Vance FAIP commands 'Return to Flight' mission

  • Published
  • By Jim Malachowski
  • 71st Flying Training Wing Historian
Vance Air Force Base graduate Eileen Collins is a pilot who is accustomed to pressure and very good at breaking barriers.
This week she was scheduled to make history as commander of NASA's Discovery orbiter, America's first manned flight back into space since the February 2003 Columbia accident that killed seven astronauts.
Commander Collins earned her silver wings with Class 79-08. She was one of the first seven female pilots allowed into the pilot training program. In addition to the grueling academic and skills training, she faced the pressure of being one of the few women in a male dominated environment. Only two women, and 32 men, graduated with their class. "I can't afford to fail because I will be hurting chances for [other] young women," she once remarked.
As a shy 19-year old, she took three years of savings to the local airport and signed up for flight lessons. By the time she began undergraduate pilot training at Vance AFB in 1978, the image of flying being a "guy thing" was starting to show major cracks around the edges. It was also the year NASA opened the Shuttle program to women.
Commander Collins credits an evolution in American society for her success. The first woman flew in 1910, just seven years after the Wright Brothers made their first 12-second flight. By 1930, there were 200 licensed women pilots in the country. During World War II, women pilots served as ferry and test pilots, flight controllers and instructors. Women Auxiliary Ferry Squadron pilots proved themselves capable as they ferried planes to the frontlines. By 1943, a third of the aviation work forces were women.
In 1959, 13 women successfully completed all three phases of the physical and psychological tests used by NASA to select the seven Mercury astronauts. By the 1960s, nearly 4 percent of all licensed pilots were women. The U.S. Navy put women into the cockpit as early as 1974 and had their first woman pilot in 1981. Every step helped create the environment where smart, capable women like Eileen Collins could excel.
As a young lieutenant, she was selected as a first-assignment instructor pilot in the T-38 aircraft and remained at Vance until 1982. Commander Collins said the skills she learned in her early flying training has stayed with her.
"When I fly the T-38 at NASA, I still remember all the little formulas and all the little, neat tricks that my instructors taught me," she said. "I taught all those same things to my students, and I still use them today."
Commander Collins left Vance in 1983 for an assignment at Travis AFB, Calif., where she flew as a C-141 aircraft commander. She arrived in time to help rescue medical students from Grenada even though the country did not allow women to fly combat missions at the time.
She credits the crew-resource management training she learned working with crews on the heavy transport.
"You need to learn how to work with people and use people to get the mission done effectively," Comman-der Collins said of her time commanding heavy-aircraft. "I think all of that experience has really helped me with this job."
After serving as a mathematics professor at the Air Force Academy, Commander Collins went on to make history as only the second female at the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB, Calif. Shortly after graduation, and earning the call sign "Mom," Commander Collins was accepted into NASA's Astronaut Training Program.
Over the past 15 years, Commander Collins, who recently retired from the Air Force, has logged over 537 hours in space during three separate missions in addition to over 6,280 hours in 30 different aircraft. She made history by being the first woman to pilot an American spaceship when she rendezvoused with the Russian space station MIR on STS-63 in February 1995. In 1997, she piloted the STS-84 mission. In 1999 she was selected as the mission commander for STS-93.
Commander Collins now looks forward to making history again with the Discovery launch.
"This shuttle flight is the beginning of a new chapter in space exploration; we're going to finish building the space station and do the science up there that needs to be done," she said. "It's going to be a very exciting time ... people's hearts are beating."