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Face of Defense: U-2 Pilot Blazes Trail

By Air Force Senior Airman Bobby Cummings 9th Reconnaissance Wing

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BEALE AIR FORCE BASE, Calif., Feb. 11, 2015 — As a child, Air Force Lt. Col. Merryl Tengesdal imagined flying among the stars, thousands of miles above the Earth’s surface.

Today, she is one of eight female pilots ever to fly the U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft and the only black female pilot in U-2 history.

A Bronx, New York, native, Tengesdal also is the 9th Reconnaissance Wing inspector general, and she was recently was selected for promotion to colonel.

"I have seen the curvature of the Earth," Tengesdal said. "Flying at more than 70,000 feet is really beautiful and peaceful. I never take it for granted."

Aug. 1 will mark the 60th anniversary of the U-2, making it one of the few aircraft to operate in the Air Force for more than 50 years.

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

High-altitude Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance

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 often are at altitudes of about 13 miles. Pilots are required to wear full pressure suits during flight, similar to those astronauts wear. That suit, along with a specialized helmet and the U-2’s bicycle landing gear make 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."

No Stranger to Challenges

Tengesdal is no stranger to challenges. The colonel acknowledged that her childhood featured 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 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."

From Seahawk Helicopters to U-2s

The first aircraft she flew was the Navy's SH-60B Seahawk helicopter, used for anti-submarine warfare, search and rescue, anti-ship warfare and special operations. She loved the versatility of the aircraft and its capabilities.

In 2004, Tengesdal followed her dream of flying higher and cross-commissioned into the Air Force, joining less than 1,000 pilots wo have been part of the U-2 program here.

U-2 pilot training is a rigorous nine-month course. Every candidate must conduct training missions aboard the TU-2S, a dual-seat trainer aircraft. After a solo high flight as a final challenge of their training, pilots are often deployed around the world.

Tengesdal has been deployed to multiple locations and has flown missions in support of Operation Olive Harvest, in Afghanistan and in Iraq. She also aided in preventing terrorism and piracy in the Horn of Africa.

"I'm incredibly fortunate. It's surreal," Tengesdal said. "From my time in the Navy to my experiences in the U-2 program, I like to think I've played a part in helping some of the troops on the ground get home safely."

More than 330 Combat Hours

Throughout her career, Tengesdal has logged more than 3,400 flight hours and more than 330 combat hours. "I have been truly blessed to have experienced all I have during my time in the military," she said.

She has flown at the edge of space and witnessed a shooting star from the inside of a cockpit. She achieved what no African-American woman ever had before.

"It is very uncommon, even for this day and age, to be a female pilot, much less a female minority," Tengesdal said. "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."