by Kaye Bennett
Who knew there was a glass ceiling over the sky? Patricia Webb ’78 knew it. And the now retired Colonel devoted her 33-year career with the United States Air Force to cracking through that ceiling–for herself and for all women. Like one of her heroes and inspirations, Amelia Earhart (for whose remains Webb would help search in 2012), Pat Webb has become a champion for airborne women everywhere.
Webb’s remarkable story starts a long time ago . . . on February 20, 1962, to be precise. That was when astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. Watching the event on TV at her family’s farm in Paw Paw, Mich., Pat Webb decided she wanted to be an astronaut.
But it was 1962 and Webb’s mom informed her that girls couldn’t be astronauts. (Today, Webb has many friends, male and female, in the astronaut corps.) The six-year-old Webb decided that even if she couldn’t be an astronaut she would nevertheless fly.
So she did. By the time she came to Kalamazoo College to major in music education and German, Webb had been flying as a private pilot for two years. She spent her K years taking part in all the music groups, from choir to orchestra to jazz ensembles, and playing with (though not on) the tennis team. But she still wanted to fly . . . and to travel. “I wanted to go everywhere,” she says.
Webb spent the summer after graduating from K teaching tennis at a kids’ summer camp in northern Wisconsin. Still, she had her sights set on the air.
Returning to Michigan that September, she applied to the Air National Guard in Battle Creek. Although the Air Force had opened flight training to women in 1976, there were still lots of restrictions on female fliers in those days, Webb recalls. Women couldn’t fly fighter planes, which was what the Battle Creek unit included. The National Guard explored the possibility of an exchange program with another unit, which would have transferred Webb to a base which flew aerial refueling tankers—the only platform women were allowed to fly at the time.
The exchange, says Webb, “would have worked eventually, but time was running out.” The age limit for entering flight training was 25½, and Webb was nearing that. While waiting for a flight slot in the Guard and working as an intelligence specialist, she applied to both the Air Force and the Navy for an active duty slot.
In those days, though women had just become allowed to train as pilots and navigators, classes had quotas for females. Women, says Webb, had to be the best, while men simply had to be good enough. Excelling was no problem for Webb, who consistently scored at the top of each entrance exam she took. But still there were the quotas, which were few and far between, and the clock was ticking.
Ultimately, Webb accepted the navigation slot offered by the Air Force and found that she “absolutely loved” being a navigator. She became the top navigator in her squadron.
By 1983 Webb’s reputation as a top military navigator, as well as a private pilot, was well known, and the commercial airlines started courting her. United Airlines offered her a job. “I almost went,” says Webb, “but I was having so much fun in the Air Force.”
Stationed at Beale Air Force Base in northern California, Webb was always deployed somewhere else, flying KC-135 tankers all over the world, followed by special operations C-130s. She navigated worldwide refueling and reconnaissance missions, tactical missions during Desert Shield and Desert Storm, humanitarian relief missions in Somalia, and counterdrug and firefighting airdrop missions. She worked in the intelligence and special operations field, in the Pacific, the Middle East, Central and South America. In 1996, Webb left active duty and joined the Air Force Reserve. At the same time, she began working for Science Applications International Corporation’s (SAIC) Technology and Advanced Systems business unit, supporting the intelligence community; at SAIC she achieved the level of director.
TIGHAR, an international group for historic aircraft recovery, has been conducting ground expeditions in the area of Amelia Earhart’s supposed crash site for years. In 2012, the 75th anniversary of the disappearance, an underwater exploration in the area was planned. The expedition was jointly announced by the Secretaries of State and Transportation. (Both departments had been involved in Earhart’s original endeavor.) Because of the expense, a huge campaign was launched to privately finance the expedition. As reported on the Discovery Channel, a program on which Webb appears, due to extraordinary equipment problems, the search was greatly shortened. The effort, therefore, did not find definitive remains of Earhart’s plane, though it did record many targets of particular interest that bear further investigation. TIGHAR plans to continue the search, and, says Webb, “I will continue to be involved.”
The continuing theme of Pat Webb’s life has been the quest for equal opportunities for women. “I kept
"I've never stopped pushing for women's equality."beating the door down to get all the doors opened to women,” she says. “I’ve never stopped pushing for women’s equality.”
Webb reflects on the changes she’s seen in her lifetime in attitudes toward women. When she was in high school, though they weren’t discouraged, girls were not encouraged in math and the sciences, she says, “even though we were always better.” Although Webb’s generation was the first in which girls were encouraged to go to college, once they got there, they tended to stick to the “softer subjects,” and, having graduated, most were still expected to get married, then stay home and raise the family. “I absolutely believe that a parent should raise the children, not a nanny,” says Webb, “but it doesn’t matter which parent.”
Webb has also seen massive changes in the military’s attitude toward women. Today, there are no jobs in the Air Force that are not open to women (there are still some restrictions in other services), and in all branches of the military, men and women doing the same work receive the same pay.
Webb credits her family for giving her the support and courage to succeed in her career. “Growing up on a farm,” she says, “everybody does everything. I felt like whatever my brother did, I could do, too.”
She also praises Kalamazoo College for preparing her to batter glass ceilings. “Everybody should get a liberal arts education and serve their country.” (Webb is a strong proponent of compulsory military service or national service.) “Then they have basic life skills and ownership in this country.” She adds that she also encourages students to do foreign study and to study languages. “I always tried to get involved with the women and children wherever I stayed. [No matter where they are], they always have the same concerns.”
Since retiring in November 2011, in addition to searching for Amelia Earhart, Webb continues to provide consultation to SAIC. She is also involved with Vital Voices, a non-profit organization founded by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton several years ago, to promote the advancement of women and girls around the world to positions of leadership.
Webb will give a talk about the Amelia Earhart Recovery Project at the Washington, D.C., alumni event on February 7.
Photo 1 - Pat Webb in the Pentagon, near a display with special meaning for her.
Photo 2 - Pat Webb dockside during the search for Amelia Earhart.