Bronx Native Lt. Col Merryl Tengesdal Becomes 1st Black Female U-2 Pilot in History

Lt. Col. Merryl Tengesdal stands in front of a U-2 Feb. 9, 2015, at Beale Air Force Base, Calif. Tengesdal is the only black female U-2 pilot in history. Tengesdal is the 9th Reconnaissance Wing inspector general and a U-2 pilot. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Bobby Cummings)

Lt. Col Merryl Tengesdal, a Bronx native, has become the first African-American female to ever pilot the U-2 — an ultra-high altitude reconnaissance aircraft used for intelligence gathering and can fly up to altitudes of 70,000 feet.

According to an article by the United States Air Force, “As a child she imagined flying amongst the stars, thousands of miles above the earth’s surface, and today Lt. Col. Merryl Tengesdal is one of eight female pilots to ever fly the U-2 and the only black female pilot during the aircraft’s history.”

The article also goes on to say that she has been recommended for promotion to colonel as well.

“I have seen the curvature of the earth,” Tengesdal said. “I have seen sights most people will never see. Flying at more than 70,000 feet is really beautiful and peaceful. I enjoy the quiet, hearing myself breathing, and the hum of the engine. I never take it for granted.”

Aug. 1, 2015, will mark the 60th anniversary of the U-2; making it one of the few aircraft to operate in the U.S. Air Force for more than 50 years.  The U-2 first flew in 1955, in the same year the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott and the Civil Rights Movement began, setting the stage for desegregation.

“The Air Force has always been on the forefront of breaking aviation and racial barriers,” Tengesdal said. “I am extremely proud of being the first black female U-2 pilot in history.”

The U-2 provides high-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in direct support of national objectives. The aircraft enables the capture of imagery and delivers intelligence to decision makers worldwide.

These missions are often at altitudes equivalent to approximately 13 miles.  Pilots are required to wear full pressure suits during flight, similar to those astronauts wear. According to many aviation experts, limited visibility caused by the required helmets, along with the U-2’s bicycle landing gear, makes it arguably the most difficult aircraft to land.

“Every aircraft I’ve flown has something unique,” Tengesdal said. “The U-2 is no exception. I enjoy the challenge of landing on two wheels.”

Tengesdal is no stranger to challenges. The colonel acknowledged that during her childhood, there were many opportunities for her to stray down the wrong path.

“Drugs and alcohol were prevalent in my hometown, but I was influenced to pursue other aspirations,” she said.

With guidance from her mother and teachers, she excelled in high school, particularly in math and science. After high school, she attended the University of New Haven in Connecticut and graduated in 1994 with a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering. Afterward, she attended Officer Candidate School in the Navy, commissioned as an ensign in September 1994, and attended flight training shortly after.

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68 Years After WWII, Former Tuskegee Airman and Female Civilian Military Pilot Meet

Elder James H. Brown and Jane Tedeschi, who both served as pilots during WW II

Elder James H. Brown and Jane Tedeschi, who both served as pilots during WW II, met for the first time on May 17, 2013. Tedeschi had always wanted to meet a Tuskegee Airman, who she delivered planes for as part of her military service, a rarity for women, as it was for blacks, who were pilots. (Photo: Wish of a Lifetime)

Back in the early 1940s, it was almost unfathomable for the collective imagination to conceive of African-American and female pilots, particularly lending their talents to the battle of World War II. And yet, at roughly the same time, programs were developed by the U.S. military that made that seeming improbability a reality.

Elder James H. Brown, one of the prestigious Tuskegee Airmen (the corps of African-American pilots who participated in World War II), and Jane Tedeschi, a former member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) corps, are products of such programs. They challenged the popular stereotypes of the times that promoted the belief that neither black men nor women were fit to be pilots.

While their paths never crossed during the war, Tedeschi had always wanted to meet one of the brave Tuskegee Airmen, some of whom were stationed near the base where she served, and whose exploits she admired.

Tedeschi just recently got to do just that, bonding with Brown for the first time over their unique places in American history.   On May 17, through a partnership between the Brookdale senior living community where Tedeschi resides, and Wish of a Lifetime, an organization that fosters appreciation for seniors by fulfilling life-enriching requests, Jane got her decades-old wish. Sixty-eight years after the end of World War II, Jane, now 93, and Elder, 87, finally had the chance to connect. The result? Mutual appreciation and thanks.

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