Coast Guard Women Aviators Who Shattered The Glass Ceiling

by Jess Clackum & Logan Walker

 

CDR Janna Lambine

Lambine and her father Naval Flight Training graduation day, 1977.

Lambine and her father Naval Flight Training graduation day, 1977.

In the majority of cases, to be the first at something requires a courage, tenacity, and initiative of unusual strength. This can certainly be said of Janna Lambine. As the Coast Guard’s first woman pilot, her actions set an important precedent for women in the military and the workforce. When Lambine attended the Coast Guard Officer Candidate School in Yorktown, Virginia in the 1970’s  women were just being integrated into the organization. Public pressures for female inclusion as well as lobbying from women within the organization like Vivien Crea (who would later become a Coast Guard Vice Admiral) contributed in turning the tide toward the acceptance of women in the aviation field. Admiral James Gracey, Commandant of the Coast Guard, was on their side too, believing that 51 percent of America’s population should no longer be prevented from contributing whatever talents they might have to the field of aviation.

For Lambine, who had applied for flight training while in OCS, the call that would change her life came abruptly.  Vivien Crea, who had also applied for aviation training and would be right behind Lambine as the second woman to enter flight school, recalled a phone conversation which was likely similar to the one Lambine received; “I suddenly got this frantic phone call while up at the Coast Guard Academy, ‘Get your physical updated; women are going to be considered this time!’”

Consequently, Lambine graduated from Naval Aviation Training at the Whiting Field Naval Air Station in Milton, Florida on March 4, 1977 and her first assignment was piloting helicopters at Air Station Astoria in Oregon. There, her duties included flying search and rescue missions and pollution/fisheries surveillance. She retired as a Commander from the Coast Guard Reserve in 2000.

Lambine’s initial steps through the barrier separating the sexes in the field of Coast Guard aviation has been followed by many outstanding women aviators who, while forging their own paths, continue to set an example for the women who follow in their footsteps.


LT Colleen Cain

LT Colleen Cain, USCG. First female HH-52A helicopter pilot. Portrait by Leonora Rae Smith.

LT Colleen Cain, USCG. First female HH-52A helicopter pilot. Portrait by Leonora Rae Smith.

LT Colleen Cain earned her commission from OCS in 1976, a private pilot’s license in 1977 and was selected for flight training the following year. She became a Coast Guard aviator in June 1979.

Cain, who made history when she became the first female USCG pilot to fly the HH-52 and qualify as co-pilot, first pilot and aircraft commander, received the Coast Guard Achievement Medal in 1980, following her participation in the rescue of a three-year old boy who had fallen into the water during a fishing trip.

In the early morning hours of January 7, 1982, LT Cain, CDR Horton “Buzz” Johnson, and Petty Officer 2nd Class David Thompson departed Air Station Barbers Point in extremely rough weather in response to a distress call from a sinking fishing vessel with seven persons on board.

Just after 5 a.m., communication with the CG1420 was lost. Nine hours later, the wreckage of the Sikorsky HH-52A Seaguard was discovered, having crashed into the side of a mountain in Molokai’s Wailua Valley. There were no survivors.

In 1985, the USCG Reserve Training Center in Yorktown, Virginia honored the memory of LT Cain by naming its 100-room residence hall “Cain Hall”. 

LT Cain and her crew gave their own lives to save others. Their sacrifice and service to our nation will never be forgotten.


Captain Patricia McFetridge

Days past: LTJG Patricia McFetridge and fellow aviator LT Guth.

Days past: LTJG Patricia McFetridge and fellow aviator LT Guth.

Growing up in Northern California, Patricia McFetridge never imagined that she would embark on the kind of career that would culminate in a search and rescue case above the violently storm beset waters of Alaska, one that would earn her an acknowledgment of extraordinary heroism as well as the Distinguished Flying Cross, making her the first female Coast Guard aviator to achieve the coveted award. McFetridge’s father, a WWII naval aviator and her mother, an Army Air Corps Flight Nurse, instilled in her an early appreciation for the world of military aviation.

In 1982 McFetridge, who has a Bachelors degree in Aeronautical Operations and Masters in Quality Systems Management, joined the Army for Flight Training at Fort Rucker,. She flew the UH-1H "Huey" and OH-58 "Kiowa" in South Korea and Fort Hood and for the Utah Army National Guard.

The catalyst for McFetridge’s next career move to the Coast Guard arrived when the her father referred her to an ad in the Navy Times featuring the Direct Commission Aviator Program. One thing led to another, and in 1989, she was selected and made an official member of the Coast Guard.

It was just a year later that McFetridge would find herself in the midst of a highly dangerous and much-lauded rescue mission in Kodiak, Alaska. In response to distress signals, McFetridge and her crew flew out 30 miles from their location in Cordova, Alaska to rescue three men from the fishing vessel Janice N. As they located the burning vessel on the thirty foot waters of the Bering Sea, a bitter storm with winds upwards of 70 knots raged around them. After two hours, running low on fuel and struggling with obstructed visibility, McFetridge and her crew saw the three men clinging to a life raft. They managed to haul the survivors up, with McFetridge orchestrating the operation and communicating commands to CDR Michael Estes who kept the helicopter hovering for 40 minutes under the harrowing weather. After the successful rescue it was McFetridge who would pilot the aircraft back.

CAPT McFetridge at USCG Air Station Borinquen where she served as Commanding Officer from 2013-2016.

CAPT McFetridge at USCG Air Station Borinquen where she served as Commanding Officer from 2013-2016.

From 2013 to 2016, Captain McFetridge served as Commanding Officer at Air Station Borinquen in Puerto Rico, a unit which provides search and rescue aid, homeland security patrols, and law enforcement for 1.3 miles of the Caribbean. She recently handed her command over to Captain Keith Overstreet and is headed for Washington, D.C. where she will serve as the Coast Guard Liaison to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Reflecting on her own career and advice for aspiring aviators, she says, “lead by personal example and take responsibility for the welfare of your personnel and their families. Be passionate about your job and never let on that you are having a bad day in the office; after all, we are getting paid to fly and save lives in the process- there is no better job than that!”


LCDR Margaret Sidonie Sansom Bosin

LCDR Sidonie Sansom Bosin (middle), Aviation Flight Mechanic Dani Keating (left) & Lt. Kelly Larson (right), were the Coast Guard's first all-female helicopter flight crew in Antarctica. (Photo: Kristan Hutchison)

LCDR Sidonie Sansom Bosin (middle), Aviation Flight Mechanic Dani Keating (left) & Lt. Kelly Larson (right), were the Coast Guard's first all-female helicopter flight crew in Antarctica. (Photo: Kristan Hutchison)

As a 2003 honoree for the First Flight Centennial Commission’s 100 Heroes Committee, a title which places her in the “Top 100 Aviators of All Time”, Sansom might be expected to have had a very impressive career, and indeed such expectations would be correct. Sansom, a graduate of Rhodes College who attended Navy Flight Training at NAS Pensacola and Whiting Field was the first female Coast Guard Aviation Officer to be put in charge of air crews sent to the vessel Polar Sea in the Antarctic. She also has the distinction of being the first in the Coast Guard to command an all-female flight crew.  As Senior Aviator/Division Chief in Polar Operations Division, Sansom made multiple trips to the Antarctic, a particularly hostile and difficult environment to pilot aircraft. The sudden changes in weather which can dramatically affect visibility among other things make flying especially treacherous, marking out her competency in such weather as a particularly impressive feat. “…It’s like flying in a ping pong ball” she once said, adding, “There’s no horizon for a reference so you're just kind of threading your way back the way you came, if the weather allows. And hoping when you get back around the corner it’s going to be better than what you left.”

Inspired to fly by figures like Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Chuck Yeager, Sansom gravitated toward a career in the Coast Guard because of the opportunity it would give her to save lives and participate in humanitarian pursuits. Despite the uniqueness of her position as a groundbreaking female, she never experienced sexism or career barriers during her service, noting that another part of her initial attraction to the organization was their open attitude toward women and their career options.

Sansom once singled out an incident in what must be a long list of heart-racing missions as a favorite in her career; on a nocturnal mission in the Caribbean, she and her crew sought to save a family that was stranded on a sinking sailboat. After a drawn-out and exhausting effort to rescue two grandparents and their six year old grandson, she and her crew succeeded in extracting all but the elderly man from the wrecked vessel. Seemingly reluctant to help in his own rescue, the man eventually drop-rolled into the Coast Guard’s rescue basket, dunking under water before surfacing again to be pulled up to safety. It was only then that Sansom realized that he had been accompanied by two dogs the whole time. “He didn’t know that we were all dog lovers and there would be no way we’d leave the dogs behind.” Such commitment to ensuring the safety of all lives is part of what makes her such an extraordinary aviator and leader.

(Photo: Port of San Francisco)

(Photo: Port of San Francisco)

After 22 years in the Coast Guard, Sansom moved on to serve as Emergency Planner with the San Francisco International Airport, where she designed methods of testing emergency response and urgent threats. 

 Since 2005, she has served as the Director of Homeland Security at the Port of San Francisco. She is responsible for developing, directing, and implementing a comprehensive homeland security program as well as preparation for and in response to emergencies and disasters.

Janna Lambine, Colleen Cain, Patricia McFetridge, and Sidonie Sansom are just a few of the many women whose courage and fierce determination paved the way for other women to serve--not just in aviation--but in all areas of the Coast Guard. They refused to sit idly by and let their futures be determined for them, instead they took control of their own destinies, forged their own paths, and made their mark on history. Their stories and the stories of all the Coast Guard women who have followed the call to duty will inspire future generations of women into brave and honorable service!

Semper Paratus!