She's Got Grit: What it takes to be (the first woman) Blue Angel

by Shannon Huffman Polson

U.S. Marine Captain and Blue Angel Katie Higgins (Photo: She's Got Grit)

U.S. Marine Captain and Blue Angel Katie Higgins (Photo: She's Got Grit)

“Ol’ Chesty Puller would be rolling over in his grave if he knew she was a Marine,” Katie Higgins remembers a classmate saying at the Naval Academy when she was selected for the Marine Corps. “If I have to work with her I’d throw a grenade in her tent,” said another.

It’s not hard to imagine that the road to being the first woman Blue Angel pilot would be a hard one. Where does a woman like this come from? What does it take?

A life of service

Katie Higgins knew about the military from growing up as the daughter of a Navy FA-18 pilot, moving with her family every 2–3 years and spending her first two years of high school in Yokosuka, Japan. The military legacy in Higgins’ family was strong. Her paternal great-grandparents had emigrated from Sweden and her grandfather believed in the idea of service as giving back to their new country, serving during WWII, Korea and Vietnam.

“He really instilled in me the idea of a life of service,” Higgins says.

All three men in her father’s family had attended military academies, so Higgins applied to all three, was given her choice, and chose the Navy.

“I’d thought I wanted to be a fighter pilot like my dad,” she says, “but throughout my time at school I fell in love with the Marine Corps. I was so impressed with the caliber of enlisted Marines, and the loyalty, hard work, and dedication of the officers to their subordinates. I wanted to be a part of that organization.”

I talk to Higgins as she is driving to a new duty station with her husband, also a Marine. She has just finished the flight safety course and is six months pregnant with their first child.

“I’m taking command of a small airfield in a non-flying billet which is perfect timing with where we are in our family,” she explains. “Marines are expected to serve in a “ground tour” even as aviators and so she is also meeting her professional requirements. She speaks candidly about her career thus far, and in everything her love of the Marines comes through.

Resistance starts early

Higgins’ initial application for selection as a Marine at the Naval Academy came with resistance, even from classmates she considered her friends. “It was hurtful, mean shit,” she says. “When I went to TBS (The Basic School), I had an Staff Company Commander that told me that the only reason I would survive in the USMC was because “they can teach a monkey to fly.”

Higgins didn’t let pettiness get in her way, but used these experiences to move forward. She qualified as a C-130 pilot, and deployed almost immediately on arrival to her first duty station.

Higgins has much to be proud of in her career as a Marine, from her Marine commission to her selection and performance as the first woman Blue Angel, but like MGen Tracy Garrett, our most recent Grit Profile, she is most proud of her combat deployment.

“I was so excited to have the chance to do what I was trained to do.”

“I was part of the Harvest HAWK mission in Afghanistan where we provided close air support (CAS) for US forces. Being able to employ against the enemy to protect American lives was the best feeling in the world,” she says. It was her first deployment.

Harvest HAWK is a modification to the C-130J that Higgins was qualified to fly, dropping the hose refueling pod on the outboard wing and in its place carrying an M299 quad-mount Hellfire missile launcher. It also carries a dual missile launcher for Griffin missiles.

Code One Magazine tells the story:

“The message received by the battalion watch officer in the operations center was as urgent as it was precise: “Second platoon is in sustained contact. Ground commander is requesting Harvest Hawk for an immediate priority JTAR [Joint Tactical Air Request]. Advise estimated arrival time when able.”

The U.S. Marines taking enemy fire in Afghanistan who sent that message weren’t making a general request for close air support. They weren’t trying to flag down a fighter in the area with a couple of bombs to spare, although any help would have been appreciated. What those ground troops wanted was one specific aircraft overhead to make their problem go away — and make it go away right now.”

Higgins was copilot on the mission.

“When we got the call to stand by for a nine-line (the briefing requesting an engagement), I was like: “Hell yeah, it’s on! We could hear the rounds coming in on the radio,” she remembers, “and then an RPG (rocket propelled grenade). It was definitely an adrenaline rush.”

It was daytime mission, but the cloud deck was at the orbiting altitude for her aircraft, so “I was setting the airplane up, and we had to fly below our usual altitude, avoiding the mountains. It was a really dynamic situation. But when there are guys on the ground, well, failure is not an option.”

She put two hellfire missiles on the target.

“I was so excited to be able to do what I had been trained to do,” she says.

A year later, she was in a bar on base, when a guy walked up to her.

“Hey, you guys shot for us last year,” he said. “I was in the platoon that was pinned down. I recognize your voice.”

“That story still gives me chills,” Higgins says. “Putting a face to those guys, having the opportunity to give people the chance to be alive.”

After Afghanistan, Higgins did a second deployment almost immediately to Uganda, flying the C-130 in support of the Marine Air Ground Task Force in 2014 including support of the embassy evacuation. While she was deployed, she had an unexpected call. One of the Blue Angels who knew about her flying called and suggested she apply to be on the team.

“I was very junior,” Higgins says. “I was just a junior captain, and most of the Blue Angels are senior captains or junior majors, but because I’d done back to back deployments I had the requisite hours and flying requirements.”

Higgins took the prompt, and applied for the Blue Angels, the elite Naval aviation demonstration team.

She applied, attended the required two air shows back to back to understand publicity and travel requirements (“I went to watch the Blue Angels on my return from Uganda before I even went to visit my parents!” she says) and was selected as a finalist.

Even knowing it was common to have a commander tease about the final results, when Higgins went to talk to her commander and he said “You know, you’ll be able to apply when you have a little bit more experience,” her heart sank.

Then he smiled, and said “Congratulations. You made it.”

I was so surprised I yelled “Holy shit!” she remembers.

U.S. Marine Captain and Blue Angel Katie Higgins

Putting on the Blue Suit

She did three months of on the job training before putting on “the blue suit” and flying as a Blue Angel, the United States Navy’s Flight Demonstration Squadron, for the first time in November 2014, serving two years. This meant being on the road 300 days a year to inspire up to 11 million people around the nation.

“It was so cool, she says. That suit is so iconic. The team has been around for 70 years.”

Higgins was the first woman pilot on the team, but “I didn’t fathom the impact my joint the team would have. I was just there to do my job.”

(The first woman assigned served in 1969 as an administrative officer, and today eighteen enlisted women serve in different capacities on the team. At any given time seventeen officer pilots violuntarily serve in the Blue Angels and one hundred enlisted sailors and Marines serve in maintenance and support positions.)

That didn’t make it easy.

“All I heard then was that ‘she’s too junior to fly an aircraft like that’ or that ‘the only reason she was selected was because I was a girl.’ Even some of the Blue Angel wives came up with mean nicknames for me. In the end though, as many mean, jealous people I have faced over the years, that number is just a drop in the bucket compared to the number of awesome supportive, mentoring people I have had the honor of serving with.”

And though she may not have anticipated it, she had a major impact.

“The best part of the Blues was being able to talk to the kids,” she says. “To be able to tell them that even if a girl has never done this before, you can do whatever it is that you want to do. Even talking to the little boys…I tell them that women will never reach full equality until we are fully supported by our brothers and fathers, by the men.”

Captain Higgins in flight. (Photo: She's Got Grit)

Captain Higgins in flight. (Photo: She's Got Grit)

Advice to leaders

“Many of the most influential people in my career were my enlisted Marines that taught me the meaning of leadership. I will forever be grateful for those experiences. The bottom line though, whether its negative or positive opinions you are getting, it matters what you think of yourself and your abilities. Don’t let other people define your self confidence. Be open to constructive criticism because officers should always be looking to better themselves, but if someone is trying to tear you down just to be a jerk, give them the proverbial middle finger and move on with your life.”

“Don’t let other people define your self confidence.”

She’s done that, and learned good lessons for all leaders along the way.

One of them is about the power of a good team.

“The C-130 is a crew served weapon,” Higgins says. “There are two fire control officers in back, the pilot has to flip the (weapon release) consent switch, and there are two guy loading the missiles into the Derringer doors. This teamwork with the Harvest Hawk mission served me well for the Fat Albert mission in the Blue Angels.”

Echoing Karen Baetzel, Higgins recommends new leaders “Seek council from your senior enlisted. They have been in the service almost as long as you have been alive. Have the confidence to make decisions on your own, but there is nothing wrong with going to your GySgt or MSgt and saying “hey I was going to do this, how do you think the Marines will react?” They will respect you as an officer for recognizing them as a source of what you don’t have: experience. There is nothing better than having your senior enlisted looking out for you.”

Another lesson she learned about herself, but also, as a good Marine, taking care of her Marines.

“Mental exhaustion will hit you harder than physical exhaustion. Whether it’s combat stress, complications at home, etc., many type A personalities will hit mental exhaustion long before their bodies give out. Marines don’t quit. They keep taking on responsibilities and don’t want to say when they are overwhelmed or overtasked. It’s up to you as a Marine officer to be on the looking out for signs of mental exhaustion/stress in your enlisted.”

“Mental exhaustion will hit you harder than physical exhaustion.”

For Higgins, grit “is a combination of perseverance, courage, determination and mental toughness. Someone has grit if they can push through even in the face of what seems like an impossible or dangerous situation. I think of those Marines at Belleau Wood or the Chosin Reservoir or even the Monford Point Marines. All three groups faced very different challenges, but all showed grit in the face of insurmountable odds.”

Like Shaye Haver, one of the first women Rangers, Higgins finds deep and abiding strength in her family support system.

“I have an amazing support system in my family. My husband (another Fat Albert pilot in the Blue Angels) is my rock who even when I doubt myself believes in me and pushes me to be better. My parents are unbelievably supportive and examples of unconditional love. Surrounding myself with those type of people gives me strength when I am weak. They allow me to dig deep even in the most difficult circumstances. My grit, my courage, my perseverance, my determination come from them and is for them. I refuse to ever let them down.”

Sounds a lot like earlier Grit Profile women BG Becky Halstead and LTC Tammy Barlette who both have said that quitting is not an option.

Developing grit is possible too, says Higgins.

“If you want to improve your Grit, you must challenge yourself. How you can you learn skills like perseverance, determination, and courage if you live a boring, comfortable life? You must take on situations outside your comfort zone.” Higgins has clearly done that. She’s got grit.

“Take on situations out of your comfort zone.”

What does Higgins think about the Marines’ decision to integrate women into combat ground forces?

“The Marine Corps has a standards,” Higgins said. “And that standard shouldn’t be adjusted. If there’s a woman that can meet that standard and she wants to do the job, well, good on ‘er!”

As for the reaction of today’s Marines, Higgins says “people don’t give this generation of Marines enough credit. They are so smart, so intelligent, so professional. They just want to know you can do the job.”

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Shannon H. Polson is a speaker, author of North of Hope: A Daughter's Arctic Journey, mountain lover, mom and founder of The Grit Project. She is one of the first women to pilot the Apache attack helicopter in the U.S. Army. She is also an Ambassador for FlyGirls the Series. Read more about Shannon at https://medium.com/@ABorderLife/.