When Lt. Sahara Graft checked into Patrol Squadron 45 in February 2021, she and a few other women in the squadron shared a dream: to one day complete an all-female flight together aboard the one of the squadron’s P-8A Poseidon aircraft.
“We always talked about how cool it would be for us to all fly together one day and even have an all-female flight,” Graft told Navy Times Thursday. “At the time, it didn’t seem possible.”
Sheer numbers stymied the dream at the time, Graft recalled, because there were not enough qualified women to fill each crew position in the Poseidon, which requires nine personnel to conduct its anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions.
Still, in the coming years, as more and more female crew members joined the squadron, Graft and her fellow squadron mates, Lt. Sarah Hoffman and Lt. Kelsey Smallwood, didn’t lose sight of their goal.
And when another woman pilot, Lt. j.g. Aubrey Ossenmacher, joined the squadron a few months ago, the women of VP-45 were adequately manned to pull off an all-female flight.
The milestone took place on Sept. 21, out of Jacksonville, Florida, during a training event that involved not only an all-female aircrew, but a ground and maintenance crew that were also all women. All told, 16 women were involved in the flight.
“This is the first time all of us have been able to do an all female flight,” Hoffman told Navy Times. “And then especially having the female ground crew, to maintenance personnel, was just something that we all had never seen before…it was very historic and special for all of us.”
That enthusiasm extended to all the air crew, as Naval Aircrewmen (Operator) 2nd Class Paige Rossi recalled the inspiration she felt leading up to the flight.
“I think you could really feel the empowerment that we all felt, from the brief, to the pre-flight, to the mission execution, even to landing,” Rossi said.
All-female flights – especially ones including female ground crew and maintenance – are rare in Navy aviation, recognized as a particularly male-dominated field in the service.
While roughly 21 percent of the Navy’s active-duty force were women as of Fiscal Year 2023, just more than 11percent of the Navy’s winged population are women, according to the Navy.
The Navy conducted an all-female flyover of F/A-18E/F Super Hornets in 2019 to honor retired Navy Capt. Rosemary Mariner at her funeral in Tennessee.
Mariner made history as the Navy’s first female jet pilot to fly the A-4E/L Skyhawk and the A-7E Corsair II, and also was the first female military aviator to command an operational air squadron.
All female pilots also participated in a flyover for the Super Bowl in February to celebrate 50 years of women in naval aviation, commemorating when the very first women entered Navy flight school in 1973.
“Let me tell you, it is absolutely humbling to see — I’ve been in the Navy 29 years — to see the growth and development of our armed services,” Cmdr. Michael Zdunkiewicz, Patrol Squadron 45′s commanding officer, told Navy Times. “This is a very important thing to me. And I cannot thank [enough] the female aviators who rallied to put this together to accomplish this type of mission.”
Other members who participated in the Sept. 21 flight included Lt. Eliza Austin, Lt. Ashley Heath, Lt. j.g. Alissa McNair, Naval Aircrewmen (Operator) 2nd Class Savannah Murray, Naval Aircrewmen (Operator) 2nd Class Alexia Heninger, and Naval Aircrewmen (Operator) 2nd Class Evelyn Valenzuela.
The maintenance crew included Senior Chief Aviation Machinist’s Mate Jackie Backlund, Aviation Ordnanceman 1st Class Natalie Martin, Aviation Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class Alia Teamer and Aviation Electronics Technician 2nd Class Kaitlyn Kaluzny.
Hoffman said the squadron’s women lean on each other for support, especially on deployment.
“To have a strong female bond within the squadron and having other women to help guide you, support you, that you can go to with questions that you wouldn’t want to talk to with anybody else about, has been really important,” she said. “It has helped me get through tough times with the squadron here over the past three years.”
Graft said the significance of what she and her fellow female comrades had accomplished set in as she left the plane after their dream flight had become reality.
“This was such an incredible opportunity,” Graft said. “And I know we all worked extremely hard to be qualified in our positions to get here, and so it was an amazing opportunity to share this experience with all of these hard working women.”