I’m not a female pilot. I’m a pilot who happens to be female.
Generations of female Air Force pilots can thank Mary Donahue, ’70, for helping shatter the glass ceiling of the skies.
Donahue, who majored in mathematics at Bridgewater State, is a member of the first class of U.S. Air Force female pilots. She used traits honed at Bridgewater to propel her into aviation history in 1977.
“I learned to be persistent, getting involved in everything and opening my mouth,” she said. “It just continued on in my whole career.”
As president of Woodward Hall and the Women’s Dorm Council, Donahue advocated for her peers, including pushing for student government elections. She continued her math education at Purdue. But she longed for the small class sizes at Bridgewater, where she could easily approach mathematics professors Robert Bent and Robert Lemos for extra help.
Donahue met many military members at Purdue and decided to join the Air Force. In the 1970s, women’s role in the military expanded, and the Air Force sought 10 women to partake in a test program for females to become pilots.
Donahue applied, never expecting to be selected nor dwelling on what would become a pioneering role. But thanks to her analytical mind, she excelled on the tests and earned a spot in the class.
“We didn’t think about being first,” she said. “We did put a tremendous amount of pressure on ourselves. We felt if any one of us failed, we would be denying people coming behind us.”
Donahue mastered aviation skills and used her voice to push for equity for women serving in the Air Force. Once, an official doubted women were tall enough to see a boom protruding from the plane’s nose. Donahue proved that the tallest male trainee also couldn’t see the boom.
“I was very vocal,” she said.
All 10 females in that inaugural class at the academy successfully became pilots, with Donahue receiving an academic award after missing just one of 395 questions asked in formal examinations.
“I felt like it was an accomplishment,” she said, adding there was little time to reflect. “You’re just off and running.”
Donahue became the first female pilot assigned to the Air Force Academy. She co-piloted KC-135 stratotankers that conduct aerial refueling of other aircraft, but never saw combat action. Women were prohibited from flying in combat until the 1990s.
Donahue also worked on the development of new missiles and helped design the interior of a plane used in counter-drug missions. She later worked for military contractors after retiring from active duty as a lieutenant colonel.
Now living on Cape Cod, Donahue is a member of the Women in Aviation International Pioneer Hall of Fame alongside her nine classmates. Their military uniforms are on display in the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Ohio.
Despite the accolades, she emphasized that the job of flying was always most important.
“I’m not a female pilot,” she said. “I’m a pilot who happens to be female.”
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