Thursday, February 26, 2015

Women Who Inspire: Interview with Cathy (Donohue) Phillips

Cathy (Donohue) Phillips graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Political Science from the US Naval Academy.  After completing flight training, she was designated a Naval Flight Officer, and reported to Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron TWO (VQ-2) in Rota, Spain, where she earned her qualification as an EP-3 Electronic Warfare Mission Commander. Subsequently, she became the first woman to command an EP-3 squadron—Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron ONE (VQ-1). During her twenty-five year career, Cathy also served in the Office of Legislative Affairs in Washington, D. C., while concurrently serving as a White House Military Social Aide. She completed US Naval Test Pilot School in Patuxent River, MD, and upon graduation, served as a project officer at Naval Force Aircraft Test Squadron. She has logged over 3,000 flight hours in 23 types of aircraft. In addition, she served at the US Naval Academy, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the Defense Information Systems Agency. Cathy retired from naval service in November 2014 with the rank of Captain (O-6).  

AW: Cathy, your resume is sort of out of control. When you graduated from the Naval Academy, did you have any idea that you would be taking this path?

CP: No. None at all. It happened tour by tour. After each tour, I’d say, okay, I’m done. Then they’d offer me the job for the next tour, and I’d think, well, that sounds interesting.

AW: You served as a Naval Flight Officer (NFO) in an EP-3 squadron, VQ-2, in Rota, Spain, as your first tour of duty after flight school. Were there many women in your command?

CP: We had around five hundred people in our command—these are large squadrons—and probably seventy to eighty officers in the wardroom. Of those, maybe four or five were women. Reconnaissance had recently opened up to women when we were in flight school—a stair step leading to women flying  combat aircraft.

AW: And how about on the aircraft itself, when you’d go on missions? What was the crew composition there?

CP: We had twenty-four people on the plane.  We’d carry three pilots, three NFOs, and 18 technical crewmembers. We needed so many people because of the signals intelligence work we did.

AW: Describe this just a bit. What kind of missions did you do and how long were they?

CP: We did a wide variety of missions. We flew a lot in support of Bosnia and Herzegovina doing combat reconnaissance missions. My longest flight was 11.6 hours. We did a lot of looking at battle space, gathered information, we’d talk with entities on the ground, on ships, and on other aircraft, providing real-time situational awareness. We’d never fly above 26,000 feet. I called us big, fat, slow, and ugly!

AW: Ha! And were you flying from Rota or were you forward deployed?

CP: We forward deployed to Souda Bay in Crete. I probably spent almost two years in Crete.

AW: Two years in Greece . . . Are you kidding?

CP: That was a great tour.

AW: No doubt! So on your flights, were you ever the only woman onboard?

CP: Oh, many times.

AW: Any difficulties in this regard?

CP: No. I didn’t really have any issues on my JO [Junior Officer] tour. The only small thing was that we’d always send someone out to the carrier to act as a liaison with the EP-3. I was in the rotation to go to the carrier, but they said they wouldn’t take me aboard, because it was too hard for them to figure out the berthing. [At this time, before 1994, women were prohibited from serving aboard combatant ships]. But that was really it. What I found out later in my career is that there were a few guys who didn’t have trouble working with women, but had trouble working for women, but overall, no big issues.

AW: Which you would know about, since, for example, you were the first woman to command an EP-3 squadron. Which is really amazing when you think about it. When you first started flight school, they had just opened reconnaissance up to women and then—what, seventeen years, eighteen years?—later, you’re taking command of a reconnaissance squadron!

CP: Yeah, everything really opened up for us. Sara [Joyner] was the first female CO [commanding officer] for Hornets. Heidi Fleming took command of a squadron . . .
AW: What about ’89, indeed! Now, because you had the unique opportunity to command a squadron, I’m curious how you perceived your female junior officers when you were a CO. Do you see a difference in the female junior officer now as opposed to twenty-five years ago?

CP: I think everything has changed a great deal. The women who were my junior officers when I was a CO were just toddlers when we attended the Naval Academy.

AW: Yikes! How’s that for feeling old?

CP: I know! [laughs]. As you know, our “generation” of officers moved into the fleet just a few years before combatants were opened up to women. It seems, as a whole, we waited later to marry and have kids, if we married or had kids at all. My son was only two years old when I entered my XO [executive officer] and CO tour. What I see now is that the female junior officers are marrying and having children sooner. They’re just having to finesse things differently than we did.

AW: Because you mention your son, I’d like to backtrack to find out about your husband. Where did you meet him and was he in the service, too?

CP: We met in Pax River [Patuxent River, Maryland]. He was a P-3 pilot.

AW: When did you get married and how did that work in terms of co-location?

CP: We dated—long distance—for the first year of my department head tour in Rota, Spain, and then were engaged for the second year. We got married just a few months before I rotated out. I then received orders to the Naval Academy and my husband retired from the service during that tour. This worked out perfectly, because when I eventually took orders to VQ-1 for my XO and CO tour, [Whidbey Island, Washington], he was able to move with me and our son out there and work as a contractor for Homeland Security.
AW: How was your command tour?

CP: A hard tour. A good tour. So much to juggle. We had around 500 people operating all over the world. We didn’t deploy as a squadron, but would send detachments out. So we’d send the JOs out with their plane for two months and we had planes all over the world.  We supported Operation IRAQI FREEDOM. We had crews in South America. We had them in Japan for Operation ENDURING FREEDOM. Over the course of that year, when I was CO, I took eight or nine trips around the world to spend time with each detachment. Lots of travel. Lots of time away. Our son was between two and four years old at the time, so that was hard.  But my husband spent a lot of time at home with him and developed a great and very sweet relationship with him. At the end of my CO tour, we were exhausted.

AW: I realize I’m skipping around here, but I want to go back to the tour prior to Test Pilot School, where you were performing two jobs concurrently. You worked in the Office of Legislative Affairs in Washington, D. C. , working as a liaison officer between the House of Representatives and the navy. And at the same time you served as a White House Military Social Aide. I’m curious about the White House job. What was that?

CP: This was a collateral duty that you had to apply and be selected for. There were five or six of us—junior officers from all branches of service—and basically, you were there to help the President and his family host state dinners and receptions.

AW: How cool is that? So what did this entail?

CP: We would have different assignments depending on the dinner. Like one of us might be at the door to greet guests and welcome them to the White House. Or one of us might escort guests upstairs. We met all sorts of people, movie stars, really interesting people.

AW: And were you dressed up? In uniform?

CP: We wore mess dress [a formal uniform in the navy]. And we would also do receiving line duty. And this was actually a highly orchestrated event.

AW: You mean, directing people to the receiving line?

CP: No, more than that. We had several people assigned to the receiving line, all with specific jobs. We had the Announcer, the Pre-Announcer,  the Whisperer—

AW: The Whisperer?

CP: The person who stood behind the President and whispered in his ear about who was coming next in the receiving line. The Whisperer received his information from the Announcers.

AW: Were you ever the Whisperer?

CP: I never got to be the Whisperer.

AW: Anything else we need to know about the inner workings of the receiving line?

CP: We had Pull-off people, too.

AW: Pull-off people? I hesitate to ask. . . .

CP:  Yeah. Pull-off One and Pull-off Two. To keep the receiving line moving, we would have people assigned to “pull” the person talking to the President or another dignitary in order to keep the line moving. “Now, right this way, sir.” Stuff like that.

AW: I had no idea.

CP: You just can’t believe how smoothly everything is run. There’s a civilian protocol officer that orchestrates everything. And I mean everything.

AW: So you enjoyed this job?

CP: Yes, it was a lot of fun. I got to see how the White House runs. But I have to say, no matter who I vote for, I have a ton of respect for whoever sits in the President’s chair and also the President’s family. I mean, I only saw the social part, and that was just crazy.

AW: And then, from White House Military Social Aide to U. S. Naval Test Pilot School. What a crazy swing! Did you have to apply for that and how did it work once you were in?

CP: Yes, you had to apply and there was a selection board. Once you were in, you took one of three tracks: jet, helo, or systems. I took the systems track and when I finished [after graduation from Test Pilot School one year later], I did two years of testing on EP-3 systems.

AW: Your resume says you flew twenty-three different types of aircraft. Did you do all this in Test Pilot School?

CP: Yes. They want you to have an “air sense” about as many aircraft as possible to help round your perspective. I got to fly a wide variety of aircraft like the F-14, F-15, the Beaver—a tail dragger prop—and I got to fly in Italy with the Tornado at the end for my DT2—it’s similar to a final thesis.
AW: Your thesis?

CP: Yes, at Test Pilot School it was like getting an aero engineering masters and you have this project at the end that encompasses everything you learned that year.

AW: That is just so flippin’ impressive. With all of these tours—and we didn’t even get to each one of them—did you have a favorite?

CP: I loved each one in different ways . . . which is why I kept staying in. 

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