Celebrating Women’s Day on Yokota Air Base: High Schoolers Conquer the Skies in Remembrance of the First Women Pilots

Photos by Hazel Gray
Photos by Hazel Gray

Celebrating Women’s Day on Yokota Air Base: High Schoolers Conquer the Skies in Remembrance of the First Women Pilots

by Hazel Gray
Stripes Japan

As the sun rises over the majestic peak of Mount Fuji, a cloak of clouds rolls in from the south and shrouds the sky in a drizzly mist. But nothing, not even the rainy weather, can dampen the spirits of over 80 high school students queued up outside the building of the 36th Airlift Squadron. The air is chilly and we bundle even closer into our coats as we stand in anticipation, wondering what the day has in store for us. Upon being admitted into the building, we are each handed an inspirational tee shirt, as well as an informative aviation career pamphlet and a motivational decal. After signing in, we are conducted upstairs to the briefing room, where we are each welcomed with a donut, in which we calmly indulge after finding a seat. The room is bursting at the seams with excited people, mostly other passengers. About half are JROTC cadets and the other half are intrigued students like myself. Although most are young women, some young men are here too, including my brother. We are all looking forward with excitement to learning about the numerous career opportunities in aviation, with our visit/the day/the event culminating in an incentive flight in the mighty C-130J!

Yokota Air Base and 374th Airlift Wing Vice Commander, C-130J pilot Col. Julie Gaulin, opens the briefing with a fascinating speech, in which we are introduced to the legendary courage and perseverance of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs). Our favorite story is that of Mary O’Dean Bishop “Deanie” Parrish, who actively sought out a willing instructor to teach her how to fly. Later in her career, she single-handedly landed a malfunctioning plane (To read more about Deanie and her adventure-filled life, visit here). Our hearts burn intensely with a new passion to achieve great things now in our lives. Other female aviators take turns talking about the different job opportunities related to this C-130J flight squadron. Among them are the loadmasters, the pilots, the intelligence analysts (intel), and the aircraft maintenance crews. Only the pilots and loadmasters routinely fly and meet with other military troops around the world. Intel translates information to plan the flights and missions, and the maintenance cares for the planes when they are not being flown.

We enjoy the well-constructed presentation, but are anxious to move on to the flight! The air crew members sense our excitement and feel the same way. Finally we march out onto the flight line where a bus is waiting for us. We will split into two groups, each to fly on a different plane. My plane’s passengers-to-be board the bus and are driven to the boarding platform. I am stunned by the enormous length and breadth of the flight line! It takes a full eight minutes to drive to our plane! The aircraft systems are revving up when we arrive, and the entire bus is abuzz with anticipation. It takes some time to get all the mechanics up and running, but when all is ready, we are conducted up the steps and through to the cargo hold. We are each handed a pair of ear plugs and a sick bag, just in case. Our ear plugs come in handy right away, as the auxiliary power unit (APU) is excruciatingly loud! The APU is started before the engines as it provides the plane with power to allow the crew to accomplish their preflight tasks. It also serves as a backup source of power in case the main generator malfunctions. The engines start after we are on board—and they are even louder than the APU!

The walls of the plane are lined with retractable seats, and many more can be pulled out if necessary, but we occupy only the seats bordering the aircraft. We sit side by side in two rows, one on either edge of the plane, facing inward. I try to take one more sip of water before we take off, but it is challenging to hold my bottle, or anything else (for that matter?) steady as the revving engines are already causing the plane to rumble violently! The back end of the plane is open while we are settling into our seats, allowing a cool breeze to flow through the cargo hold and soothe our nervously excited spirits. When all is ready, the ramp and cargo door at the tail of the plane close up and we taxi down the runway to initiate the takeoff sequence. All of a sudden, the engines increase their volume from a chugging blare to a whistling scream, and we rapidly gain speed. Then we go faster, and then somehow we go even faster. We can hardly breathe and we feel like we are continuously being shot out of our skin with each second . The thrill is exhilarating as we leave the ground and instantly begin gaining altitude. Seconds later we see the buildings on base shrinking to the size of rocks and the cars beneath us shrinking smaller than ants. Peering around, I see the other passengers exhibiting feelings of everything from anxious fear to sheer delight. A few pull out their sick bags and use them, but they are okay in a minute. I myself feel a bit queasy, but it does not last long.

Before we know it, we have reached cruising altitude and we are allowed to walk around for a few minutes. We stumble around, looking out the windows and investigating the extremely interesting equipment stowed on and about the plane. All too soon we are called back to our seats. Once we are all secured, the back opens up to an illustrious view of Mt. Fuji! The film of clouds creates a magical veil with the hills and sea shining through. The streaks of snow on the mighty mountain and the deep blue ocean shimmering beneath completes the majestic picture.  We fly with the back open for a little longer, then it closes up again and we find ourselves in the dark. After the brilliance of the sun outside, our eyes take some time to adjust to the less lit interior of the cargo hold.

After about an hour and a half of air time, we land back at Yokota Air Base. Soon we are escorted off the plane and back into the squadron building. The squadron kindly provides us with a copious amount of lunch, including barrels of sandwiches and stacks of pizzas. There are also drinks, chips and cookies. We find ourselves extremely hungry all of a sudden, and thankfully help ourselves to the provided food. There is a long while of appreciative munching and sipping before we are satiated.

When we are all at last satisfied, Col. Gaulin steps up to the front and gives us a final farewell with an encouragement to achieve great things in the future, and with a promise for more incentive flights soon! So if you want a chance to fly in the C-130J, keep a lookout for a future incentive flight that you could participate in!

Link to Deanie’s story

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