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Right Place, Right Time

She's a country girl at heart--who just happens to be the Marines' first female pilot. She says she's no big deal. But kids and servicemen, bosses and the media say otherwise.

May 16, 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--the Super Stallion CH-53E--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.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 17, 1996 Home Edition Life & Style Part E Page 2 View Desk 1 inches; 19 words Type of Material: Correction
Marine pilot--The first name of 1st Lt. Sarah Deal's fiance was wrong in a photo caption in Thursday's Life & Style. He is Phil Burrow.

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

Although Deal understands and accepts the fan mail and attention 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 hopes 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' stereos, 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, which Deal's supervisor expects her to achieve during a six-month tour she just began in Okinawa.

While one can sense that her dreams are coming true, it has not always been 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. Less 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.

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 was already 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 her take an aptitude test for Marine flight school soon after she joined in 1991--just in case. But she never believed being a pilot was possible.

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

"I was in the service myself," says 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, were sexually harassed or assaulted during a drunken September 1991 Tailhook Assn. convention for military aviators in Las Vegas.

"That was awful scary when it came about," her father says. "Not a day goes by, no, actually, not an hour goes by, that I don't worry about it."

His daughter expresses less concern. "It's just another part of society," she says of sexual harassment. "I don't know; it happens. It just happened on a larger scale because the military is a big place."

Even as a young girl, Deal knew she wanted to be a pilot. She remembers as an 8- or 9-year-old gazing out at the airfield behind the family barn, where remote-control planes were flown.

*

When she finally took her first real plane ride, she was 10 and on vacation. With all the Deals on board, the family viewed the aftermath of the Mt. St. Helens volcano explosion. She felt "a natural high" that has never faded. By 18, she was working toward her private pilot's license.

Not believing she would ever be allowed to fly for the Marines, Deal set her sights on flying for a commercial airline or perhaps becoming an air-traffic controller.

She enrolled at Kent State and earned money for expenses by fueling, de-icing, taxiing and parking planes at the neighboring airport.

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