Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Women Who Inspire: Interview with Catherine (McCann) Gillies

This is the second in a series of interviews of women who inspire the strong female protagonists I favor when writing my novels.

Cathy was notably the first female pilot to fly in any Marine Corps aviation squadron.

Catherine (McCann) Gillies graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from the US Naval Academy and reported to flight school in Pensacola, FL. During her 20-year active duty career, she flew the H-3 and H-1 helicopters and was notably the first female pilot to fly in any Marine Corps aviation squadron. She holds two masters degrees and earned a Doctorate in Industrial and Organizational Psychology. She completed her career serving as the Executive Officer of Navy Operational Support Center (NOSC) Baltimore. Catherine retired with the rank of Lieutenant Commander (O-4) and is currently teaching in the Masters of Industrial/Organizational Psychology program for Argosy University Online. Catherine lives with her two daughters and one son in Annapolis, MD.

AW: You flew the H-3 helicopter off of five different aircraft carriers during your time at HC-16. How long were you aboard the carriers typically and what was your primary mission?

CG: We stayed aboard anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months and provided SAR (Search and Rescue) support for jet pilots earning their carrier landing quals. We also helped with hurricane evacuations among other things.

AW: You and your roommate, a USNA ’88 grad, were the first two female pilots stationed aboard the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk. Any sea stories you’d like to relate from that time?

CG: Well, they used to post Marine Corps guards outside our stateroom doors. This was the case on several of the aircraft carriers in the early days. It made my roommate and me uncomfortable because they could hear us moving around the room and talking, so we would order them to leave. Usually, their superiors would send them back, but after several days of back and forth and me reminding them that I outranked their boss, they would finally relent and leave us alone.

AW: You are featured in Linda Maloney’s book, Military Fly Moms. In it, you relate a story that happened on a different aircraft carrier when you called the ship’s weather forecasters for a weather briefing for your flight.

CG: (Laughs). Yeah, I called for a weather briefing, the sailor on the other end of the line laughed, asked me
how I had gotten his number and who had put me up to this. He then stated there were no women aboard the ship before hanging up on me! This was long before the days of cell phones, so I had to be on the ship to call him in his office!

AW: Any other funny carrier moments?

CG: I guess this wasn’t exactly funny for him, but a junior petty officer rounded a corner in the passageway near my stateroom on the Kitty Hawk and obviously wasn’t expecting to see a woman standing there. He just stared—gawking—and while his head was turned, ran straight into the bulkhead.

AW: I guess you were definitely a novelty! Which leads me to your time with HMT-303. You were the first female pilot to be stationed with a Marine Corps squadron, flying Hueys out of Camp Pendleton. I was lucky to have you as an instructor when I transitioned to H-1’s, but how were you received there?

CG: You know, I think you were the only other female I saw come through HMT-303 while I was there. But I would say it was more awkward than my time in Navy squadrons. I was just trying to fit in, but it seemed I was always getting a lot of attention with the base newspaper or the base TV station. It made me stand out when I just wanted to be one of the guys.

AW: Speaking of Marine Corps aviation, can you relate the story about chopping through the halls as a plebe and what you were not allowed to say? [As a plebe, or freshman, at the Naval Academy, you are not allowed to walk in the dormitory hallways—you have to jog, eyes straight ahead. It’s called chopping. And whenever you turn a corner, like to turn down a hallway from the main corridor, you must yell something motivational like “Go Navy!” or “Beat Army!”]

CG: My second classman stopped me in the hall because I had just yelled “Fly Marine Corps, Sir!” He informed me that I couldn't say that since women weren't allowed to fly in the Marine Corps. Ironic, huh?

AW: Love that story. So had you always wanted to go to the Naval Academy?

CG:  I did. I grew up in Annapolis and I was in middle school when the first women were admitted there. I thought how cool it would be to go to sea and travel the world.

AW: Had you always wanted to be a pilot?

CG: No, actually, I was intending to go Surface Warfare, but my roommates at Navy talked me out of it.

AW: Good decision?

CG: Yeah, I loved it, but I will say that throughout my career, I was usually the only female pilot in my squadron. I had the other female pilot in HC-16, and then you came and went at HMT-303, but most often, I was the only one. But, yeah, it was great.


  1. Anne, how can I get in touch with Cathy? I'm an old childhood friend. My name is Karena Vernon Flournoy. U can reach me at 904.428.6265 and leave a voice mail or text

  2. Hi Karena, I passed along your phone number to her!