Angel Hughes chose the Coast Guard for its mission. The third child of four born to Haitian immigrants in New Jersey, she knew she wanted to fly since a science class in 6th grade.
“I fell in love with astronomy first,” she says, “and then I realized people could go into space, and I wanted to be an astronaut, and I figured I had to be a pilot first.”
It seems like this vision must have been a lot for immigrant parents. Hughes laughs.
“Once my parents realized I was serious, they were really supportive, but I had to figure it out.”
Hughes attended Catholic high school, and stumbled across a program called Eagle Flight, resembling JROTC but focused on aviation. While still in high school, she earned her private pilot’s license, and started looking into flight colleges. After graduation, she enrolled at Jacksonville University.
Hughes had no intention of slowing down. In Jacksonville, she earned her Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) and Certified Flight Instrument Instructor (CFII) ratings, and worked as an instructor while going to school. She graduated in 2008. The economy was down, and pilots couldn’t get work. SO Hughes decided to look at the military.
“The recruiters had offices all lined up next to one another,” she remembers. “I went from one to the next to the next. The Coast Guard had the best mission and the best quality of life. She signed up.
“I figured it wouldn’t be that hard,” she says. “I was already a pilot!”
Things didn’t go as smoothly as she hoped.
“The six weeks of Navy aviation ground school was like my 4-year degree compressed into 6 weeks. Most of my classmates were Coast Guard, Navy, and Air Force Academy graduates with engineering degrees.”
Hughes felt lost.
“At one point, I thought I was going to wash out. I had this fear of failure, but did not believe failure was an option. I was one test away from failing out. I confided in a friend, and she asked for help on my behalf. Suddenly I started getting calls from people I didn’t even know.”
Hughes put in the hard work and made it through the ground school. Once in the air, she was in her element again, but she never forgot the intensity of that experience.
She’s now an aircraft commander and military instructor pilot flying the C-144, a two engine fixed-wing aircraft used for search and rescue, law enforcement, and logistics operations, and she says “I’m always in the books. I learn something new on every flight.”
In Mobile, Alabama, where she’s stationed, Hughes is the only female operational pilot, though there are other women instructor pilots involved with training.
She admits that along the way she has had her share of resistance.
“When I was stationed in Miami, I’d heard that another officer I worked with in a collateral job was speaking badly about my flight skills. He was a helicopter pilot — wasn’t even in my community — but he had this thing that women shouldn’t be pilots.
It was tough, but I let my numbers and my reports speak for themselves. I kept my head down, kept doing my work, kept advancing, and stayed focused on my craft.”
It’s all about the mission
When I ask Hughes what she is most proud of, she connects again to the search and rescue mission.
“Every day I’m on duty I never know what I’m going to get. I’m proud of being a Coast Guard aviator, and standing the duty.”
She recalls her most recent Search and Rescue flight, nine months earlier and her last month of flying into her second pregnancy.
“We got a call at 10 PM. When the alarm goes off, we have to be airborne within thirty minutes. It was an uncorrelated mayday call, on Channel 16. Uncorrelated maydays are very unreliable. 99% of the time it’s nothing.”
Still, Hughes and her copilot, along with 4 additional crew members, rushed to launch into the night. “It was so dark, and there was no moon,” she remembers, but the crew was focused on their mission.
“The guy on the other end of the radio had transmitted “help, I can’t move anymore.”
We tried to triangulate a thirty to forty mile area where he might be from the last known point just south of New Orleans. District always takes last known points and factors in drifts, winds.”
Hughes was flying under night vision goggles (NVGs) that night, and she had crew members on board new to the missions of observation with the forward looking infrared and radios.
“We’re only as good as our sensor operators,” she says.
“There was a tiny island in the path of where the call might have come from,” she remembers. “I told them to put the FLIR against the edge of the island but they didn’t see anything.”
Hughes had a sense that it wasn’t enough.
“I refused to leave. I did a fourth and a fifth pass, coming down lower each time.”
Her persistence paid off.
“Suddenly I saw an irregular flash pattern through my NVGs.”
She flew toward the beacon.
“His radios were out,” Hughes said. “And we couldn’t see his position.”
Her crew decided to drop a radio anyway.
“We executed a tough drop,” she says.
Because of the tenacity of her crew, the man was picked up and brought to safety. Unlike most of her missions, he came in to thank the crew in person.
“He was so thankful,” she says. He had been there three days with no food, no water. When he came on base, he admitted to being delusional.”
Mentorship, and another mission
“Mentorship is of the utmost importance,” she says. I met Nia Wordlaw (a United Airlines pilot) through Facebook. I’d always wanted to be an airline pilot, but in the pictures of airline pilots, none of them looked like me.
She credits the story of Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman (and the first Native American woman) to receive her pilot’s license in 1921, though she had to travel to France to do it. It is Coleman’s story that gave her the inspiration to keep going, as well as a couple of women at Eagle Fight when she was younger, and Hughes made it her mission to pay it forward.
Hughes and her friend Nia founded Sisters of the Skies in 2015, and in January of this year they received 501c3 status.
So far the two women have worked with Women in Aviation, sponsoring girls to attend the conferences and showing up in their uniforms.
“We’re trying to keep track of the women in the pipeline,” she says. “I call schools to see if I can come talk to the kids- community outreach is my favorite thing.”
Hughes has got grit. So how does she define it? Grit is getting the mission accomplished, even when you have nothing left, because failure is not an option.
Hughes and her husband and two children live in Mobile for now, but there’s no telling where they’ll go. It’s clear — not even the sky is the limit.
Keep up with Angel’s work here:
Facebook: Sisters of the Skies
Twitter: Sister of the Sky