Portraits of Lady Pilots
By: Emma Comery Illustrations by: Jarred Schuetze
From Shoreline Boulevard to sandy Padre Island, airplane propellers hum the song of the Corpus Christi skies. Home to Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, which produces about 400 new aviators each year, our city by the sea is where many aviation careers take off – literally. This is where Former President George H.W. Bush received his wings, where the iconic Blue Angels once called home. After graduating from flight school in Corpus, many young pilots spend eight to 20 years flying for the military before launching second careers as commercial pilots. While only 6 percent of commercial pilots are female, there’s a steady increase in the number of women taking to the skies, and many are training and flying right here in our own backyard.
So, how does a pilot get her start? “When I was 12, the Blue Angels flew over my house,” Lieutenant Carie Boothe remembers over caffeine at Coffee Waves. “That was a showstopper. I decided right then that I was going to the Naval Academy. In my family, we make decisions, and it happens.”
This isn’t just big talk. Admission into the Naval Academy is highly competitive, requiring a nomination from a congressperson or senator. Boothe was nominated by her congressman and both her senators. The Navy set high standards; Boothe went higher.
In flight school, she hoped for jets, but when the Navy assigned her an SH-60 Romeo Seahawk, a helicopter, she says, “It was the thing I didn’t want that turned out to be the most amazing.”
Now, as an instructor at NAS CCAD, she trains young aviators in the Texas T-6, a sporty two-seater plane with a no-nonsense ejection seat. She’ll spend three years in Corpus, and she plans to hit up her favorites – Executive Surf Club and the Lexington – a lot. “I learned to two-step at The Dirty Bird,” she admits, a little shameful, a little proud.
Easy-going and convivial, Boothe makes friends everywhere she goes, and she has a healthy outlook on work and relationships. “Military life requires all of you,” she says, matter-of-factly. “If these two worlds don’t collide, the military life will suffocate you and the personal life will suffer.” Boothe is determined not to let that happen. “Someone once explained work to me as the expression of the love by which you are loved. In the 10 percent of time you get to spend with your loved ones, the love you receive from them becomes incarnate in your work.”
Like Boothe, Lieutenant Amanda Lowery Kemper graduated from the Naval Academy, where she felt empowered early on as Company Commander for 150 students.
Also like Boothe, Kemper began as a helo pilot before transitioning to the T-6. Helicopters, which she says are “like a wonkavator,” took her on multiple tours and deployments across the eastern hemisphere.
But for now, she’s staying put (no deployments) in Corpus, which she loves for the active downtown and easy access to nature. Better yet, her husband is stationed at NAS Kingsville. The couple spent much of their first year of marriage apart while Kemper was deployed. “Anyone with a job has to make certain sacrifices,” she says. “I’ve been fortunate to have time with Greg here. We have two dogs, we bought a house. To have that stability here…to reconnect…” It’s beyond words.
As she tells a story about a particular role model at the Academy, she could almost be describing herself. “Commander Overstreet was one of those women you see and think, ‘I want to be like her.’ She had command authority without being harsh.” One of the first female pilots to fly an E2 Hawkeye and a mother of two in a time when the flying/parenting balance was a little trickier, Overstreet was an outspoken proponent for the Career Intermission Program, which worked to make family life easier for Navy personnel. For Kemper, Overstreet was proof that she didn’t have to choose between flying and family. With a little flexibility, she could have it all.
Whether they realize it or not, women like Boothe and Kemper have come full circle to serve as role models for the next generation of female pilots – pilots like Lieutenant Junior Grade Allyson Strachan, who informs me that the number of women currently in flight school is higher than ever before. “That matters to me,” she says definitively.
Strachan has spent a year in Corpus mastering the T-6. Her first solo flight was “exhilarating” and “a confidence builder.” She sounds like a woman in love. “I was doing something I never thought I could do. But in the Navy, it’s crawl, walk, run, and then you’re soloing.”
Strachan didn’t always think she could be a pilot. “I just couldn’t see myself in that role,” she explains. As captain of the Naval Academy ice hockey team and a George J. Mitchell Scholarship winner, she’s underselling herself. But many of her mentors were pilots, and she says, “Your mindset changes when you meet someone who’s done it.”
In flight school, she made the top grades necessary to pursue a jet track. Soon she’ll leave Corpus, and admits being sad to leave. “I didn’t know what to expect when I came to Corpus, but I love it.” (She’s mildly obsessed with Turner’s Gardenland.)
Strachan doesn’t take her chance to be a jet pilot for granted. “A lot of women before me had the courage and personality to do things without influences, without help, without exposure. But a key part of all the decisions I’ve made in life has been exposure to other women and their decisions and experiences. It matters that the women before me were trailblazers, that they turned around and said, ‘Hey, you can do this, too.’”
Over 100 years after the first woman took flight, pilots like Boothe, Kemper, and Strachan continue the pioneering effort, reminding us how easily one moment, conversation, or person can change the trajectory of our lives for the better. So, whatever your dreams, prepare for takeoff.