Posted on November 02 2016
This week's Wednesday Woman is Lieutenant Commander Meagan Flannigan, a former fighter pilot with the US Navy. Meagan accumulated more than 1250 hours and more than 180 arrested landings as a pilot and is now working on the operational/management side, still within the US Navy.
Some of the many accolades Meagan received include the Strike/Flight Air Medal, Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, Navy and the Marine Corps Achievement Medal. Meagan also holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Aerospace Engineering.
Meagan was featured as a young navy officer in the 2006 documentary Speed and Angels. The documentary followed her on navy journey leading up to deployment in Iraq.
Newnham: Can you tell us a bit about your background and what you were like growing up?
Meagan Flannigan: I grew up in a small suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the U.S. My small town was right on the outskirts of suburbia getting into a more country feel. The community was very close and volunteer oriented and we had very little crime. It was a fantastic place to grow up.
I am the middle of three girls and both of my parents were school teachers. I have an older sister and a twin sister (two minutes younger, so technically I'm the middle :). I came out of the womb as a confident, outgoing kid. I feel lucky every day that I was blessed with that confidence from a young age as I firmly believe it was a nature vs nurture characteristic, I was just born that way.
I still had moments of self-doubt and teenage angst but overall I was very comfortable in my own skin and happy. I played sports every season and worked hard in school. I was friends with a lot of different groups of guys and girls. I was always very strong willed and head strong, sometimes to a fault. I was a very passionate kid who at times only saw things in black and white, but that passion was fundamental in the pursuit of my dreams. I believed in myself and felt that I could accomplish any task if I was willing to do the work.
Newnham: What first sparked your interest in becoming a pilot and how did you then make that dream a reality?
Flannigan: When I was 10 years-old I watched the movie Top Gun and I immediately fell in love with Naval Aviation and flying. I announced the next day that I wanted to be a fighter pilot in the Navy. At the time, women were not allowed to fly fighter aircraft in the U.S. military but I was blissfully unaware of that fact, and my parents didn't think that was something I needed to know. My dad talked to the guidance counselors at his school to get some information on how I could fulfill my dream. He found out about the U.S. Naval Academy and came home and told me that if I went to school there, I could go to flight school after I graduated and become a fighter pilot. I immediately decided that was the path I would take.
I did a lot of research on the academy to determine what kind of students they were looking for and quickly realized that they want the well-rounded student-athlete. I used this intel to my advantage and when I started high school I made sure I played on a sports team every season of every year, joined lots of clubs, and took as many advanced placement courses as I could. I also worked to achieve leadership positions on the teams and clubs I participated in. My efforts proved successful and eight years after dreaming about getting into the academy I found out I had been accepted.
My journey continued while at the Naval Academy as approximately 30% of the students want to go on to become pilots. I found myself competing and fighting for a spot once again, only now I was completing against a more elite field. It now took extensive one on one instruction with my professors to not only pass but have high enough grades to be competitive for one of the Navy pilot spots. I also had military and athletic requirements to complete as part of the curriculum. It was definitely four of the most challenging, rewarding, and fun years of my life. I grew and learned a tremendous amount in those four short years. Again, my hard work paid off and I was fortunate enough to select Navy pilot and I traveled to flight school two weeks after I graduated. In some ways this was when I achieved my dream as I began to fly airplanes and became a pilot, but I wasn't a fighter pilot yet.
All of the students at flight school select which airplanes they will fly based on their grades in their flights and simulators. So once again I was competing against a highly competitive field of students, and most of them wanted to fly jets. To make the odds even worse, there are times when the Navy only needs helicopter pilots and it won't matter if you have perfect grades, you are going to fly helicopters. So, at this point it was a lot of hard work and a lot of luck. Well... I worked hard and I got lucky!
I spent hours studying and practicing in the simulator and miraculously there were three spots to fly jets when I finished the first phase of flight school. I then moved on to jet training and after another year of hard work, I had done well enough in the tactical portion of advanced flight training that I was selected to be one of the last four pilots to fly the F-14D Tomcat - the airplane of my dreams. This has been a short overview of the path I took to make my dream a reality, but ultimately to answer how I did it, I worked hard every single day for 14 years. I believed in myself. I made sacrifices, and most importantly I held myself accountable to achieve my dreams and I then I made them happen.
Newnham: What obstacles did you face being a woman training and working in a male dominated field and how did you overcome them?
Flannigan: The majority of the people I worked with treated me just the way they treated everyone else - which in a fighter squadron is almost always a little abrasive. It’s a highly competitive group of people regardless of gender. To some extent the biggest hurdle I faced in such a male dominated field was myself. I had a hard time figuring out how to be myself, how to be a woman in that environment. For a long time I tried to be "one of the guys". I did this by laughing at the inappropriate jokes, telling the inappropriate jokes, having a "thick skin" about everything, and trying to suppress my femininity. After a year or two of this though, I was really unhappy because I wasn't being myself, and I was never going to be accepted as one of the guys because I wasn't one, I was a woman. I learned that being a woman was actually a lot cooler and once I finally embraced that I was a woman working in this male field and how special that was, I became much happier, and much prouder of myself.
I began to live a more authentic life and it made a huge difference and marked the biggest development of my character. I learned a lot about tactful communication, mostly through failing miserably, but failure can be the best way to learn. It forced me not to see things in black and white, like I did as a child, but to see the gray and work within its confines. I learned that as a woman my voice and my opinion were better received when I spoke quietly, clearly, and non-emotionally. That isn't always fair but it proved to be a true statement and a more effective way to communicate regardless of your gender.
Now don't get me wrong, I definitely encountered a number of men who didn't want me to be there or didn't treat me fairly. But people only have the power over you that you give them, and you just don't give those people any power. I also quickly realized that the men that had problems with women flying jets didn’t have a problem with women, they had problems with themselves. I heard things like “You know why I don’t think women should be here? Because when I do something I shouldn’t, I look at you and I feel guilty about it.” That statement has nothing to do with me or with women; it has to do with that particular individual’s character flaws and conscience. I recognized that very quickly and didn’t give statements like that a second thought.
Finally, like most professional tasks, the work doesn’t know if you are a man or a woman. The airplane didn’t know, it didn’t care, it knew I was a pilot and that was all that mattered regardless of anyone’s opinions on the matter. If I performed in the airplane and got my job done - that was the most important thing. That is true in flying airplanes, writing a report, meeting sales objectives, in any occupation. Yes, there were times when I had earned a qualification, had excellent grades, and exceeded the requirements and was not given the qual. Do I feel that was because I was a woman? Yes. Did I fight some of these battles and let others go? Yes. Some are worth fighting, some are not.
In one instance I didn’t receive a qual before I left my squadron but I knew I would be given the qual as soon as I checked into my next squadron because my training jacket confirmed I had earned it, and I did. That wasn’t worth pursuing. Other times, I firmly stood up against harassment because it was worth pursuing. I had a responsibility to make sure the women who came behind me were not exposed to the same work environment. Picking your battles is essential. But those incidents were the exception not the rule. For the most part, if my work met the mark - and it did - it spoke for itself.
Newnham: You have received many awards but what do you consider your biggest career achievement so far?
Flannigan: There are a number of professional/personal achievements that pop into my head, none of them including any awards I have won though. The number one thing I am proud of was my time supporting American troops on the ground during my Operation Iraqi Freedom combat missions. I had trained for years and dreamed of being a fighter pilot in the U.S. Navy and flying combat missions is what that was all about. Knowing that I was providing even a little bit of protection for my brothers and sisters in arms on the ground was one of the most cherished life achievements.
Newnham: What advice would you give young girls looking to get into what is considered male dominated fields?
Flannigan: Young girls and young women who are interested in male dominant fields need to be brave and need to believe in themselves. They need to be prepared to meet some resistance, but realize that resistance is not their problem and it’s not about them. It’s about the person resisting the change and their own insecurities and internal struggles. They need to hone in on what and, more importantly, whose opinions matter to them. The opinions that matter to me are my own, my husband’s, my family’s, my friends’, but definitely not the small number of sexist men who don’t like having me in their professional work space. I realized early on that their opinions don’t matter to me and it has made all the difference. Then just hold on to your dream, your character, your values, and live your life honorably.
Newnham: What / who inspires you and why?
Flannigan: What inspires me now and what inspired me as a young girl and in my twenties are so different. Now I am inspired every day by my family, by my precious girls, and my amazing husband. I am inspired to try to be the very best version of myself for them and to always act in a way that would make them proud.
I’m inspired to be the best example for my girls daily, to infuse in them self-confidence, positive body imagine, kindness, bravery, warmth, and humor. I know I fail in some regard every single day but my family is who I think about in almost every decision I make and every action. I question if my actions and words would make them in proud in almost everything I do. It is the most powerful inspiration I have ever had in my life.
Newnham: Finally what advice would you give a younger Meagan?
Flannigan: I would tell a younger Meagan not to be so quick to judge, to learn to forgive at a younger age, and not hold on to anger. Holding on to negativity takes so much energy and does nothing positive for you. As a kid I let people get to me too easily. I was blessed to have a good work ethic, to persevere, to believe in myself and be honest, but I wasn’t very forgiving. It took me a long time to realize it’s better to just let some things go and focus on all of the positives in life.
Thanks to awesome Emma Sinclair for the introduction.