She’s Got Grit: Trailblazer Woman Pilot Shares Leadership Wisdom

Karen Baetzel

It was lunchtime and circumstance on an innocent fall day that determined Karen Baetzel’s destiny as a thirty-year career as a Naval Aviator. Fate intervened to lead a working-class kid to the cockpit as one of the Navy’s first women pilots to fly and lead a thirty-year career.

“I stood in a hallway surrounded on four sides by doors into each of the four different services recruiters,” she says. “I went to the Air Force first. It was a short conversation, as they wanted me to get a second degree,” she said. “So I went back out in the hall and just stood there and looked at my three other options. The Marines had gone to lunch, leaving the Army and Navy. The Navy recruiter made eye contact before the Army recruiter did, so I walked into his office, signed up for four years and stayed for thirty.”

Karen came from rural Maryland, and a family which had fallen apart after the death of her mother. “I told the recruiter I wanted to get as far away as possible. He told me he could do that.” That’s not all she wanted, though. During her first tour as a general unrestricted line officer, Karen decided to pursue one of the very few openings in flight school for women in 1981.


“I decided the first “glass ceiling” was in my own head,” Karen says. “It was time to overcome the doubt and fear and lack of confidence. I went to civilian ground school, took some familiarization lessons in a small plane which helped, but mostly it was an inside job. I looked at my male peers and had to ask myself, what makes you think you can’t do this as well as these bubbas?”

Karen Baetzel with her H-46. (Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian.)

“In some ways, I was so ignorant of what I was doing,” says Karen. “It was a blessing. I did not have family pressure or any preconceived notions of how hard it was going to be. I wasn’t worried about medical issues, and was not afraid. I was simply excited to be there.”

As one of the few first women in the Navy’s flight school in 1981, Karen was detailed along with another woman as a partner, but her partner washed out.

“Putting women together was supposed to make things easier, but it set us up for even more difficulty,” she says. “No woman would tolerate it today, but it was a different time. Then it was ok for a man to go into flight ops and say he wouldn’t not fly with women students.

Karen Baetzel talks Leadership

“In training command, I flew an early flight with a notorious instructor, who had the reputation of terrorizing ‘non-standard’ students. He delighted in inducing air-sickness early and often, and considered it a success to make a “weakling” ask to terminate the hop. I flew my first acrobatic flight with him. He succeeded in making me violently ill, but I refused to ask to quit the hop.

I just asked him to take the controls, threw up in my barf bag and took the controls back. I threw up twice in the air and once in the debrief, without asking for a break. Just wiped my mouth on my sleeve and kept going. In a very weird way, I think he respected that. He never bothered me again.”

The environment was the same in units.

“As a woman, it was impossible to be inconspicuous,” she says. “There was a referendum on every woman. You were tested. One of the first tests was whether or not you could take a joke. They were always crude and sexual.”

The Navy demanded much, but offered a lot too. Because of her career timing before and after the repeal of the combat exclusion, Karen went on to qualify as an aircraft commander in both fixed and rotary wing aircraft, as well as jets. During her three years in the H-46 vertical replenishment squadron, her unit won the Battle E award for being the best outfit in the Navy three years in a row. Being a part of such a high performing group is one of her proudest achievements. Like others who have talked to the Grit Project, this inclusion as a part of something bigger held tremendous meaning for her.

Piloting the H-46 led to another of her proudest moments as well, as coincidental as the circumstances that launched her in the Navy.

“We were doing a logistics run up to Chesapeake Bay,” she says, “when we heard the emergency transponder go off. I reached down to turn it off, and we saw parachutes in the air just in front of us.” She and her copilot turned sharply to watch the parachutes heading toward icy water.

“Two pilots from an A-4 from the Navy test pilot school at Pax River had been forced to eject,” she says.

Her crew pulled the pilots from the bay, to the annoyance of the Search and Rescue crews heading in that direction. “It’s unusual to get a chance to actually rescue someone,” she laughs. “But we happened to be closer.”

She was awarded a Boeing Rescue Award for the diversion. One of the pilots she rescued later became a shuttle astronaut.

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Considering new officers coming in today, Karen has some strong advice. “Do not play small,” she says. Echoing advice from others looking back at their careers, she recommends: “Say yes. Go to every school you can. Devote the first few years to intense career development. Find good mentors. It will make your personal life much easier later.”


Karen also holds very strong opinions about connecting with your team. “I was also fortunate during my squadron and command tour to serve with the Navy’s first female Aviation Boswain’s Mate Master Chief, (Aircrew and Airfare qualified) Patricia Shinnick, USN (ret), and many, many other talented enlisted women. “Master Woman” Shinnick served as my Command Master Chief, and she forgot more about leadership than most of us ever knew. The role of senior enlisted women in the successful integration of women in the Navy, as well as the total force excellence, is sorely under reported and appreciated. She is one of the finest leaders I ever served with and I am fortunate to call her a friend as well. Thanks Master Chief, for everything. To all young officers, connect early and often with senior enlisted mentors who will speak truth to power.”

“The Chiefs locker can be depended on to tell you what other people are usually reluctant to share, especially if you cultivate a real relationship of trust. CMC Shinnick would often close the office door and advise me as the CO “to step up” or “step back”, sometimes in the same conversation. Her take was nearly always right, including sensitive issues with troops. We had a particularly difficult, ugly discipline situation one time with a sailor, who just happened to be female. I was glad Master Chief Shinnick was there — not just for her wisdom, but for her gender.”


Recommended Books from a Trailblazer Woman Pilot

Partway through her career, Karen made the difficult decision to leave active service, but continued in the Reserves. “It became clear that my family needed me more than the Navy,” she says. Karen admits she misses the “regular Navy” but reflects that as a reservist she was one of only two selected each year for residence full time attendance at the Naval War College, served as a military responder to 9/11, was a Senior Leadership Instructor to the reserve Navy and worked 4 years in the Pentagon in the Offices of the Secretary of Defense.


Considering her own thirty-year career, both active and reserve, Karen knows that it takes grit, perseverance and hard work to succeed. “Nobody does it alone,” she says. “You build grit through self awareness, no-nonsense mentorship, challenging goals and objectives, as well as competitive and leadership endeavors.” She is both proud of her Navy and grateful for that day long ago when the doors opened in many directions and she ended up as a sailor. “Is it any wonder I spend my time now working to share and give back some of those gifts? I owe this country.”

Today Karen works as a speaker and consultant to organizations.

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Shannon H. Polson, Author, Veteran and Founder

LEADERSHIP. GRIT. PURPOSE. The Grit Factor AVAILABLE NOW: Founder: Committed to veterans and women in leadership.