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Personal Essays

Fly Girl

Even if you grow up crushing on the jets in Top Gun—and not Tom Cruise—it can be tough to preserve a dream of defending your country from a plane. But some girls do.

"With a woman's determination, Lorena Craig takes over a man-size job, Corpus Christi, Texas." Credit: Howard R. Hollem, Farm Security Administration, Office of War Information.

I saw Top Gun for the first time sitting on the sticky concrete floor in front of the front row of an oversold movie theater one afternoon in June 1986. I don’t think seeing the movie was my idea—at nine, I was a little too young to have been very aware of the prevailing mania for Tom Cruise, and my tastes ran more toward The Goonies, Spies Like Us, and Short Circuit than some military drama about hotshot naval aviators—but I went back to see it three more times before it closed.

Boys were just starting to matter to me in 1986, but Top Gun, for me, was about not Tom Cruise but Kelly McGillis. Her Charlie Blackwood was beautiful and smart and, most importantly, nobody but nobody got away with condescending to her. She seemed to be the perfect distillation of the three women I looked up to most in the world: Sally Ride, Geraldine Ferraro, and Madonna. I wasn’t rooting for her to live happily ever after with Tom Cruise so much as I was hoping she could get Tom Cruise’s job. For all the star power, Top Gun was first and foremost a love letter to the F-14.

Twenty-seven years later, the flight scenes are still impressive. What strikes me now is how long the camera lingers on the gestures of the cool, urgent, precise crew on the carrier deck, on the minute pitches and yaws of the planes in the air, on the clouds and sea and land unspooling past. The dogfights seem almost leisurely, taking twice or three times as long to unfold as they would in a modern movie. There’s no CGI, no super-fast cuts to needlessly quicken the blood. It’s exciting because flying a fighter jet is exciting. As over-the-top as the rest of the movie is, the flying feels very real. And though I did not even know how to ride a bike in 1986, I thought, “I could do that.”

I must have said so to my parents, because they were the ones to break the news to me that women were not allowed to be fighter pilots. Men naturally want to protect women, my dad said. If women were allowed in combat, the men might not be able to concentrate on their mission as well.

There’s no CGI, no super-fast cuts to needlessly quicken the blood. It’s exciting because flying a fighter jet is exciting. Though I did not even know how to ride a bike in 1986, I thought, “I could do that.”

“That’s stupid,” I said, and decided I would be the first.

It’s tempting now to look back on the pre-irony ’80s as a more innocent time, but it really wasn’t. In the year leading up to Top Gun’s release, Reagan and Gorbachev had their first summit to address nuclear proliferation, Challenger blew up, Mir was launched, a coup rattled the government of the Philippines (I remember my family watching footage of the fighting on the news, and my parents having a quiet conversation, and then my father placing an international call to a missionary friend in Manila who was refusing to leave. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” my dad asked, in the sharp voice he used to reprimand my sister and me. “Dad!” I hissed, sitting next to him. “You can’t say ‘hell’ to Christians!”), Chernobyl melted down, apartheid was still roaring through South Africa, there were hostages in Lebanon, I cleaned my plate every night because children were starving in Ethiopia, and so many planes in Europe had been hijacked recently that my parents prepped my sister and me for the possibility before a flight to London.

By the summer of 1986, then, it was very easy for a little girl with a big imagination and an addiction to the evening news to believe that the world was one crack away from total destruction. Flying a fighter jet to defend my country against that destruction seemed like a perfectly reasonable goal.

That dream survived for another five years, an anomalous bubble in a life otherwise filled with books, cheerleading and swim practice, summer camp, first crushes, bar and bat mitzvahs, an unhealthy obsession with Benetton. In the world beyond middle school, the Soviet Union began to break up. The Berlin Wall fell on my 13th birthday. Desert Storm came and went.

Nevertheless, like a baby prairie dog memorizing the difference in the silhouettes of harmless geese and birds of prey, I learned the shape of every American jet and several Soviet ones (well enough that I later recognized the jets patrolling over Manhattan the morning of 9/11 as F-15s and knew I was safe). I read biographies of women warriors like Boadicea and Joan of Arc. I wrote my school research papers on women in battle and aviation during World War I. On an eighth-grade class trip to Washington, D.C., I spent an entire gleeful day at the Air and Space Museum. I bought a five-foot-wide poster of an F-14 from the gift shop and hung it in my bedroom. I also pasted glow-in-the-dark stars in constellations all over my ceiling, because although the military wouldn’t let women become fighter pilots at the time, they could become astronauts, and it seemed like an acceptable fallback.

In 1992, I went back to Washington for a family vacation. I was a freshman in high school and really too young to be looking at colleges, but I persuaded my parents to drive me up to Annapolis so I could tour the Naval Academy anyway. They were skeptical, but indulged me. I think my dad mostly hoped it would scare me away from the military for good. My mom, though, was a little psyched by the idea. Both of her parents, her brother, and most of her cousins, uncles, and even a few aunts had served, and I think if things with my dad had gone differently, she might have signed up for a hitch herself. Why not her daughter, too?

What I ended up not being able to stomach was the condescending look on the recruiter’s face when I told him I wanted to be a fighter pilot.

It was maybe six months after the news broke about Tailhook, the annual naval aviation conference in Las Vegas where at least 80 women (and a few men) were reported to have been sexually assaulted or harassed, and I was the only girl on the tour. But that didn’t bother me. Nor, as a varsity swimmer, was I put off by the physical demands of a midshipman’s life. What I ended up not being able to stomach was the condescending look on the recruiter’s face when I told him I wanted to be a fighter pilot. He suggested I would make a good public affairs officer. I couldn’t get out of that office fast enough.

“There’s always the Coast Guard,” my mom reminded me on that dejected walk back to the car. The Coast Guard, in which my grandfather had served for 25 years as a helicopter pilot, was fully integrated, and rescuing capsized boaters and interdicting drugs, was brave and necessary work. And I would be able to fly.

But I was not interested. I had never taken no for an answer that quickly in my life, and I was so surprised and embarrassed about it that I never wanted to speak of it again. I suspect now that I was already starting to back down—not from being a pilot, exactly, but from my decision to be one. It was hard to admit that my dream was no longer as clear as it had been, that I was starting to want other things from my life, and that I didn’t know how to begin packing this thing away and start over, so I let the recruiter do it for me. I was 14 and this was America, the land of reinvention. I just hadn’t planned on reinventing so soon.

When I got home, I took the poster down. My next eye exam showed that I was 20/70 in my right eye—too nearsighted for flight school—and that was that. I dropped sports in favor of theater, I took a job at a bookstore. The closest I ever got to the military was buying a pair of real combat boots that I wore to backroom punk shows at Lucy’s Record Shop. I went to college and majored in English.

Meanwhile, in 1994, Kara Hultgreen, a Navy aviator who flew a surveillance plane out of Key West, became the first female fighter pilot assigned to an aircraft carrier. A few months later, she died in a training accident that was determined to be due, at least in part, to pilot error. The people who paid attention to this kind of thing began to wonder if the Navy was pushing through unqualified women in order to rehabilitate its image after Tailhook. Then later that year, Congress ratified the combat exclusion policy, formalizing the military’s de-facto ban on women from serving in ground combat. They could still fly, but I and my glasses could not.

The combat exclusion policy was finally lifted last week, after 19 years, although it will probably take several more years to work out all the details. Watching the wars unfold in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past decade, anyone could be forgiven for forgetting that it even still existed. About 150 servicewomen have died in action in Iraq and Afghanistan since the wars began, and more than 800 have been wounded in action, among them POW Jessica Lynch and Illinois Rep. Tammy Duckworth.

The Air Force and Navy have been integrating pretty steadily since the ’90s, with only a few positions closed to women—mostly special forces, which may never fully integrate because of the tremendous physical demands required of such missions. Last year the Army began considering allowing women to attend its elite Army Ranger School. Even on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army and Marines have attached women to combat units—as medics, or to facilitate communication and perform searches on female civilians whose culture discourages women from interacting with unrelated men. Last year the Army even unveiled body armor designed for women. So it seems to me that the ban has been formally lifted only to avoid it being informally ignored into oblivion. Still, it’s nice to make it official.

A few years ago I was flying home from visiting a friend over Labor Day weekend and found my plane entirely full of young soldiers heading back to base after a long weekend off with their families. The girl sitting next to me looked to be about 18 or 19, skinny and small, and she looked even younger sitting with her feet propped up on her rucksack in the aisle, elbows propped on her knees, scrolling through the texts on her pink phone while we waited for the plane to take off. Then she popped in her earbuds and slept for the entire flight. It occurred to me that she would have been about nine years old when this war started, when she saw the planes fly into the towers on TV, and first realized that this world needed help. Unlike me, she held on to the idea and saw it through. I wonder if she’s still in the service now, and what the lifting of the combat ban will mean for her. Maybe nothing, if she likes what’s she’s doing. But it could mean everything. She has a lot more choices now. She could finally be eligible for the kind of experience and leadership training she would need to reach the highest levels of command. I am excited for her, and for all the women who serve. I can’t wait to see what they can do.

Back here, in the civilian world, Top Gun is being re-released on IMAX next month. This time I’ll snag one of the nice stadium seats, thank you very much—and I have this fantasy that, as I’m walking out, I’ll overhear a little girl gushing about the movie to her parents. “Could I do that when I grow up?” she might ask. And her parents will smile, and say, “Sure.”

biopic

TMN Editor Liz Entman Harper has lived in St. Louis, New York, and Nashville. She sweats the small stuff, like hyphens and commas, and has a day job, but won’t bore you with the details. More by Liz Entman Harper