It never occured to her that she couldn’t: Navy pilot and Commander Karen Fine Brasch
“Someone once asked me how I became a Navy pilot,” Karen Fine Brasch says. “I responded without thinking, ‘It never occurred to me that I couldn’t.’”
One of three girls with a father who had been an Air Force fighter pilot, Brasch picked up the flying bug early. Her father was thrilled that one of his children wanted to follow him into the skies. When she was nine years old, he bought her a book Anyone Can Fly, by Jules Bergman. It still sits on her bookshelf today. He built model airplanes with her and took her to nearby airfields to watch the planes. Her dad instilled in her the belief that she could do anything she wanted to do and be anyone she wanted to be. She didn’t set a path for the military initially, heading to college instead and taking classes while working full-time to pay for school. Humble beginnings and upbringing required her to independently set goals and deliver on them. On one tough day of class, she stood in the elevator heading to another class and saw a poster that read: “Learn to fly with Bubba.”
“I took the poster off the wall, skipped class, drove over to the little airfield, set the paper on the guy’s desk, and said ‘I want to learn to fly.’ He took one look at me and laughed. I was a twenty-one year old, big haired Texas co-ed sorority girl.”
The instructor composed himself, and offered to take Brasch up flying on the spot.
“I was wearing a jeans mini-skirt and holding a can of Diet Coke,” she remembers. “We preflighted and got in the aircraft. I remember handing him my Diet Coke because I had nowhere to put it. He just laughed. So I dumped it out and put the can on my lap. He gave me the controls and told me to take off. I did. I was the opposite of scared. It was exhilarating!”
After eight lessons Brasch started her application to Navy Aviation Officer Candidate School (AOCS), a four-month boot camp and accelerated officer training program for flight candidates. That’s where things got tough.
A fish out of water
“Adversity tempers steel.” That was the sign hanging in the entrance of AOCS. “It became the voice in my head over my flying career as I sought one challenge after another,” says Brasch. “As we lined up to enter training, a big burly instructor came up behind me and grabbed the car keys I had hanging from a shaking hand. ‘Trying to get away already?’ he boomed. ‘You wont be needing these anymore.’ Strangely enough, I wasn’t nervous anymore. It felt like an acknowledgement that my new adventure was beginning.”
“I could not have been more of a fish out of water,” Brasch says. “I had hair down to the middle of my back, and they cut it all off on the first day of indoctrination. Even with incredibly short hair, I did not fit in. I was weak academically. I was weak physically. And it showed. I realized how different I was when I was picked last in some silly swim competition. I felt the sting of humiliation and exclusion. Even my class didn’t think I should be there. I remember wishing I had studied harder in school and spent more time in physical training.”
The USMC drill sergeants running AOCS had no patience for weakness. “I had a lot of extra time with the drill instructors,” Brasch remembers. “Their job was to weed out the weak. I pushed through, because I had literally nowhere else to go, and no where I would rather have been. I was up for the challenges, and I did not want to be treated any differently just because I was a woman.”
“I did not want to be treated any differently because I was a woman.”
Running at the wall
One challenge required of candidates was getting themselves over an eight- foot wall without assistance. “I just could not get over the wall,” she remembers. A small group of women including Brasch realized, then, that there was a wall in the barracks showers exactly the same height as the obstacle they were required to climb. “After the guys went to bed, we would run at this concrete wall in the shower,” she said. “There wasn’t room to get much of a running start, but we worked it anyway. We were all black and blue down one side of our bodies. I remember the day I finally got myself over the wall on the obstacle course. The drill instructor happened to be standing right there. He stood back and just said in his disgusted gruff drill instructor voice: ‘Oh. My. God.’”
There were many more challenges to come. One was the fifteen-foot high dive. ‘We had to jump in with full flight gear and swim twenty meters underwater without coming up for air.”
“I wouldn’t jump off of it,” Brasch says. “I was inexplicably terrified. Another woman was assigned to walk me down to the pool every day and sit there while I waited to go jump and swim. I wasn’t allowed to speak. She just marched me there, and I would stand on the high dive and stare down at the pool — paralyzed with fear and unable to jump. One day I decided she shouldn’t have to babysit me anymore. It was one more thing I needed to do. I thought to myself, ‘there’s always going to be one more thing, so what the heck?’ I jumped. It was her quiet support that helped me jump.”
Whatever the Navy threw at her, however unprepared she was at times, “I was 100% all in,” Brasch said. “The only thing I wanted to do was fly. I was going to do whatever was required to get there.”
Brasch started flight school in 1993, just after combat exclusion was lifted and all aircraft were opened to women. She remembers her training class being really angry because ‘the women were going to steal all the pilot slots.” Despite the gender protests, by the end of flight school she was qualified in the Navy T-34C fixed wing aircraft and TH-57 helicopter. At the end of flight school she was qualified to fly the Navy Seahawk.
“The men didn’t want to fly with us,” she remembers. On one of her final primary flights with an instructor she’d never flown with before, she landed, feeling great about the flight, but her scores were low. Low scores were not necessarily an aberration, but this had been a particularly great flight. She could navigate, hold altitude, perform aerobatic maneuvers, nail the emergency procedures and fly in formation.
“I went in to the instructor’s office and asked him to explain. I told him I thought I’d nailed each part of the flight. He looked at me wearily and uninterested and said ‘Look, I’m retiring from the Navy in a week, and I only signed up to fly with you so I could say I had flown with a woman.’”
That was the end of that.
“Your flying is inconsequential”
Brasch headed to California for her first assignment, flying the SH-60/HH60H Seahawk helicopter. She was scheduled to deploy on a six-month carrier rotation after initial Seahawk training on the U.S.S. Nimitz. She would be the first female pilot in her squadron and on the second aircraft carrier ever to deploy with women on board. “I should have been more nervous,” she says, “but I could not have been more excited about my first deployment. The adventure, the responsibility and the patriotism I felt was indescribable.”
“The week before I deployed I met a friend at the Officer’s Club in Miramar. I lived just across the street. We were having a drink when one of the F-14 Tomcat flight officers came over to my table and said: “The only role for women on carriers are as surrogate wives, whores or mothers to the men on board. Your flying is inconsequential.”
She laughs. “That pretty much summed up the feeling of a lot of the men,” she says. “Not all of them, but a lot of them.”
On deployment, she flew Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) missions and sub-hunting missions, flying the HH-60 and the SH-60.
“Anytime the jets were flying we had one helicopter in the air for SAR, and another one farther out conducting training,” she says. “One day we were the helicopter doing training. The weather was terrible. We were more than twenty miles away from the carrier. The ceiling came down to three to four hundred feet, and it was rainy, stormy, really unusual weather,” she recalls. “There was no visibility above us, and max of a thousand feet in a given direction. The carrier called all the aircraft back for inclement weather, but they forgot about us. We were out over the ocean, bingo fuel, with nowhere to land.”
Brasch and her crew were twenty miles off the coast of Iran, but landing there wasn’t an option.
“We started to go through the ditching (when a helicopter is forced to land in the water) checklist,” she said. “We knew there would be a lot of shrapnel once the blades hit the water, so we planned to drop the crew with a boat a distance off. We came down to a hover and they prepared to get out, when the carrier called and came back for us. We were below bingo fuel.”
“By my second deployment, the men were a little bit more used to women,” she said. “On February 17, 1998, I came back from my second deployment (on the U.S.S. Nimitz), an around the world tour. I returned exactly five years to the day from when I joined the Navy.”
“There are so many stories,” she laughs. “On another flight, we were cleared back to the carrier on the fantail (the rear of the carrier). Usually we came in from the side, matched the speed of the carrier and landed. On approach I saw an F-14 Tomcat on the catapult preparing to launch. I called the air boss and asked him if the jet would be taking off. He said no, so I made the approach. Just as we were about to land, the Tomcat launched. We sucked in all that exhaust, and it caused a dual compressor stall and we barely made it to the deck.”
Looking back over her career (Brasch retired as a Navy Commander), Brasch appreciates the bonds that form among diverse groups of people all going through challenging circumstances together. Nothing was ever easy; she remembers a time on a deployment when she went to her department head and asked why she wasn’t slotted on any of the night CSAR operations.
“He leaned back in his chair, put his feet up on his desk and looked at me and said ‘It has nothing to do with your flying. Quite frankly, it’s because you don’t remind us of ourselves. We all (the men) like to fly with young bucks that remind us of ourselves. And you don’t remind us of ourselves. I’m just being honest with you.”
“It does not have to do with your flying. Quite frankly, it’s because you don’t remind us of ourselves.”
Advice to new leaders
What would Brasch recommend to new leaders starting out?
1. Respect is more important than being liked. It takes a long time to earn and seconds to lose it. ”I remember a commander calling me into his office,” Brasch says. “He told me ‘Everyone likes you, but what will you do when they don’t? You need to know that not everyone is going to like you…and that’s ok.’ I thought about his words a lot. I decided I would rather be respected for what I knew than liked for any other reason.
2. Be present in the moment. If you’re flying, the aircraft neither likes nor respects you. It doesn’t care where you went to college or where you grew up. The difference between living and dying is attention to detail, situational awareness and competence.” She pauses. “You have to respect yourself,” she says. “Many will doubt you along the way. The bigger your dreams, the bigger the doubts.”
3. Be adaptable. Brasch remembers the change in identity necessary as well. “Sometimes you have to alter who you are to adapt to a situation,” she says. “I had to ask myself: how much do I have to change? How much am I willing to lose of what I am? I had to learn to speak guy,” she says with a laugh. In a commencement address Brasch gave to a local high school, she suggests: “Expect a lot of change. Plan on it. Learn to reinvent yourself, while still remaining you.”
4. Be okay with being alone and self reliant. “You will be your own obstacle or propellant,” she says. “You have to learn to thrive alone.@@ That was one of my hardest lessons. Every woman should be her own worst critic and her own biggest advocate.”
5. Practice resilience and reflection. It takes more than passion and perseverance. You have to be able to bounce back from adversity. You have to be willing to risk failure in order to succeed. Replay your actions in your head and determine what you did right and what you can do better.
6. Don’t let fear control you. Build up the skills you need to face your fears. At the moment of truth, those skills will make all the difference.
“Grit isn’t something you learn. It’s something you do.”
As for grit, Brasch clearly has it. “Grit comes from within. It starts from something feeling overwhelming or even impossible. It requires all of your focus and fortitude as you’re going through it. You might think you will fail all the way up until the moment you succeed. Grit isn’t something you learn, but it’s something you do. And it’s something you do alone. Grit is meeting a seemingly insurmountable challenge head on despite adversity.”
For someone who wants to build grit, she suggests “Take on challenges outside your comfort zone. Start small and build up endurance for things that make you feel uncomfortable. Learn to rely on yourself.”
Now a mother of three and a program manager, Brasch has taken on additional challenge and passion: playing the cello. “I’ve been playing for three years now,” she says. “It’s complicated and requires 100% focus. The first time I played gave me the same exhilaration that I felt the first time I flew. I love a good challenge.”
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