Captain Katie Higgins
Fly Like a Girl Captain Katie Higgins is First Female Blue Angels Pilot
Over the 69-year history of the United States Navy Blue Angels Flight Demonstration Squadron, there had never been a female pilot. That was until Marine Corps Captain Katie Higgins joined the team in July 2014 at just twenty-seven years old. The mission of the Blue Angels has always been, “to showcase the pride and professionalism of the United States Navy and Marine Corps by inspiring a culture of excellence and service to country through flight demonstrations and community outreach.” With Higgins on the team, they took this mission to new heights.
Over her last two years of volunteer service on the Blue Angels Squadron, Higgins wowed the crowds in more than 140 shows at 34 locations throughout the United States. She demonstrated how to #flylikeagirl in the C-130T Hercules aircraft affectionately known as Fat Albert. Higgins’ portion of the show spotlighted Fat Albert’s zero gravity maneuvers that pilots might have to pull in combat as an evasion of enemy radar and gunfire or to rapidly descend onto base because of malfunction. “Yeah, people have definitely lost their lunch many times in this aircraft,” Higgins explained with a chuckle.
That first year in Pensacola, Florida, it came down to Higgins and a male aviator competing for the same Blue Angels position. Commanding officer, Captain Thomas Frosch, told Higgins she was selected because she was the best person for the job, not the best woman. “I didn’t come to the Blue Angels team to smash any glass ceilings,” said Higgins. She continued, “More importantly, I joined the Marine Corps to support the troops on the ground. I joined the Blue Angels because I loved the idea of going out and inspiring excellence in the American people.” Risen caught up with this U.S. Naval Academy grad to find out more about her journey to becoming a Marine and the first female Blue Angels pilot.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: You are a third-generation military aviator, but you said the gunnery sergeants at the United States Naval Academy hooked you on the United States Marine Corps. Can you expand on that?
Katie Higgins: Both my grandfathers were in the U.S. Army Air Corps during WWII and eventually the U.S. Air Force when that service came about. My father was active duty U.S. Navy for twenty-six years. My family connection was more towards a life of service, particularly my paternal grandfather. He instilled in us this idea, because his parents were immigrants to this country from Sweden. The American dream in this country gave us all these opportunities and we needed to give back. He served in the military, his three sons, including my father, served in the military. He said, “Hey, I just want to instill in you this life of service.” As far as me, I thought about becoming a police officer; becoming a firefighter. I even considered the nunnery at one point. I eventually settled on the military. I decided I wanted to join the military by my freshman year in high school. That’s how my path went with the influence of my family. Then when I got to the U.S. Naval Academy, I had a choice to make. About twenty-five percent of people who get commissioned out of the Naval Academy go Marine Corps, while the other seventy-five percent go Navy. While I was there I got to do training with enlisted marines and enlisted sailors.
I have very distinct memories of the gunnery sergeants at Quantico, Virginia. That’s where the basic school is for the Marine Corps, a very large base. I went there for a six-month training course where all the Marine Corps officers are taught the basics of being a rifle platoon commander. I was just really, really impressed with the caliber of professionalism, of technical knowledge, of dedication, of loyalty, the traits these men and women had. And I wanted to lead people like those enlisted sergeants. I wanted to be in an organization that was encompassed with such high caliber individuals. That’s what pushed me or influenced me towards the Marine Corps.
RM: Once you’re in the Marine Corps, what is your role as a flight captain?
KH: A captain is my rank in the Marine Corps. I am an O3. Every O3 in the military is called a captain in the Marine Corps. As far as my qualifications in the aircraft, I am referred to as an aircraft commander. So that means that I have the qualifications to be in charge of the airplane, of the safety of my people, of the cargo, of the airframe. Basically my decision is final on the airplane, but obviously, I fly with a crew. So they all give me their input. We weigh any sort of problem or issue in the airplane together, but ultimately I have the final say as the flight commander. Right now in “our shop” as we call it, our C-130 shop, are the people who are part of the team, there are three pilots. All of us are aircraft commanders, but I am the lead pilot. This is because I am the most senior person on the team. I am the head aircraft commander of the C-130. There are three total pilots and four enlisted guys that fly with us as well. I have two flight engineers and then I have a loadmaster and a flight mechanic.
The hashtag “fly like a girl” is empowering. It’s positive. And being able to fly to the caliber of a female pilot is something to strive for. To me, it shows that the cockpit is a great equalizer.
RM: Why do you think it took so long for there to be a female Blue Angels pilot?
KH: We have had women on the Blue Angels team since 1969. So I am not the first female to be on the Blue Angels team. I am the first female Blue Angels pilot. What people don’t know is that the first Marine Corps pilot started flying in early 1990’s. We haven’t been in existence for a super long time. Women have been in aviation since WWII and some even earlier than that. There have been many amazing women who paved the path for me. But why did it take so long to get a female Blue Angels pilot? Because one, you have to pick the right person for the team. We are on the road 300 days of the year. So this is like your family you are traveling with. While your skills on the airplane are very, very important, it also comes down to personalities fitting well together, who gets along, stuff like that. You just need the right puzzle piece to fit in with the team. A lot of instances, it can be career timing, like maybe you want to do a different tour, maybe you are on a deployment, and can’t apply for the team. There a lot of different factors that determine if you are even eligible to apply. I was able to apply. My personality, my flying skills, and everything else the team was looking for happened to be the correct puzzle piece for that year. I mean, the Marine Corps are only seven percent women. And that’s over the entire Marine Corps. When you look at the number of officers, the percentage is even smaller. When you look at the number of aviators, it’s even smaller. When you look at the number of C-130 pilots, it’s even smaller. There’s only a hand full of people who even apply to the team. It has to be career timing, personality traits, and qualifications. I just happened to be the one that fit.
RM: I have seen you use the hashtag “fly like a girl.” What does that phrase mean to you personally?
KH: The first time I saw that phrase was on a t-shirt at the Naval Aviation Museum. Fly like a girl is a positive twist on an insult men use against each other when they say, you throw like a girl etc. There is an amazing story from Mia Hamm [two-time Olympic gold medalist in soccer] where her soccer coach told her she ran like a girl. She responded, “You could run like a girl too if you ran a little faster.” The hashtag “fly like a girl” is empowering. It’s positive. And being able to fly to the caliber of a female pilot is something to strive for. To me, it shows that the cockpit is a great equalizer. Both men and women can do equally awesome jobs, and in the end, there is no distinction between genders when it comes to performance. All of us are pilots with the same goal: get as many landings as take-offs …
a little pilot humor. [laughter]
RM: What made you choose the C-130 planes over the fighter jets?
KH: In the Marine Corps and Navy, after flight school, you get a score at the end. It’s called an NSS, which stands for Navy Standard Score. That score makes you eligible for certain airplanes. If you have a high score, you can fly anything. If you have a low score, you can only fly a certain type of plane. Back in flight school when I was twenty-one years old, right after college, I had a high score. So I got a choice, do I want to go C-130 planes or do I want to go jets? And I really fell in love with the C-130 community, the idea of traveling all over the world. This is the only community that as an aircraft commander I can take one plane with eighty people, as a twenty-five year old kid, and go support the war effort overseas by myself. That type of leadership is very rarely seen in the fighter jet community, because they travel as a pack, as a whole squadron of twelve or fifteen planes. The C-130 community can go out on one-plane operations or four-plane operations. I really liked the idea of getting a lot of responsibility of leading people early on. The C-130 community really allowed me to do that.
RM: What is your favorite C-130 maneuver?
KH: My favorite maneuver is right on take-off when you pitch up really, really high. Then we push over at the top so we are wings level, which causes everybody in the back to go weightless. We really love that maneuver, because everyone in the back is screaming [laughter]. They think it is super fun to go weightless for those fifteen seconds. Most people have never been weightless, except swimming which feels different. But in everyday life, you can’t really go weightless unless you go to outer space. The C-130 can do a lot of different missions. She can give gas, she can shoot missiles, she can drop people or cargo out the back, she can move people or cargo in the normal manner from one place to another, and she can drop flares out the back to illuminate the battlefield. We can do a lot of different things with that plane. That’s why we are considered the workhorse of the Marine Corps. Whenever they need something, they call the “Herc Squad” (short for Hercules Squadron). That’s what I love about it. It’s not so much of a need for speed, but the plethora of missions. I can wake up one day and go shoot the bad guys. The next day I can go give gas. I never get bored.
RM: So you were required to have a minimum of 1200 tactical flight hours, a combination of training hours and combat hours. How many of those hours were combat and what were your most memorable missions?
KH: I have 1400 tactical flight hours and 400 of those were in a combat zone. I did two deployments. My first deployment was to Afghanistan. I was at Camp Bastion in Camp Bastion. If you hear on TV the Helmand province, that’s where I was. I was on the C-130 referred to as the Harvest Hawk. That’s the KC-130J that shoots Hellfire and Griffin missiles. I predominantly did close-air support missions, basically shooting bad guys, to protect those marines, sailors, soldiers, and airmen on the ground. I did a lot of that. My most memorable mission on that deployment was when there was a team of marines pinned down. On the radio, you could actually hear explosions of RPG fire (rocket-propelled grenade) and bullets hitting behind them as they were getting shot at. We shot missiles at the bad guys and neutralized the target. Fast forward several months later, I was on my second deployment. I was in Spain, and a gentleman walked up to me and said, “I recognize your voice, is your call sign Filth02?” I said, “Yes it is.” He’s like, “You shot for us. You saved our lives.” You know I am so proud to be a Blue Angel, but to meet someone face to face that I helped! That’s why I joined the Marine Corps, to support those marines on the ground. That’s really powerful. Every time I tell that story I get goosebumps, because that’s why aviators exist in the Marine Corps, to support those people on the ground. To know I did that will be forever a point of pride for me. That story right there encompasses what I am THE proudest of as a Marine Corps aviator.
My second deployment was to Africa in support of the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy out of South Sudan. We went down to areas like Djibouti and Uganda, basically as a forward postulation just to say, “Hey, the United States is here, don’t do anything bad.” I had just become an aircraft commander. It was like my second or third flight and someone needed to go evacuate this embassy because it was going to be overrun. A few days earlier, a couple airplanes had been shot up; some Navy Seals had been injured. They needed someone to go in there. Like I said, it was only my second or third flight as an aircraft commander, and they picked me to go! I landed in this tiny airport that had mortar rounds which had hit the runway. So there were holes everywhere. There were tanks lining the runway. I landed and picked up a bunch of people. Then I got out of there and evacuated them, which was cool. I got to see two sides of the coin. On my first deployment I was killing bad guys, but on my second I was evacuating people to get them to safety. It’s kind of the two missions that the Marine Corps and our military do, humanitarian efforts and fight wars. So it was cool that I got to do both.
It’s kind of the two missions that the Marine Corps and our military do, humanitarian efforts and fight wars. So it was cool that I got to do both.
RM: And when you talked about those tanks on the runway, were those enemy tanks?
KH: They weren’t our tanks, but they were friendly tanks to us. We were on the side of the conflict that was friendly to the United States.
RM: What were some of your more difficult moments on the road to success and what or who inspired you to overcome those obstacles?
KH: In flight school, I failed two flights in a row, and if I failed the third one, then I was done flying. I was a bundle of nerves freaking out. I wanted to be a pilot. I thought, “What is going on?” You know, I studied so hard. I practiced all the time. It’s just that I would get nervous on the plane on my check rides. And I failed two in a row. My mom was living in Maryland and I was in Pensacola at that time in flight school. So I called her and said, “Mom, I just need you to come down.” There I was, a 22-year-old, asking for my mom. It was a week until my next check ride. My mom came down and cooked me my favorite meals. We just hung out and went to the beach and were normal. She told me, “Just do your best, the best that you can. And if it doesn’t work out, you were meant for something else. But if it does work out, then use this as a way to improve yourself. Look back on it as an accomplishment, as a hardship you overcame.” It was nice to know that even if I failed, my family and my mom were still there. They still loved me. They still supported me no matter what I did, even in failure. But she was still very encouraging and wanted me to achieve my dream which was flying. She, of course, was sympathetic to the fact that I was close to losing it. It was definitely nice to know, and a little bit less pressure on me to know that even if it went wrong, my parents were still there for me. My mom was still there for me. That kind of love and support made me hike up my breeches. I did fine on the check ride, and now I’m the first female Blue Angels pilot. So it all happened for a reason.
RM: And moms still matter at age 22!? By the way, what were those favorite meals your mom made you?
KH: Oh yeah [laughter]. I’m 30 and my mom still matters. I call her every day. So, I have like a five-year-old’s palate [more laughter]. If I could only eat one thing for the rest of my life, it would be mac n’ cheese. It is definitely my go-to favorite comfort food.
KH: My father definitely led by example. He was never the type of person that said, “Do what I say, not what I do.” He was never like that. A majority of my leadership skills toward my enlisted men and women who work for me come from him. He always looked after his people. He always took their interest to heart. He was someone that truly cared. It wasn’t a job to him; it was a way of life. Long before you put on your wings of gold to become an aviator, you are a U.S. Naval Officer or a U.S. Marine Corps Officer first. With that comes the responsibility of taking care of your people. I really learned that from watching him as a kid. Mom was more about perseverance. There were years when my dad was gone 300 days out of the year. She was there constantly, you know, getting us ready for school. I remember one year my dad was deployed for the Gulf War. I got attacked by a dog that bit me in the face. The same week my brother got hit in the kidneys with a baseball bat. My mom had to write letters back and forth with my dad to explain things because they didn’t have email back then. That was on top of running the house. If the air conditioner broke, she would have to handle that. She just overcame so many hardships and situations that no mom should have to deal with, let alone a wife who has to worry about her husband being in a war zone. Now she is taking care of two kids who are falling apart at the seams. She was amazing and really taught me perseverance in overcoming problems, just to keep pushing. She’d say, “If all the doors are closed, find a window to go out of.”
RM: Do you have any specific routines that help focus you on combat missions or flights in general?
KH: I wear a St. Christopher medal, which is the patron saint of aviators and travelers. I was raised Catholic, and my parents gave me that before I went to Afghanistan. Also, my brother’s name is Christopher. I wore that medal on my dog tags. Actually, there is another thing [laughter], kind of a funny thing I carry with me in my flight bag. It is a small stuffed monkey about the size of my hand. It was actually given to me by a pilot who was with me in Afghanistan. He is now on the Blue Angels with me. Small world. It refers to a leadership lesson we had about problems that are too hard to tackle. He said, “Problems are like a barrel of monkeys. You can handle all these monkeys and get them all in their cages and get them organized.”He went on, “It’s when you get a gorilla that you can’t control, you need to bring it to somebody who is a higher rank than you.” He is basically saying to handle problems at the lower levels. But when they get too much for your rank or level, then elevate them to the upper echelon of decision makers. Handle the problems you can handle and when they get too big for you, then ask somebody else. He gave me this little monkey as a reminder. I named him Winston. He got me through Afghanistan. I fly with him still.
RM: How did you handle the pressure of basic training, war, being a female in the military, etc.?
KH: With all the challenges I’ve faced, whether in the plane or with my gender or all those challenges, you really have to surround yourself with a great support network. For me, I am blessed to have a very, very supportive family. My father was an aviator, so I can call him and talk to him about military and aviation, which is really cool. Obviously, I rely on my mom a lot, as I said in the previous stories. My brother is in the military as well, and he is someone I can bounce ideas off of. He’s not an aviator, so he offers a different perspective, out-of-the-box thinking when it comes to leadership. I can really use him as a resource. I also surround myself with really great members of my community, male and female mentors, who help me grow as a Marine Corps officer by their examples and from their feedback. So it is important, no matter what you are struggling with, to surround yourself with a great support network.
RM: How did you prepare for your Blue Angels interview consisting of seventeen people?
KH: As much as they were interviewing me, I was also kind of interviewing the team. I told you we are on the road together 300 days out of the year. So if I don’t get along with them and they don’t get along with me, I wouldn’t want to be a part of that organization anyway. If I’m not a good fit, I don’t want to be miserable for the next two to three years of my life. So I prepared for the interview by just being myself. I wanted them to know the real me, and if they liked the real me then great. If they didn’t like me for me, then that was fine too. I’m not going to be around people who don’t like me. I think that’s important for all interviews. You can be prepared and do your research on the organization you are interviewing for so you are not completely blindsided by a question. But for the most part, you need to put out exactly who you are, the true person. You don’t want to have to put on a fake personality just to get hired. You want to be yourself. You want to make it on your own merit and your own personality.
RM: Other than #flylikeagirl, do you have any other special quotes that encourage you?
KH: There’s one quote that I tell everyone when they ask me, “What do you recommend to someone who wants to be a Blue Angels pilot?” That quote is, “Calm seas don’t make a skilled sailor.” What I mean by that is, it’s not the easy times in your life, and it’s not the smooth sailing or the calms seas that shape you as a person. Instead, it’s those rough seas; those storms that you have to weather that shape you. For me, they shaped me as a Marine, as an officer, and eventually as an aviator. They can shape you outside the military as a mom, as a sister, as a father, as a brother. It’s the hard times in life, and how you deal with those, that help shape you into a better person. But if you are constantly living in a high-stress environment and you don’t have those moments to breathe, it’s a recipe for failure. No matter how crazy your job is, even if you travel 300 days a year like me, you have to take those moments like I am doing on my day off today, to just breathe and enjoy the world around you. I enjoy seeing my friends on my days off. I enjoy walking on the beach. I enjoy reading a good book. I enjoy even mowing my lawn, just being outside. You have to find solace, comfort, and calm, in those little quiet moments, even in a stressful job, even in Afghanistan.
RM: What did it feel like to fly a plane for the first time?
KH: Well, I never flew with my grandfather or father. I never took the controls of an airplane until I was in college. The first couple of times you are obviously with the instructor. You always have them as your security blanket. If something goes wrong, the instructor will be able to land the plane. But once you get to a certain point in the syllabus, the instructor makes you do a solo flight. You are in there completely alone doing touch and goes in the pattern. I remember that particular day when the instructor landed the plane. He was like, “Okay, it’s your turn.” He got out of the plane and closed the door. I was by myself in there thinking, “No way. Okay. So this is my solo.” I remember taking off and turning downwind to get in the traffic patterns to practice my landing. Then every bump, every rattle, every sound that could be completely normal, that could have happened in every single flight with my instructor, I didn’t notice until I was alone. I was like, “Oh my gosh! Is the wing flying off?” I was just so worried at first. But once you can learn to relax and remind yourself the instructor had enough faith in you to get out and let you take your solo, you can have faith that you can handle an emergency if needed. And obviously, everything went fine for me. I had no emergencies, but I do remember every single noise freaking me out.
You get trained very well, so if something happens it’s almost second nature for you to react the way that you were trained.
RM: So what is your strategy for staying calm and relaxed when you are in an emergency situation?
KH: We call it compartmentalization. Anytime you get in the airplane, you need to leave all of your issues on the ground, like a fight with your spouse, or maybe your kid is misbehaving, you leave those problems on the ground. You focus on what’s going on in the airplane, so those problems don’t creep in and get in your head. Your main focus is to fly. The Navy and Marine Corps have perfected teaching people how to fly. It took two years for me to get my wings. It took me another six months to learn my airplane. Then it took eighteen months to become an aircraft commander. There is a very long pipeline until you are the one in charge. You get trained very well, so if something happens it’s almost second nature for you to react the way that you were trained.
RM: What are your career goals and personal goals after the Blue Angels and military?
KH: I’d love to be a mom. That is something in my life I have not done yet. I’m not married, so I’m not trying to put the cart before the horse, but some day. I do still have time because I am only thirty. But I have such a great relationship with my mom. I’d love to have that someday [with a child]. That’s definitely a part of my life that is unfulfilled. I see how much joy it brings my friends who have children. I respect all moms. It is an amazing job that they do. As far as the military goes, I’m just along for the ride. If the Marine Corps tells me where to go next, that’s where I am going to go. I will continue being a Marine until I’m not really having fun anymore. Then I might pursue a career on the outside. It might be public speaking. It might be flying. I am not sure. That’s way down the line. I owe at least two years to the Marine Corps after this tour is up. After those two years, I will reevaluate and decide if I want to stay in or not.
RM: What is your advice for kids who want to be like you?
KH: Study hard in school. Stay focused on your dream and your goal. Don’t let other things distract you, including people who tell you, “You can’t do it.” Don’t listen to them. If you put your mind to it, you can do it.