Wednesday, January 24, 2007

When merit counts and pays off


Pat Murphy

In a world where façade and connections seem to count, there still are those who rise to the top on sheer hard work, persistence and skill.

Two genuinely deserving achievers are Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy and Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith, African Americans headed for the Super Bowl.

It's a story straight out of the only-in-America ethos—black men bucking the white establishment and the mentor (Dungy) who lured the protégé (Smith) from collegiate coaching at Ohio State for a coaching job with the Tampa Buccaneers 10 years ago that sent him on his way.

The teams won prized Super Bowl appearances because of their coaches' genius to fire up players with vision, strategy and personal integrity.

Men once virtually unknown in sports are now figures in Super Bowl history.

And then, I saw an almost incidental news item about Nicole M.E. Malachowski—correction, Air Force Major Malachowski, 31—who has become the first woman pilot of the vaunted Air Force Thunderbirds F-16 precision flying team.

She's no token female in this outfit. Hundreds of seasoned male pilots apply for assignment to the Thunderbirds. But flying skills are so demanding that applicants are weeded out quickly in killer interviews and exhaustive examinations of their flight records.

Major Malachowski, with 1,300 flight hours, has not only been an instructor in the Air Force's hottest fighter-interceptor, the F-15, but she flew them on combat missions in Kosovo and Iraq.

My special admiration for women pilots is well known: My first flying lesson out of a Florida cow pasture in 1944 was with a woman instructor, Verna Burke. My commercial flight instructor was Mary Gaffaney, the world's women's aerobatic flying champ. I befriended and have written of early female airline pilots. I once hoped to produce a film about the first U.S. black pilot, Bessie Coleman.

And as something of a bonus to all this, Lt. Sheila O'Grady took me on a hop in a T-38 Talon training jet at Williams Air Force Base outside Phoenix in the late 1980s for a story about military women flight instructors.

Lt. O'Grady was one of those early female pilots in the Air Force caught in a Catch-22: she was a flight instructor teaching men on their way to becoming combat jet pilots, but wasn't allowed then to fly combat jets, such as the F-15 that Major Malachowski flew.

Lt. O'Grady has this satisfaction, wherever she is today: she proved that that women, such as Major Malachowski, can do the job if given a chance on their merits.

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