by Shannon Huffman Polson
Jane O’Dea was born to a father who was a World War II pilot and a mother who was a WWII Supply Corps Officer. She grew up in the Iowa countryside outside of Ames and Des Moines, graduating from Iowa State University in 1972.
“I always wanted to be a pilot,” she says, “but little girls didn’t dream of being pilots in the 60s.” Still, she admits that “I was a rough and tumble girl growing up.” Both of her parents raised O’Dea and her sister to be tough in the face of the neighborhood bullies, and she attributes that to the grit she developed and brought with her through her life.
O'Dea planned to go to law school, but when she heard that the Navy might open flight training to women, she signed up right away. She was sent to Newport Rhode Island for Women’s Officer School (WOS).
“I figured if I wasn’t selected (for flight training), I’d get out of Iowa for a few years and finance law school through the GI Bill,” she says. Four women, including O’Dea, were selected for flight training. Three graduated, earning their wings in Corpus Christi, Texas in 1974.
“My dad dressed up in his service dress blues which I had never seen him wear,” she remembers. “He was the 1st man to pin wings on his daughter. That was a special day for both of us.”
Despite earning their wings, the women pilots were not allowed to carrier qualify (CQ) as part of their training, though it was required of all the male pilots. This exclusion wasn't the only indication of challenges ahead. O’Dea was warned another way as well in WOS.
“The commander, a pioneer in her own right, was excited for me but cautioned me to be careful saying “The Navy does not reward pioneers.”” She was right,” O'Dea says.
As a Lieutenant Junior Grade in 1976, O’Dea was flying C-130s when she discovered she was pregnant, prompting a two page article in the local paper. Despite the headline, “Rota’s first pregnant pilot continues as ‘a competitive asset to squadron’” O’Dea hints that things were not nearly as smooth as the article attempts to illustrate, though the extent of information provided on her circumstance in the published article alone suggests difficulty. It did give her the opportunity even in the 1970s to speak up about the balance of military duties and family:
“I hope career-type women of the Navy will be a thing of the future. Childbirth is a natural thing and all organizations employing women will have to learn to deal with it.”
Her commander is quoted as saying “her pregnancy has probably complicated her personal and career life more than it has made problems for me.”
When O'Dea was halfway through her career, as a field grade officer, an unexpected opportunity materialized.
“When I was a Lieutenant Commander I was given the opportunity to carrier qualify on the USS Lexington in a C-1A,” O’Dea says.
It was a big risk. “I already had a perfectly good reputation as a pilot,” O’Dea said. “I risked losing that if I didn’t do so well.”
She knew what she was getting herself into. “I’d been exposed to it enough having been ship’s company for over a year,” she says. “I’d seen the good, the bad and the ugly. I’d watched a cold CAT (catapault) Shot where something happened and the catapult misfired and the plane dribbled off into the ocean. The possibility of a cold CAT was especially scary for the plane I was flying because we didn’t have ejection seats so there was an additional risk.”
She pauses, remembering the cold CAT. “The guy I watched on a cold CAT punched out but he almost died anyway. He landed on the deck of the ship and was almost sucked into the intake of the aircraft waiting to take off behind him. Fortunately several brave sailors jumped onto his parachute and saved him.”
It wasn’t only the danger of a carrier landing itself that worried O’Dea. “I was worried I could let my dad down, too,” she says.
“Did I follow a life long dream? Or should I play it safe and say no, I don’t want to take this risk?”
O’Dea took the risk.
“It was very scary, very intense,” she says.
A normal runway has thousands of feet for takeoff. On the USS Lexington, O’Dea had 200 feet. The first time she went off the ship “I looked back once we were in the air and the ship looked like a postage stamp,” she says.
The carrier landing was the biggest challenge. “You learn to fly the Fresnel Lens,” she says. “There is a row of green lights on either side of a yellow or red light. This is referred to as the meatball. It goes up and down depending on whether you are above or below glideslope. If it turns from yellow to red, you are way below glideslope. When you roll onto final you call “roger, ball,” and your fuel status.”
In order to maximize space on the carrier, the deck was also angled ten degrees to the left. “With a fixed runway you correct for crosswinds but the runway doesn’t move,” O’Dea says, “but on a carrier you have to keep correcting because the runway is drifting away from you and you have to make constant left corrections. It’s the Skipper’s job to keep the wind within ten degrees of the nose of the ship. Carrier landings require you to put your life completely in someone else’s hands.”
Because the USS Lexington was a smaller World War II era carrier with a shorter runway, O’Dea had additional landing requirements.
“We had to do what they call a “blue water cut,” O’Dea says, “bringing our throttles to idle while still over the ocean. I looked down at the water while bringing my throttles to idle, and had to have total faith in that Landing Signal Officer (LSO) on the deck.”
She landed it. “I faced the fear and lived to tell,” she laughs.
What would O’Dea tell new young women leaders today?
“Even after all these years women are still up against tough situations. If they make it to flag rank, it is automatically assumed that they are tokens and they don’t deserve it. They are still harassed at all levels. All the sexual harassment training has done is to drive the resentment underground.”
O’Dea is perplexed at the effort by today’s women officers to save the skirts in uniform.
“I simply don’t understand. All we had were skirts and high heels when I was in the Navy. I and many others fought the battle with the Navy to get us trousers and comfortable shoes.”
She has specific thoughts on careers as well.
“The uniform doesn’t make the person wearing it. Performance is everything. Nothing will be given to you. Unfortunately, you will have to work harder and be good if not better than your male counterparts to prove yourself.”
What does O’Dea think about grit? “Merriam Webster says grit is toughness and courage. There were times in my career that required great mental toughness. I first stuck it out through survival training in the February cold and rain. I flew down the Suez in the Yom Kipper War. I left my two small children to go on deployment for six months. I took off into the sunset in a C-130 only to know that I would still be flying when it rose 12 hours later. Oh, but the stars out over the ocean were incredible!”
Not only can anyone develop grit, but “we are all born with grit. It is a matter of whether or not we want to nurture it.”
O’Dea recognizes different kinds of grit, though, too.
“There is the toughness that pushed the adventurer like I am to embark on a non-traditional career. My sister and I have discussed this. She cannot understand how I was able to do what I did. She has a different kind of grit. She was a flower child of the 60s when I was flying airplanes. We could not have been more different. She became a nurse which I could never have done. It took all the grit I had to change my babies’ diapers. For many years she worked in LA juvenile hall helping troubled teens. She was attacked and had to carry mace with her to protect herself at work. In my mind, that takes a type of grit I don’t have.”
Even so, O’Dea is still facing the fear. The weekend before our conversation, she headed to a wind tunnel to simulate skydiving with her grandchildren.
O’Dea retired in the Navy as a Captain (0-6).
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/.