“There should be no barriers to thinking you can succeed in the military and there are many women who have. As my parents told me, ‘you can do it, and should do it, because you are independent, smart and skilled.’”
That quote by Leslie Taylor, vice commander of Naval Air Systems Command – the first woman to hold that position – is one of a number of inspirational quotes by women whose careers, both military and civilian, are featured in a new exhibit at the Patuxent River Naval Air Museum.
Titled “Women in Aviation: Exploring their Diverse Contributions to NAS Patuxent River and Beyond,” the permanent installation includes a few of the women who have served at, worked for, or passed through Pax River, recognizing their impact onboard the installation and throughout naval aviation.
Seven of the women in the exhibit, some of whom still work at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, were on hand at the museum on Nov. 12 last fall for a grand opening ceremony followed by a ribbon-cutting to officially introduce the display to the public.
“We really wanted to share the stories of women who have been pioneers and trailblazers in aviation; women who have broken barriers and found success within the STEM and STEAM fields,” Bailey Rios, the museum’s exhibit and program coordinator, said during her welcome speech to the crowd in attendance. “More specifically, women who have contributed to the aviation field here at Naval Air Station Patuxent River.”
One of the impressive women featured is retired Navy Reserve Capt. Colleen Nevius, first female aviator to graduate from the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School and one of the first two naval pilots assigned to and deployed with Helicopter Combat Support Squadron 6 flying the H-46 Sea Knight in the Vertical Replenishment mission, after the U.S. lifted the ban on women aboard Navy ships. Her advice is “Do the hardest things you can possibly envision yourself doing, because those are the most rewarding.”
Another H-46 pilot who was the first aboard a ship was Tracy Barkhimer, retired Navy captain and former program manager at Pax River with Air Combat Electronics (PMA-209).
“In 1994, her squadron embarked on our ship getting ready for deployment and they were bringing aboard women,” explained Eric Barkhimer, who was there on behalf of his wife, who was unable to attend. “The Navy was transitioning, and USS Camden (AOE-2) was one of the ships to transition. The two pilots — and that’s how we referred to them, as ‘the two pilots,’ — were coming onboard and I remember they had to wipe out part of the ‘officers country’ to make room for them because it was the only head, or restroom, they could partition off for the women.”
Back then, Barkhimer, assistant program manager for procurement for PMA-207 and 271, was a surface warfare officer on Camden and he admitted it took some of his shipmates time to get used to the new normal.
“People were uprooted and moved, and of course they blamed whoever was new,” he said. “But once the deployment happened and people were doing their jobs, it wasn’t a big issue. The bigger issue was when the rest of the crew started transitioning. It wasn’t about the women, it was that the ships weren’t configured for a mixed crew and that’s what created most of the concerns. But I met [my wife] there, so I’m happy. It all worked out.”
Naval aviator Capt. Molly Boron, currently with the NAVAIR Inspector General Office and former program manager at Aerial Target Systems (PMA-208), was the first woman to command a fleet P-8 squadron. She has said she understands the gravity of the rank she’s wearing; that she’s a female officer in the Navy. The quote on her exhibit panel reads “Be prepared for any opportunity, work hard, have a thick skin, be competent, have fun, and most of all, be a good teammate.”
Barbara Bell, a retired Navy captain who approached Capitol Hill in 1993 to repeal the combat exclusion laws for women, now works to end the gender gap in STEM fields. She notes that, “It’s not a matter of if you are going to meet challenge or resistance, but a matter of when and how you deal with it.”
In addition to the informational panels on each woman, there are video interviews that run on a loop and personal artifacts on display from their careers in naval aviation. There is also an additional online component to the exhibit at https://paxmuseum.com/women-in-aviation/ that delves deeper and offers suggestions for further reading.
“What makes this exhibit so special for us here at the museum is that we get the chance to tell a human story,” Rios noted. “It’s meant to share the success of women who have served this country in one way or another, from their perspective, and in return we hope to inspire others.”