1st Black woman pilots spy plane capturing intelligence for U.S. leaders

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 by Senior Airman Bobby Cummings).

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 by Senior Airman Bobby Cummings).

In order for Navy SEAL teams to hunt down terrorists, or for foreign policy analysts to track the movement of WMDs (or to detect whether Iran is, in fact, developing a nuclear weapons program) our leaders rely on special pilots to capture that type of intelligence through the use of spy-plane cameras.

Lt. Col. Merryl Tengesdal is the only African American female pilot to man (or, rather, woman) the U-2 spy plane, a highly complex aircraft that captures that kind of valuable imagery.

As Women’s History Month comes to an end, Tengesdal, 43, spoke with The Root from an Air Force base in California about her journey growing up in New York City’s Boogie Down Bronx, and how she climbed the ranks in both the Navy and the Air Force to become such a distinguished spy-plane pilot.

Tengesdal said she knew pretty early on that she wanted to be an astronaut, or some sort of pilot, but she got pushback from her dad, who questioned whether human beings were even meant to fly.

“My father always said that if God wanted us to fly, he would have given us wings,” Tengesdal said. “He was not a big proponent. He didn’t think
it was an idea that was suitable for me,” she said, and especially for a Black woman.

But Tengesdal was adamant about her vision and excelled in math and science. After graduating from the University of New Haven in Connecticut with a degree in electrical engineering in 1994, she enrolled in flight school and found that she was learning how to fly alongside a surprising amount of other African Americans.

“It was kind of surprising to me because there were a lot of Black people there,” Tengesdal said, recalling a situation that many African Americans can relate to: when Black people in a predominantly White setting magically find one another and assemble in one spot just to kick it.

“It was fun. I remember, we were in the hangar, and there was a bunch of us out there,” Tengesdal said, laughing, “and we were like, ‘Okay, we have to break this up now.’”

When asked how race has affected her training and her time in the various posts she’s held during her military career, Tengesdal explained that because she was often one of few African Americans, that always motivated her “not to mess up.”

“I didn’t want to give anyone a reason to say that I was here because I was a minority or a female,” Tengesdal said. “I didn’t want to give anyone a reason to doubt why I was there.”

Tengesdal said that it doesn’t hurt that military professionals are trained to be extremely confident and, well, a bit egotistical. Pilots and soldiers are dealing with complicated weaponry and equipment, Tengesdal said, so there is really no time for second-guessing yourself or walking around wearing your insecurities on your sleeve.

That kind of self-deprecation, she argued, can cost lives.

“That’s how our community is,” Tengesdal said. “Typically there is a lot of ego to go around, and as a pilot, you have to be pretty confident in your abilities.” After all, in the Air Force, she and her peers are “trusted with high-volume equipment that can harm people or destroy property.”

Tengesdal said that she had little time to be concerned with how others perceived her as an African American. Rather, she was obsessed with being the best pilot she could be and with conveying her skills to her superiors and her team members, who were relying on her to complete the mission.

When asked if she ever feels conflicted as an African American working in our nation’s armed forces, given the checkered relationship between black Americans and the government, Tengesdal took apart the entire premise of the question, pointing out that Black Americans have been fighting for their freedoms and their rights since they were brought to these shores.

“When people question the patriotism of Blacks in the military, I think it’s kind of strange,” she said. “When you look back at the Revolutionary War, Black people fought for independence here. Even though we were enslaved, we still fought for what we believed in. We’ve always been fighting for freedom.

“It’s something that I do willingly alongside other people who have those same ideals, regardless of their background.”