by Logan Walker
Imperfect vision and hydrophobia might seem like daunting obstacles to overcome when training to fly with the Coast Guard but as history has shown, LT Jeanine McIntosh-Menze is not a woman to be easily discouraged. Although she made history as the first black woman to become a Coast Guard aviator, Menze’s path to success was neither direct nor easy.
Born in Jamaica in 1979, she spent time living in Kingston and Canada before relocating with her family to South Florida at 16. It was years earlier during her childhood in the Jamaican city of Portmore that Menze first became fascinated with flying as she watched planes shoot across the sky. “I used to think it was really funny because when I heard family was coming, I wanted to go to the airport not to see my family but to be at the airport,” she recalls.
Menze's interest in flying persisted through high school when, nearing graduation, a counselor pointed her toward a career as a flight attendant. Menze also considered joining the Air Force, but eventually decided that neither option suited her, settling instead on international business. “I figured if the pilot thing didn’t work out, if I do international business, I’d have to fly a lot” she recalls, adding lightly “as a passenger, I was committed to traveling.”
The urge to fly lingered in Menze, who began to take fixed-wing flying lessons while studying for her bachelor’s degree. After earning her degree in International Business at Florida International University, she decided definitively to begin a career in the sky, enrolling in flight lessons at the North Perry Airport in Pembroke Pines. It wasn’t long before Menze found work as a flight instructor at Miami’s Opa-Locka Airport, where she met two Coast Guard Flight Mechanics who sparked her interest in becoming a member of the Coast Guard herself. Before a year had passed, she was accepted for training at the Coast Guard Officer Candidate School and following her graduation in 2003, officially joined the Coast Guard. Two years later, Menze entered Coast Guard Aviation training at the Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi, Texas, where she received lessons in flight patterns, instruments, and prepped for missions.
Menze's perseverance throughout her training pushed her through tremendous difficulties; she eventually surmounted her water-based fears and underwent laser eye surgery to correct her vision. As she explained, "Conquering so many personal struggles prepared me for the mental drive necessary to complete the extremely challenging training regimen." On June 24, 2005, Menze received her wings and secured her place in Coast Guard history.
LT Menze was assigned to the HC-130 Hercules. She took part in rescue efforts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, responded to the catastrophic earthquake that shook Haiti in 2010, and has traveled on assignment to locations like Hawaii, Florida, and Alaska, where she is currently deployed and lives with her Coast Guard pilot husband and their daughter.
In a notable 2012 incident, Menze and her crew were called to assist the fishing vessel Kimberly, which strong winds had caused to run aground. While coordinating rescue and communications above the violent Alaskan waters, Menze received a mayday call from another sinking ship, the Heritage, which needed immediate assistance 30 miles to the south. In her own words, “To sit there in the aircraft at altitude and hear someone on the radio saying ‘mayday, mayday, mayday. This is the Heritage. We’re going down, we’re taking on water…’ it was like…this is what we do. I’m trained to help this person…Moments like this in my opinion make it all worth it.”
While Menze maintains that being a woman who has a groundbreaking role in aviation is just a fringe benefit of doing what she loves, the pilot also acknowledges her happiness at being able to help change the way aviators and their profession is viewed.
“When I was a kid, I would go to all these airports and see men in uniforms walking in the airport or in the cockpit. Even on television or aviation-type toys, you would see two guys sitting on the flight deck…that is the coolest part of being a female aviator no matter if it’s Coast Guard or civilian…We’re the change - the past, current and the future aviators. All the women in aviation are key because we are changing the demographics, changing the culture and industry. We’re changing history.”
Menze’s achievements have inspired others including LTJG La'Shanda Holmes, the first black female helicopter pilot in the Coast Guard.
“Jeanine just seemed like she had it all. She just inspired me to take that risk in something that I’d never thought about in my life. I never looked at a plane and thought I wanted to fly. It was like a bulb went off and shifted my way of thinking of what was possible for me, just by seeing her.”
It’s not unlikely that Menze, and even Holmes herself, will continue to inspire new generations of racially diverse women to take their place in the cockpit.