drop out, said she couldn't cut it.

"She's gonna always be teased, because she's a trailblazer," says Maj. Jeff Bare, Deal's commanding officer at the Tustin Marine Corps Helicopter Air Station. He laughs. "But she hooks and jabs and moves around the ring like the rest of them. . . . I think more fuss has been made by the press than the Marine Corps."

*

There are 173,000 active-duty Marines in this country. Fewer than 5% are women, the smallest share among the four military branches. Male aviators or aspiring ones in the Marines total 5,044. Deal is the one female pilot, and fewer than a dozen more are in the aviation training pipeline, Marine Corps officials say.

There has been a push to open more jobs for women in all branches of the service since women served throughout the combat zone during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

In April 1993, then-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin lifted the ban on women serving as pilots of combat aircraft or on fighting ships. Women may serve in all but what are generally called ground combat troops.

Deal earned her pilot's license as a flying major at Ohio's Kent State University. When Aspin's ruling came down, she had already been in the Marines, training to be an air-traffic controller. She still has the newspaper story that marked the day her world changed.

Her recruiting officer had had her take a flight aptitude test for Marine flight school soon after she joined in 1991--just in case. But she had never believed it would be possible.

Deal joined the military despite her father discouraging her and her three sisters from choosing it as a career.

"I was in the service myself," said Richard Deal, a retired Marine and military policeman, "and it's no place for my daughters. But once she was in, we supported her."

Then there was Tailhook.

More than 80 women, including several Navy pilots, had been sexually harassed or assaulted during a drunken September 1991 Tailhook Assn. convention for military aviators in Las Vegas.

Initially there was no government investigation, despite Navy helicopter Capt. Paula Coughlin's formal complaint of being assaulted by Navy and Marine Corps pilots, some of whom Coughlin knew by name.

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