In the sea of olive-drab flight suits on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, it’s hard to pick U.S. Navy Lt. Kendra Williams out of the crowd. And that’s how she likes it. “I haven’t done anything special,” says Williams, 26. “I’m just one of the gang.”
But she’s certainly not just one of the boys. Last Dec. 16, the 5’5″ former gymnast became the first woman ever to pilot a U.S. military aircraft on a bombing run when she flew a mission over Iraq—part of the four-day blitz ordered by President Clinton after Saddam Hussein refused to cooperate with United Nations weapons inspectors. What’s more, she returned her F/A-18 Hornet strike-fighter safely to the Enterprise after scoring a direct hit on her target, a military facility.
“It was a middle-of-the-night mission, and we didn’t have much sleep,” says Williams, who had been training in the Persian Gulf for a month before receiving the final go-ahead for the first of her two bombing runs. Before taking off, Williams prayed for a safe return. But when the final signal came to roar off the 4.5-acre deck of the carrier and into enemy airspace, she says her only remaining worries involved dodging antiaircraft fire and avoiding civilian casualties. “I was just doing what I was trained to do,” she says, shrugging off any suggestion of heroism.
Williams is not alone in her apparent coolness in the face of a hazardous mission, or in her staunch refusal to be treated as a special case simply because she is a woman. Nine female fliers were onboard the Enterprise, piloting bombers, tankers and rescue helicopters during the Dec. 16-19 assault. Despite the historic significance of their contribution during Operation Desert Fox, says Lt. Kerry Kuykendall, 26, who was Williams’s former roommate at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md., “I’ve never felt we have preferential or detrimental treatment because of our gender.” Far from being isolated, adds Kuykendall, who like Williams completed two missions, she considers her male colleagues brothers. “We look out for each other,” she says.
Aboard the 90,000-ton Enterprise, one of about 20 American vessels deployed in the Gulf, some 250 women bunk in same-sex quarters and use designated lavatories and otherwise keep the same shipboard routine as the men. “It’s an impressive place—a floating city where 5,000 people eat, sleep and work for 24 hours a day,” says Williams, the older of two daughters born to Gary Williams, 55, a former Navy pilot who now flies corporate aircraft in Singapore, and his wife, Kathy, 52, an opera singer. Raised in Anchorage, Kendra grew up around planes, including a Maule four-seater owned by the family. “She talked about being an astronaut since she was a kid,” says her half-brother Brant Swigart, 32, a helicopter mechanic in Oakland, Calif.
At the Naval Academy, Kendra competed in gymnastics and sang with the glee club. After graduating in 1994, she entered flight training school and in 1997, at the Naval Air Station in Kingsville, Texas, she won her wings—as well as the respect of her fellow pilots. “She has a maturity beyond her years,” says Lt. Chris Claflin, 32, a member of Williams’s 18-pilot squadron, the Gunslingers. “She doesn’t have to prove anything or impress anyone.”
Williams and her squadron are expected to remain for several months in the region, where Iraq remains defiant, recently firing missiles at U.S. aircraft patrolling the northern part of the country. Williams admits she misses her boyfriend, a pilot with the Air National Guard in Savannah—about a two-hour drive from Williams’s Jacksonville, Fla., home base. But to some observers at least, one battle—the effort to further integrate women into the military—has taken a turn for the better. “The services now understand that the military can’t function without women,” says Secretary of Defense William Cohen, who visited the Enterprise Dec. 23. “They comprise 14 percent of the forces, and that tells you how much has changed.”
Linda Kramer aboard the USS Enterprise