It is one of the hardest aircraft to fly, soaring at altitudes where a change of just a few knots could mean an over-speed or a stall, and landing it is an art form all in itself. The 60 year old U-2 Dragon Lady program has been a male dominated one, with just eight women being qualified to fly it, but never an African American woman, until Merryl Tengesdal came along.
Lt. Col. Merryl Tengesdal's story is far from ordinary. She grew up in a rough neighborhood where drugs and crime were prevalent career paths for impressionable youth. She excelled in high school, despite the challenges, and then attended University of New Haven, where she graduated with a Bachelors of Science in electrical engineering. From there she joined the Navy via Officer Candidate School, after which she attended flight school in Pensacola. Lt. Col Tengesdal reminisces:
"During the mid-90s, the military had just begun opening more roles for women in combat. Combat pilot was one of the opportunities. There was also a massive push for more minorities into the pilot training program. I remember when I attended flight training, it was racially diverse, which I was surprised to see. It was a good feeling. However, I could tell there were a few people who did not appreciate us."
After receiving her wings of gold she was assigned the SH-60B Seahawk, the US Navy's go-to multi-role anti-submarine warfare chopper, a derivative of the Army's UH-60 Black Hawk. After years of flying off of Navy ships, sometimes in treacherous conditions, Col Tengesdal set her sights even higher. She went on to become an instructor pilot on the T-6 Texan II for the Joint Student Undergraduate Pilot Training program at Moody AFB, under which she trained both Navy and Air Force pilots. Here her incredible fixed-wing flying abilities came into focus.
In 2004 she was cross-commissioned into the USAF, a fairly rare occurrence in itself, and joined the elite U-2 Dragon Lady spy plane program. Within a year she had passed the incredibly challenging U-2 conversion syllabus and was soon flying combat missions around the globe. She has since gone on to get her Masters Degree in aeronautical science, she became the commander of the U-2 test detachment at Plant 42, served at NORAD, is now the 9th Reconnaissance Wing Inspector General and was recently selected for promotion to the rank of full Colonel.
Her executive office remains located 70,000 feet in the air and it has the best view of any in the world, which includes the curvature of the earth, inky black sky and occasionally even shooting stars that fly underneath her.
"I have seen the curvature of the earth. I have seen sights most people will never see. Flying at more than 70,000 ft is really beautiful and peaceful. I enjoy the quiet, hearing myself breathing, and the hum of the engine. I never take it for granted."
Throughout her career, the Colonel has flown some 3,400 flight hours, with over 330 combat hours, with that time spread across the T-34C, TH-57B/C, SH-60B, T-6A, T-38A/B/C and finally the U-2S:
"I'm incredibly fortunate. It's surreal. From my time in the Navy to my experiences in the U-2 program, I like to think I've played a part in helping some of the troops on the ground get home safely."
And when it comes to her trail-blazing role as the USAF's highest flying African American combat aviator:
"It is very uncommon, even for this day and age, to be a female pilot, much less a female minority... The Air Force has always been on the forefront of breaking aviation and racial barriers. I am extremely proud of being the first black female U-2 pilot in history... My career field is very male dominated, but I hope I have helped other females with similar aspirations to realize this is an option. I think we are all limitless as to what we can accomplish."
Here's to you Colonel Tengedal, one of the few U-2 Dragon Lady's true Dragon Ladies!
Source/images via: USAF
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com