*Many little girls had aspirations of soaring the skies and being at one with the stars, but one child we know of actually grew up and did it. Her name is Lt. Col. Merryl Tengesdal, and she is one of only eight female pilots to ever fly the U-2, an aircraft built to go to extremely high altitudes to collect intelligence which it brings back to decision makers worldwide for analysis.
Tengesdal is also the only black female pilot during the aircraft’s history.
Born in the New York borough of the Bronx, Tengesdal is also a 9th Reconnaissance Wing inspector general and she was recently selected for promotion to the rank of colonel. She proudly asserts that she does not take her job for granted.
“I have seen the curvature of the earth,” Tengesdal said. “I have seen sights most people will never see. Flying at more than 70,000 feet is really beautiful and peaceful. I enjoy the quiet, hearing myself breathing, and the hum of the engine. I never take it for granted.”
Aug. 1, 2015, will mark the 60th anniversary of the U-2; making it one of the few aircraft to operate in the U.S. Air Force for more than 50 years.
The plane was first flown in 1955 and the fact that the year was a significant one for civil rights, makes her especially proud.
“The Air Force has always been on the forefront of breaking aviation and racial barriers,” Tengesdal said. “I am extremely proud of being the first black female U-2 pilot in history.”
The U-2 aircraft provides high-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in direct support of national objectives. It enables the capture of imagery and delivers intelligence to decision makers worldwide.
The missions these pilots endure often reach altitudes equivalent to approximately 13 miles. Pilots must wear full pressure suits during flight, similar to those astronauts wear. According to many aviation experts, limited visibility caused by the required helmets, along with the U-2’s bicycle landing gear, makes it arguably the most difficult aircraft to land. But that doesn’t scare Tengesdal one bit. After all, as a youngster, she lived in neighborhoods more frightening right here on earth.
“Every aircraft I’ve flown has something unique. The U-2 is no exception. I enjoy the challenge of landing on two wheels,” she asserts. “Drugs and alcohol were prevalent in my hometown, but I was influenced to pursue other aspirations,” she said about her youth.
Her mother and teachers guided her to excel in high school, where she did well in classes like math and science, in particular. Following high school she attended the University of New Haven in Connecticut and graduated in 1994 with a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering. Then she attended Officer Candidate School in the Navy, and was 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.”
Tengesdal has flown aircrafts used for anti-submarine warfare, search and rescue, anti-ship warfare and special operations. She even followed her dream of flying higher and cross-commissioned into the Air Force to join the U-2 program at Beale in 2004. There there were less than 1,000 pilots in the programs’ rigorous nine-month training course.
“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.
(This feature is part of the “Through Airmen’s Eyes” series on AF.mil. These stories focus on a single Airman, highlighting their Air Force story.)
Read more about Lt. Col. Merryl Tengesdal on the U. S. Air Force website. Watch a video report directly below.