By Melissa Quinn
No nation can reach its full potential if half its population is left behind.
The mantra is a favorite of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and for retired Air Force Col. Patricia Webb, it’s one that mirrors her life.
While she may not admit it, the Alexandrian’s name could be easily interchanged with that of Amelia Earhart or Eileen Collins as a female pioneer in aviation, becoming one of the first women to train for a pilot’s slot in the U.S. Air Force.
Webb paved the way for generations to come, but for her, flying was just a dream. And she wasn’t going to take no for an answer.
It was February 20, 1962, and John Glenn had made history. Glenn’s orbit around the earth held the attention of the nation, and in particular that of a 6-year-old watching television at her family’s farm in Paw Paw, Mich.
Webb was mesmerized and knew in that moment she wanted to fly. She wanted to be among the stars: she wanted to be an astronaut.
But women were not allowed to become astronauts, her mother, Eva, told her. She’d just have to settle with being a flight attendant.
“It never occurred to me that I couldn’t do what I wanted to do,” Webb said. “Because I always had. I never went through a period of never being able to do something.”
And Webb knew she wanted to fly.
She set out to earn her pilot’s license at the age of 16, paying her way through lessons by picking asparagus, berries and apples, staying with elderly neighbors through the night, and giving clarinet lessons.
Still, earning a private pilot’s license can be costly, and after Webb enrolled at Kalamazoo College, majoring in music education and German, flying temporarily took a back seat.
While women were first granted the opportunity to train as Air Force pilots in 1976, it wasn’t the first time females took to the skies.
With the armed forces facing a shortage of aviators during World War II, a group of civilian women trained as pilots. Known as WASPs — Women Airforce Service Pilots — the band of sisters flew more than 60 million miles of noncombat military missions. More than 1,000 women participated, but the government disbanded the program after the war.
It would be another 32 years before the Air Force considered allowing women to train with its flyboys. Congress wasn’t ready to put them in the compromising situations that being a pilot can lead to, Webb said.
“What if we’re shot down? What if we’re killed? What if we’re taken [as] POWs?” Webb asked. “[Congress] hadn’t conditioned themselves to think of women in those situations.”
Though Washington finally opened up pilot slots to women, they faced quotas, long waits for assignments, and for Webb — who was fast approaching the 25-and-a-half-year-old age limit to become a pilot — the clock was ticking.
Navigating a new course
Webb’s passion for flying did not dwindle during her time at Kalamazoo. She received her pilot’s license at 21, and then the Air Force changed their policy.
It was her mother who first encouraged her to join the Air National Guard in Battle Creek, Mich., while waiting for a pilot’s slot.
But at that time, women were not allowed to fly fighter planes, and that was all Battle Creek had to offer. The base considered transferring Webb to another unit that included aerial refueling tankers, which women were allowed to fly, but she was quickly approaching the age of 25.
Instead, she worked as an intelligence specialist and applied for active duty pilot slots with the Air Force and Navy.
“I don’t think I would have joined active duty initially because that was so intimidating to me,” Webb said. “I loved the National Guard and thought active duty would be great for me. It was a stepping process.”
Then, in 1978, her number was called. Webb entered Officer Training School, but by that time, there was a big drawdown and pilot slots dwindled. Instead, she was given a navigator’s assignment — a blessing in disguise.
“I loved being a navigator, and I didn’t want to change to become a fighter pilot,” she said. “I wanted to be an astronaut, I wanted to be pilot, I wanted to fly commercially. I didn’t do any of that. But everything I did was so great.”
Though Webb worked as a navigator, she went through all the training to be a pilot and consistently ranked as the top in her class and squadron.
“You can’t make your case if you’re not as good as the guys,” she said. “We had to get people’s mental capacity more conditioned to accept women in these roles. Women have always been able to do it.”
Her mother pinned her wings when she graduated from Officer Training School, and Webb became one of a handful of female aviators.
She continued her career as a navigator, working on KC-135 tankers and then C-130s on special operations missions. Webb was deployed all over the world, participated in Desert Storm and Desert Shield, and conducted humanitarian efforts in Somalia — her favorite mission.
She’s been behind enemy lines, dropped paratroopers from the back of her plane and fought fires from the sky, but for Webb, it was all part of her destiny.
“When you’re dressed up in that flight suit and you’ve got your helmet and parachute, you feel like you’re real … there wasn’t anything that was going to stop me,” she said.
A changing landscape
Women were prohibited from participating in combat for decades, but in 1994, Jackie Parker became the first to fly an F-16 combat plane. Eileen Collins — who went through training with Webb — became the first female space shuttle commander in 1999.
And in January, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced all combat positions would be open to women.
“Equal opportunity, then best qualified,” Webb said of the development. “They need to look at who can do it and take those people. There are men who can do it; there are men who can’t do it. Take your best talent.”
Webb officially left active duty in 1996 and retired after 33 years with the Air Force in 2011. She was hired by SAIC in the early ‘90s but scaled back to campaign with Clinton during her presidential run.
Webb then worked as a counterterrorism advisor during Clinton’s years as a member of President Barack Obama’s cabinet. But now, she’s taking it easy.
She continues working with Clinton’s organization, Vital Voices, and has taken a job teaching counterterrorism and covert operations at the National Intelligence University. But after that, the sky is the limit.
Maybe she’ll pursue her other dream job — working for NASCAR — or work in public relations, but she knows she’ll never sit still.
“When I wake up in the morning, I say ‘OK, I guess I need to do something today,’” she said.
For Webb, sitting with her feet planted firmly on the ground has never been an option — she was born to fly.