Falling Out Of The Sky

LT. (J.G.) CAREY LOHRENZ WANTED to fit in. She was willing to put up with the loutish behavior of her fellow pilots, the misogynist jokes and the male strutting. She understood why naval aviators sometimes act like fraternity boys. Landing a 35-ton, $40 million warplane on a heaving deck in the middle of the night is extremely difficult. In the clubby world of naval aviators, macho posturing is a way of fighting off fear, drinking and carousing a way of easing the pressure. Lohrenz, a 22-year-old University of Wisconsin grad whose father, brother and husband were all navy or Marine pilots, was eager to join the brotherhood.

Lohrenz was one of five female combat pilots assigned to Air Group 11 aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in the summer of 1994. As they steamed toward the Persian Gulf to fly their first-ever missions over the Iraq no-fly zone in April 1995, the women of Air Group 11 didn't feel they were getting much help from their squadron mates or their commanding officer, Capt. Dennis (Dizzy) Gillespie. About a week into the cruise, Gillespie summoned the female pilots for tea and cookies. He told the women that since they had come aboard, the ship was cleaner and ""smelled better.'' But, he said, he wasn't sure the American people were ready to see women taken prisoners of war. He explained that he regarded the women under his command the way he did his own wife--as females who needed to be protected. Gillespie told NEWSWEEK that he was just being ""open'' and "",'' but the women thought they were being patronized. They felt they were being singled out as women, not treated as fellow officers. Worse, they believed they were being set up to fail. Normally, out of 120 or so pilots aboard a carrier on a cruise, one or two might wash out. But today, none of the five women assigned to combat aircraft in Air Group 11 is flying off a carrier. One, Kara Hultgreen, died in a crash. Three others, including Carey Lohrenz, were grounded at least temporarily for poor flying, and one asked to be transferred.

The navy is trying to find out what went wrong in Air Group 11. NEWSWEEK has learned that a still-secret draft of an inspector general's report questions whether the women of Air Group 11 were given adequate support from their shipmates and superior officers on the USS Abraham Lincoln. All new carrier pilots--""nuggets,'' in navy jargon--need extra teaching and training to become accomplished at the precarious business of landing jets at sea. Aboard the Abraham Lincoln, the women were left to sink or swim.

Air Group 11 illustrates a subtle but important problem in the integration of women into the ranks. There is no allegation that these women were crudely harassed like the victims of the 1991 Tailhook scandal. Rather, it appears that the female pilots aboard the Abraham Lincoln were quietly ostracized and derided. Warriors talk about ""unit cohesion,'' the intricate relationships that bond fighting men together. Because soldiers die for their buddies, not out of abstract notions of patriotism, those bonds can make the difference between fighting and fleeing. The Pentagon insists that women are now being welcomed into the fleet and that their failure rate is not significantly higher than that of male pilots. But the experience of the female fliers aboard the Abraham Lincoln--or the ""Babe,'' as it was quickly dubbed--shows that some deep prejudices will have to be overcome before women can be accepted as top guns.

Glamour boys: For Lohrenz, the voyage of the Abraham Lincoln in the spring of 1995 was a lonely travail. Lohrenz is a tall (6-foot-1), solidly built (160-pound) woman. She can ""take a dirty joke,'' she says. She speaks evenly and without emotion about her experience. But she is clearly bitter about what she calls the navy's ""betrayal.''

Lohrenz was still fresh from flight training when she became one of the first two women ever qualified to fly F-14s on combat missions. The F-14 Tomcat is the navy's premier fighter plane, and its pilots have long been regarded as concerned glamour boys, the ""best of the best.'' Notoriously unstable, the F-14 has a history of mechanical malfunctions, and it is especially difficult to land on a carrier. Of the 632 Tomcats built since 1972, an astonishing number--144--have crashed.

Before shipping out for the gulf, Air Group 11 spent some six months practicing off the Pacific coast. During her training, Lohrenz grew close to the other female F-14 pilot, Kara Hultgreen, a blunt, spirited woman known as ""The Hulk.'' On Oct. 25, 1994, Lohrenz was the cockpit of her F-14 at Miramar Naval Air Station in California, revving up her engines for a flight out to the Abraham Lincoln, when her radio crackled with an order to ""stand down.'' Five minutes later she learned that a pilot had crashed an F-14 while trying to land on the carrier. Lohrenz immediately guessed that the pilot was Hultgreen.

When a pilot is killed, his mates often take a few days off. But Lohrenz had to make 10 ""passes'' at landing on the carrier the day she learned her comrade had died. True, pilots are taught to ""compartmentalize'' their emotions. ""It doesn't matter if your left foot is on fire or you've just heard that your mom and dad are dead,'' she says. ""You do your job.'' Still, Lohrenz knew she was in trouble when she taxied out that morning. ""I'm going to have some snakes in the cockpit today,'' she told her RIO, the radar intercept officer who sits behind the pilot in an F-14.

Too fast: Lohrenz did not fly well that in day. Twice she ""boltered'': she came in too high and too fast, and the tailhook of her plane failed to snag one of the four arresting wires on the ship's deck. She was forced to abort the landing and try again. Getting planes aboard quickly is important in wartime: a carrier steaming straight and steady into the wind to recover fighters makes a fat target for enemy submarines. Pilots are marked down for boltering by the officers who grade their every landing. But Lohrenz was afraid of a worse fate: coming in too low and cracking up her plane on the fantail.

When Lohrenz stumbled into her squadron ready room after flying that day, none Out of her mates criticized her. But there was little commiseration over Hultgreen's death. The ready room, with its personalized armchairs, is the squadron's frat house, the place where pilots swap war stories and nuggets are initiated into the rites of fighter jockdom with rough-and-tumble joking. The camaraderie is often raunchy. On the floor of the ready room of Lohrenz's squadron, VF-213, is the squadron symbol, a black lion with a pair of big golden testicles. When Lohrenz and Hultgreen came aboard, the lion's balls were covered over with blue tile. Meanwhile, the officers in the newly integrated squadrons grumbled that they were no longer allowed to watch porno movies in the ready room. They also resented the intense media interest in the women. Naval aviators are accustomed to being the center of attention, and the men disliked the fact that reporters were brushing by them to talk to the women on board.

Lohrenz says she was never insulted or hazed. Indeed, she was treated with almost formal correctness by most of her mates. But beneath their politeness she felt an edge of scorn. Pilots go by their ""call signs,'' their slangy radio identification. The call sign of Lohrenz's squadron skipper, Cmdr. Fred Killian, is ""Killer.'' After Lohrenz became airsick and threw up, her mates changed her call sign from ""Vixen'' to ""Ralph.''

The coolness toward Lohrenz grew in March, when the navy officially blamed Hultgreen's death on mechanical failure. Most on ship, including Lohrenz, believed that pilot error had been a factor in the crash. Hultgreen had come in off course and overcorrected, rolling her plane into a fatal dive. The fliers felt the brass was covering up--part of the ""double standard'' protecting women. ""You know,'' some pilots began telling Lohrenz, ""you're the only one left.''

Lohrenz tried to keep her mind on the cruise to the Persian Gulf, which began that April. But she was furious when Gillespie required the women aboard to take a pregnancy test a few days out of port. ""You trust me to fly a $40 million airplane, but you don't trust me to tell you if I'm pregnant?'' she asked her skipper, Commander Killian. Lohrenz says he told her to take the test or show up the next afternoon in her dress blue uniform to face an admiral's mast, a disciplinary hearing for offenses like showing disrespect to a senior officer. Killian is at sea and could not be reached for comment.

A week later Lohrenz's private embarrassment turned into a public humiliation. She was handed a batch of newspaper clippings that were circulating around the ship. The stories, printed in The San Di- ego Union-Tribune and The Washington Times, alleged that Hultgreen and another female F-14 pilot, identified as ""Pilot B,'' were unqualified to fly F-14s. Quoting a right-wing defense group, the stories said the two women had been sent out to the fleet for political reasons. Since she was the only other female F-14 pilot, Lohrenz was easily identified as Pilot B. Like many men, she had failed to qualify for carrier duty the first time around. But she had been rated ""average'' on a second try. The articles, however, made her seem incompetent. Horrified, Lohrenz realized, as she read the stories, that someone had stolen her training records and leaked a selective and doctored version. The sto- ries were inaccurate, but no matter: her mates began jeeringly calling her ""Pilot B.''

Her superiors made no effort to correct the record. According to Lohrenz, her RIO, Lt. J. (Chewy) Chewning, began telling her that women shouldn't be allowed to fly combat missions. ""Knock it off, Chewy,'' said Lohrenz. ""The plane doesn't know if I'm a man or a woman.'' Chewning insisted that if the plane crashed and he was hurt, she would not be able to drag him to safety. Lohrenz, who weighs as much as Chewning, scoffed. But she was discouraged by the vote of no confidence from her ""teammate.'' Chewning did not return calls from NEWSWEEK.

Lohrenz desperately wanted someone to talk to. Her roommates aboard, a pair of women pilots who flew a prop plane that carried the ship's mail, told her to keep her ""chin up,'' but they weren't fighter pilots. Male nuggets are often quietly helped by veteran fliers. Lohrenz had no mentor.

Ready room: Two female F/A-18 pilots roomed across the passageway from Lohrenz. These women, as Lohrenz knew, were having problems of their own. When Lt. Pam Carel first arrived at her squadron ready room, her skipper coldly told her not to hang around with the other junior officers. Since hanging around with the guys is the purpose of the ready room, Carel was frustrated. But she understood: in the wake of Tailhook the men were afraid to be seen joking or flirting with a woman officer for fear of being accused of sexual harassment. She was less understanding about a later skipper, Cmdr. Dave Wood, who, Lohrenz says, would put his arm around Carel's shoulder as she walked from the ready room to the flight deck before missions. The normal ritual is to leave pilots alone during this nervous time. Wood, Lohrenz recalls, would admonish Carel: ""You better not f--k up.'' Wood declined to be interviewed.

Lohrenz would later puzzle over why Carel and her roommate, Lt. Brenda Scheufele, didn't talk to her more. She finally attributed their distance to what navy hands call the ""heat-transfer theory.'' It holds that if the heat is on, your friends don't want to get too close, lest they be burned. ""I felt completely alone,'' says Lohrenz.

Her faltering confidence began to affect her flying. After performing well enough over the winter, she began boltering again as the cruise neared the Persian Gulf. Twice on night flights off Hong Kong she came in too high and too hard and missed the wire. She was particularly unnerved by one of the officers grading her landings, Lt. Cmdr. Rhinehart (Rhino) Wilkie. ""Rhino loved to call me "Pilot B.' He thought that was a real riot.'' Wilkie did not return calls.

By now Lohrenz was crying every night in her bunk. Two nights out of Singapore, she boltered again. Rhino seemed smug about giving ""Pilot B'' a low grade. As the Abraham Lincoln entered the warm waters of the gulf, Lohrenz knew she was in serious trouble. On May 27 she was scheduled to fly her first combat mission, patrolling the no-fly zone over southern Iraq. When she came into the ready room that morning, she saw that her name had been removed from the posted schedule. ""Skipper wants to see you,'' said the operations officer. ""I felt like throwing up,'' she recalls.

Lohrenz's skipper, Killian, told her she was being summoned before a Field Naval Aviation Evaluations Board. Dreaded by aviators, an FNAEB is a board of fellow aviators who decide if a pilot should be grounded for unsafe flying. Lohrenz was not hopeful about the outcome. Though 12 of the Abraham Lincoln's 117 pilots had lower average scores than hers, she knew she was a target. An FNAEB is allowed to make subjective judgments. Lohrenz's flying was rated ""unpredictable, related to personal factors,'' according to one report. ""A tragic disaster is just a matter of time,'' wrote Gillespie in his evaluation. Lohrenz was surprised; she had not been told of her declining ratings. But Gillespie insisted to NEWSWEEK that Lohrenz had received ""plenty of feedback'' and that she had been welcomed as ""one of the guys.''

'A leper': It took Lohrenz's superior officers a month to decide her fate. In the meantime, ""I just hung around like a leper,'' she says. Finally, she was told that she had been grounded and was ordered back to San Diego. Before she left, she saw Carel in the bathroom. ""Be careful,'' she warned Carel. ""They'll be gunning for you next.'' Carel replied, ""I know.'' Carel was summoned before an FNAEB a few weeks lat- er and put on probation. Though she rejoined the fleet and flew well, she was later passed over for promotion. Carel was the third female pilot from Air Group 11 to be grounded. Another pilot, Nancy Nichols, who flew an EA-6B Prowler, had been grounded in March, before the Abraham Lincoln left for the Persian Gulf. The last remaining woman combat pilot, Scheufele, came down with a stomach illness for several weeks and finally left to become a test pilot.

Today Carey Lohrenz has a desk job at Miramar. Her title on the base is chief of recycling. ""I can tell you a lot about the price of cardboard,'' she says. Lohrenz has hired a lawyer and is suing the navy for falsely leaking her records. In the meantime she has had a baby, a girl. She remains, she says, ""devastated. No one stood up for me. Aviators are a pack. Usually they'll defend each other, no matter what. I thought I was one of their own. But I wasn't.''