By MS. BETTY NYLUND BARR, STAFF WRITER
Kathy La Sauce started pushing the envelope early. “I look back at myself,” she says. “When I was in fourth grade, I wanted to play the trumpet, and they said, ‘Girls don’t do that.’ I wanted to be the drum major of the marching band, and they said, ‘That’s for guys.’”
Kathy was born in Queens, NY, and grew up on Long Island. In the 1960s, when she was in high school and then at Ithaca College, in upstate New York, many of her male classmates were being drafted to fight in Vietnam. When Kathy graduated from college, she explored joining the Air Force.
She discovered that women who wanted to be officers in the Air Force had to attend a 12-week training course—or, as she calls it, “indoctrination”—in which they were taught poise and how to apply makeup. Although women Air Force Officers (WAFs) had to march as a separate squadron and were not allowed to do small arms training or run the obstacle course, La Sauce said, “You could see the Air Force was starting to realize that women were the answer to shortfalls throughout the noncombat field.”
“I felt pretty lucky that I was selected into the Air Force,” La Sauce said. She was in the first group of women trained as aircraft maintenance officers at Chanute Air Force Base (AFB) in Illinois.
At her first duty station at Travis AFB in California, she was a flightline maintenance officer in charge of 120 maintenance personnel (all male) and 40 C-141s. With no appropriate uniform for women on the flightline, she was authorized to wear men’s fatigues and steel-toed combat boots. When her sister visited, she had asked La Sauce, “Aren’t you uncomfortable? You’re the only woman in the entire building!” “I never noticed,” La Sauce said. “I always tried to maintain my femininity. Just because you’re doing what has been ‘traditionally’ [air quotes] a man’s job does not mean you need to lose your femininity or your identity.”
When she would jump onto a plane to sign the Exceptional Release, which verifies that the plane is safe and ready to fly, the men would question why a woman was on their plane. She would tell them, “Well, without my signature, you’re not going to fly.” Looking back, she said, “It was kind of a unique situation to be in.”
She wanted to be more involved in the war effort, but women were not allowed in combat unless they were there as nurses, so she went to C-130 school and learned how to run engines. She was subsequently stationed in Guam, where she oversaw the Typhoon Chasers, whose duty was to fly their planes through a storm, test its strength, and report their findings so that warnings could be sent ahead of the storm.
While La Sauce was in Guam, legislation was enacted to open Air Force Service Academies to women— “a test program to explore the possibilities of women flying airplanes,” she chuckled. “It was pretty amusing, I thought.” In July 1976, she was chosen to be in the first class of women to be trained as Air Force pilots.
Her first airplane, at Williams AFB in Arizona, was the Cessna T-37. Then she flew the T-38 supersonic aircraft—which could reach speeds of Mach 1.2—in formation, wingtip to wingtip. She was 27 years old and a Captain. “The men really didn’t want us [women] there, but once you fly wingtip to wingtip with another pilot who thinks he’s God’s gift to aviation, and he realizes that you outflew him, it didn’t take long for them to realize that we were pretty good pilots.”
At Norton AFB in California, La Sauce’s commander, Col Duane Cassidy, was very supportive, and she became the first female C-141 copilot. “It was considered a really big deal back then,” she said.
Her 10-day aircraft commander check ride was fraught with equipment malfunctions and bad weather. Upon her return, the loadmaster commented that the only emergency La Sauce didn’t experience during her check ride was ditching in the ocean. “It’s probably one of the best things that could have happened to me—having all these malfunctions,” La Sauce said, “because not only did it build my self- confidence but it built the confidence of the men that I flew with that ‘You have nothing to worry about, flying with La Sauce, because she’s a good pilot.’
“So, it paved the way.”
“So, it paved the way.”
She became an instructor pilot and was promoted to Major, but when she was going to be assigned to another desk job, La Sauce spoke up. “I explained to the Colonel, ‘You know, all the women after me are going to be watching to see what happens. I want to fly in the presidential support squad at Andrews [AFB, MD].’” She became the first woman in that very prestigious unit— the Special Air Mission, or SAM.
Then, La Sauce became ill and could no longer physically qualify to fly, which to her was “heartbreaking.” She took a staff job at the Pentagon, but then key decision-makers at Headquarters chose her to command the 93rd Aerial Port Squadron at Andrews AFB—again, the first woman to do so—where she led an elite, highly qualified group of Air Force personnel. The position is normally held by an individual for 1 year; however, she wrote to the relevant board—twice—and was allowed to extend her command to 3 years.
By then the Air Force contained women and men, which, according to La Sauce, “added a whole new perspective to deployment and what women could and couldn’t do. Women were loading airplanes, we were fixing airplanes, we were flying airplanes, and we were commanding squadrons.”
La Sauce’s career proves that, according to her, “You really can do anything you set your mind to…with hard work, determination, motivation, personality. I basically feel very blessed that my career in aviation started breaking barriers, little by little.”
As airlift’s first female Aircraft Maintenance Officer, Pilot, and Aerial Port Squadron Commander, La Sauce is truly an inspiration who helped open many doors for women who turn wrenches, fly our aircraft, or command squadrons today.