Face of Defense
Face of Defense: U-2 Pilot
By Air Force Senior Airman Bobby
Cummings, 9th Reconnaissance Wing.
Beale Air Force Base, California – (DoD News)
– February 11, 2015 – As a child, Air Force Lt. Col. Merryl Tengesdal imagined
flying among the stars, thousands of miles above the Earth's surface.
Air Force Lt. Col. Merryl Tengesdal
Today, she is one of eight female pilots ever to fly the U-2 high-altitude
reconnaissance aircraft and the only black female pilot in U-2 history.
A Bronx, New York, native, Tengesdal also is the 9th
Reconnaissance Wing inspector general, and she was recently was selected for
promotion to colonel. "I have seen the curvature of the Earth," Tengesdal said. "Flying
at more than 70,000 feet is really beautiful and peaceful. I never take it for
Aug. 1 will mark the 60th anniversary of the U-2, making it
one of the few aircraft to operate in the Air Force for more than 50 years. "The Air Force has always been on the forefront of breaking
aviation and racial barriers," she said. "I am extremely proud of being the
first black female U-2 pilot in history."
The U-2 provides high-altitude intelligence, surveillance and
reconnaissance in direct support of national objectives. The aircraft enables
the capture of imagery and delivers intelligence to decision makers worldwide.
These missions often are at altitudes of about 13 miles.
Pilots are required to wear full pressure suits during flight, similar to those
astronauts wear. That suit, along with a specialized helmet and the U-2's
bicycle landing gear make it arguably the most difficult aircraft to land.
"Every aircraft I've flown has something unique," Tengesdal
said. "The U-2 is no exception. I enjoy the challenge of landing on two wheels."
No Stranger to Challenges
Tengesdal is no stranger to challenges. The colonel
acknowledged that her childhood featured many opportunities for her to stray
down the wrong path.
"Drugs and alcohol were prevalent in my hometown, but I was
influenced to pursue other aspirations," she said.
With guidance from her mother and teachers, she said, she
excelled in high school, particularly in math and science. After high school,
she attended the University of New Haven in Connecticut and graduated in 1994
with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering. Afterward, she attended the
Navy's Officer Candidate School, commissioned as an ensign in September 1994,
and attended flight training shortly after.
"During the mid '90s, the military had just begun opening
more roles for women in combat," Tengesdal said. "Combat pilot was one of the
opportunities. There was also a massive push for more minorities into the pilot
training program. I remember when I attended flight training. It was racially
diverse, which I was surprised to see. It was a good feeling. However, I could
tell there were a few people who did not appreciate us."
From Seahawk Helicopters to U-2s
The first aircraft she flew was the Navy's SH-60B Seahawk
helicopter, used for anti-submarine warfare, search and rescue, anti-ship
warfare and special operations. She loved the versatility of the aircraft and
In 2004, Tengesdal followed her dream of flying higher and
cross-commissioned into the Air Force, joining less than 1,000 pilots wo have
been part of the U-2 program here.
U-2 pilot training is a rigorous nine-month course. Every
candidate must conduct training missions aboard the TU-2S, a dual-seat trainer
aircraft. After a solo high flight as a final challenge of their training,
pilots are often deployed around the world.
Tengesdal has been deployed to multiple locations and has
flown missions in support of Operation Olive Harvest in Afghanistan and Iraq.
She also aided in preventing terrorism and piracy in the Horn of Africa.
"I'm incredibly fortunate. It's surreal," Tengesdal said. "From
my time in the Navy to my experiences in the U-2 program, I like to think I've
played a part in helping some of the troops on the ground get home safely."
More than 330 Combat Hours
Throughout her career, Tengesdal has logged more than 3,400
flight hours and more than 330 combat hours. "I have been truly blessed to have
experienced all I have during my time in the military," she said.
She has flown at the edge of space and witnessed a shooting
star from the inside of a cockpit. She achieved what no African-American woman
ever had before.
"It is very uncommon, even for this day and age, to be a
female pilot, much less a female minority," Tengesdal said. "My career field is
very male dominated, but I hope I have helped other females with similar
aspirations to realize this is an option. I think we are all limitless as to
what we can accomplish."
Beale Air Force Base
U-2S/TU-2S Fact Sheet
Special Report: National African American History Month
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