The U.S. Navy Blue Angels have been around since 1946, but it wasn’t until 69 years later they had their first female pilot take to the skies in one of their air shows.
That first female was Maj. Katie Higgins Cook, who said flying is in her blood.
“I’m a third generation aviator,” said Cook. “Both my grandfathers flew for the Army Air Corps, and then the Air Force when that came about, and then my father went to the Naval Academy.”
So she knew early on she wanted an office with a view.
“When I was in high school, you know, I really wanted to give back to this country that had given my family so much. And I didn’t know if I wanted to be a firefighter or a police officer,” said Cook. “But eventually, I landed on the military as kind of being the path for me. And I knew if I was going to serve my country in that manner, that it was definitely going to be in the sky.”
With her family as her support, Cook became a Marine Corps pilot, and then in 2015, she became the first female pilot with the world-famous Blue Angels. Flying into uncharted territory for a woman, she still remembers her first show with the team in El Centro, California.
“I felt like I had the weight of the world on my shoulders. I knew people were watching because I was the first woman to fly a Blue Angel aircraft for a show,” said Cook. “I think I probably amplified that pressure even more, I put it on myself, because I didn’t want to let anyone down. You know, I felt like every woman who was ever going to come behind me if I failed in flying a terrible show, they would be like, ‘See, she didn’t deserve to be there.’ But I wanted to knock it out of the park, so every woman that came behind me would have just a little bit easier path than I had.”
Cook’s plane of choice? The C-130 cargo, or Fat Albert as it’s known. The big plane opens each airshow and people are often surprised by the aerial grace of this workhorse aircraft.
“We don’t go over 1,500 feet, we stay low so that everyone can see us but in general the fastest maneuver we do is called the flat path. And that’s about 370 miles per hour and that’s performed at about 40 feet, so that’s the lowest that we go there. The aircraft has 132-foot wingspan. So you can imagine, you know, being 40 feet off the ground with with a wingspan like that is is definitely very cool and dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing, but obviously we trained to know to do it safely,” said Cook. “But our main responsibility is to move the the crew and the cargo of our maintenance team to each show site. And so that’s really what the main purpose of Fat Albert is, obviously, we love to fly the show too. And kids generally 10 and under love us as well, you know, because we’re not as loud as the jets and our shows only 10 minutes long. So that’s about the extent of their attention span anyways, but the first time that I got into the airplane, you know, it was like stepping into history. Fat Albert has been with the team since 1970. And it’s been an all-Marine crew since its inception on the team. And so being just a small part of aviation history was really neat.”
“Kids love it, when they see this women step out of this plane, and it’s you,” said News 6 anchor Ginger Gadsden.
“I think that’s what was so incredible about it is, you’d be on crowd line, and you’d be signing autographs, and you’d get a little girl or a little boy that would come up and say like, ‘Oh, girls can’t be pilots.’ And for the other people who were on the crowd line with me, my teammates could like point and be like, ‘She’s a pilot.’ And you can correct those misperceptions and show them girls could be pilots, they can be Marines, and they can even be Blue Angels if they want to be,” said Cook. “I truly believe that women will never reach full equality until we are until our advocates in our male counterparts, our brothers, our fathers, our co-workers, or whatever, are right there with us advocating for that equality. And so to be able to correct those misconceptions, not only in little girls, but in little boys was definitely one of the most important aspects of having a woman on the team when I was there.”
Cook said it can be difficult at times succeeding in what is usually seen as a man’s job, and has gotten some pushback during her career.
“The majority of pushback that you get, especially in male-dominated environments, a lot of times it’s not blatant, it’s not jokes, or you’re not getting a job because you’re a female, they don’t come out and say that, right?” said Cook. “A lot of times it’s passive aggressive, or it’s you get passed over for an opportunity. So I think that’s the hardest a lot of times to contend with as a woman is, you’re like, ‘I know, this is happening, but I don’t have blatant examples about it.’ And the phrase that I tell everybody, when they asked, ‘How did you become a Blue Angel?’ Or ‘What do you recommend to people who want to become a Blue Angel?’ and I always say, ‘Calm seas don’t make a skilled sailor.’ And what I mean by that is, it’s not the easy times in your life, it’s not the smooth seas that shape you as a person. It’s those rough seas, it’s those obstacles, it’s those failures, it’s those hard times, and how you deal with those setbacks that shape you as a person.”
“Why is it so important to let people know that you are the first?” asked Gadsden.
“I think it’s important because sometimes people don’t even realize how far behind we are. So if it took 69 years for me to be the first female who flies with the Blue Angels in their history, and that was 2015, we have a lot of ways to go until we’re actually in an equal society,” said Cook. “And so I think months like Black History Month, Women’s History Month, bring attention to not only the steps that people before us has made, but the steps that we need to continue to make, until you know, these highlights aren’t necessary anymore. And we actually truly live in an equal world.”
That time hasn’t landed just yet. Until it does, Cook has this advice for young girls who want to follow in her flight path.
“I would say, you know, the sky’s the limit, quite literally, the sky is the limit, “said Cook. “Just because someone of your gender or your race or your economic background, or your sexual orientation hasn’t done it doesn’t mean that the door is closed, it just means that you got to be ready to kick it down.”