Merryl Tengesdal has had dreams of soaring through the sky since she was a little girl and wanted to become an astronaut. Although Tengesdal isn’t flying through space, she’s permanently left her mark on history. Tengesdal is only one of eight female U- pilots, and is the only African-American female pilot in the history of the high-altitude recon aircraft program.
With guidance from her mother and teachers, she said, 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’s degree in electrical engineering. Afterward, she attended the Navy’s Officer Candidate School, commissioned as an ensign in September 1994, and attended flight training shortly after.
“During the mid ‘90s, the military had just begun opening more roles for women in combat,” Tengesdal said. “Combat pilot was one of the opportunities. There was also a massive push for more minorities into the pilot training program. I remember when I attended flight training. It was racially diverse, which I was surprised to see. It was a good feeling. However, I could tell there were a few people who did not appreciate us.”
According to the US Department of Defense, the Bronx native started her career as an US Navy helicopter pilot before making the transition to the US Air Force in 2004. She’s logged 3,400 flight hours, 330 combat hours and served missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Horn of Africa.
“It is very uncommon, even for this day and age, to be a female pilot, much less a female minority,” Tengesdal says. “My career field is very male dominated, but I hope I have helped other females with similar aspirations to realize this is an option. I think we are all limitless as to what we can accomplish.”
Image Credit: Department of Defense