March 04, 1991 12:00 PM

Two weeks after arriving in Saudi Arabia last January, associate editor Maria Wilhelm made her way to a busy air base to check out Marine Attack Squadron 542, the elite bomber pilots who for the past five weeks have guided the AV-8B Harrier jets into action (see story, page 62). Wilhelm arrived on one of the heaviest days of bombing. “Those guys from Top Gun and The Right Stuff actually exist,” she says of the men who do their best to avoid the “triple-A [antiaircraft artillery]” while trying to hit the “bad boy |enemy target].” Despite the jargon, Wilhelm and photographer Ken Regan found nothing ambiguous about the pilots’ bravery. “This is deadly serious business,” she says. “One can’t help but respect their skill and prowess and discipline.”

Those adjectives also apply to Wilhelm, 34. “She’s smart and talented enough to get the story,” says assistant managing editor John Saar, “and tough-minded enough to keep her head in the worst circumstances.”

And in merely trying circumstances. In Saudi Arabia, Maria has been forced to take a taxi because women are prohibited from driving. And she was detained at a mall in Riyadh for not covering herself as Muslim law requires. “I was conservatively dressed in skirt and stockings,” she recalls. “Within five minutes, I was stopped by Matawain, the holy police. They made me buy a black robe.”

A Phi Beta Kappa graduate in philosophy of the University of California at Berkeley, Wilhelm, a San Francisco native, started as a PEOPLE stringer in her hometown in 1980. She later moved to Washington, D.C., serving as the magazine’s bureau chief from early 1989 to last December, when she was promoted to associate editor and relocated to New York City. Then war broke out, and she was off to Dhahran, her new post. “I’m really a field reporter,” she says, “and probably the farther afield the better.” If this week’s story is any evidence, Wilhelm is right on the money.

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