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Past, Present Pax River Women Featured In Upcoming Museum Exhibit

Retired Capt. Heidi Fleming, left, donates a flight suit to Bailey Rios, exhibit and program coordinator for the Patuxent River Naval Air Museum for display in the upcoming Women in Aviation exhibit. Fleming, the first woman to hold the position of NAS Patuxent River Commanding Officer, wore the flight suit during her tenure at the installation from September 2014 to April 2016. PRNAM courtesy photo.

PATUXENT RIVER, Md. - Some of the impressive women who have served at, worked for, or passed through NAS Patuxent River over the years will be getting the recognition they deserve as the Patuxent River Naval Air Museum (PRNAM) busily puts the finishing touches on an upcoming exhibit, scheduled to open Veterans Day weekend.

The new permanent installation, titled Women in Aviation: Exploring Their Diverse Contributions to NAS Patuxent River and Beyond, will purposefully differ from the usual more technical exhibits normally on display.

“We wanted to feature women because none of our current exhibits do,” explained Bailey Rios, PRNAM exhibit and program coordinator. “In our introductory exhibit where we talk about the history of the base and how it got started, there’s a mention of the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), but there’s no exhibit that specifically focuses on women’s accomplishments in naval aviation. We really wanted to introduce a different viewpoint of stories that haven’t been told yet, and what these women have been able to do. It’s not just a ‘past’ thing either, it’s current. Some of these women still work at Pax River.”

The idea started a couple years ago when an intern working at the museum, Emily Geckle, drafted a short exhibit proposal about women in aviation that would explore the growth in their careers over time. She started contacting women working on base, or who had once been on base. Eventually, Geckle’s internship came to an end and she returned to college; then COVID-19 shut everything down. But as the pandemic situation eased, Rios was hired by the museum in January to bring the project across the finish line.

“The women featured include military, federal civilians, and contractors,” Rios noted. “Everyone who volunteers at the museum, or sits on its board, has a connection to the base and are familiar with women past and present, so they provided initial ideas. Then, as each woman was interviewed, she’d drop the name of another woman, and the list spider-webbed from there. We wanted to show a diverse range of women and what they can do. “

Positions held by the women not only include pilot, flight officer, test pilot, avionics technician, aeronautical maintenance duty officer, and aviation structural mechanic, but also flight test photographer, executive director, conservation intern, engineer, and more.

“You don’t need to earn your wings of gold to be a woman in aviation and we wanted to show that,” Rios said.

The museum wants this exhibit to be more personal, to focus on the human story, and it falls largely on Rios to make sure that happens.

“I took all the interviews, listened to them, and started doing research because I’m a historian but was not familiar with the Navy or aviation,” Rios said. “I wanted to write about it from their perspective, not only what they’ve done and been able to accomplish, but also what their experience was like, what inspired them to get into the field, and what sort of obstacles they encountered. Once I wrote the script, I sent it to our exhibit designer, Ashley Stopera, who drafted the exhibit design and we’ve been going back and forth editing this and that.”

All of the women had possessions they donated or loaned to the museum for display. Each item had to be catalogued and photographed, and it is up to Rios and her team to decide which of them to physically display for the opening.

“Colleen Nevius loaned us her diploma from Test Pilot School — she was the first female [aviator] to graduate [and be designated a Navy test pilot in 1983],” Rios noted. “We received all sorts of photographs or objects. Things they carried with them on their flights or every day when they went to work. Things that represent their career in some way. There are a lot of items and we won’t be able to put them all on display now, but we’ll be rotating them as the years go on.”

Woman past, woman present

Any discussion of overcoming obstacles specific to women will also involve the many “firsts” that occurred along the way as a result. With that in mind, it’s not surprising the career of retired Capt. Heidi Fleming, the first female commanding officer (CO) of NAS Patuxent River, is highlighted.

Growing up in a military family, Fleming was influenced by her father, a retired U.S. Marine Corps aviator and Major General. At the time, Marine Corps aviation was not available to women, so Fleming chose the Navy. She graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1989, only nine years after the first women ever permitted to attend the institution graduated and blazed the way. Just as she was about to be winged, Fleming — the only woman in her training squadron class at NAS Pensacola — was pulled aside and told there were no more female billets remaining. She found herself in a holding pattern for about six months, and when she finally did get winged, there were few female slots and limited choices. Initially selecting VR-22 flying C-130s out of Rota, Spain, she eventually was able to transition to the P-3 as non-combat restrictions on women aviators were relaxed.

“It was very evident to me that I had limitations,” said Fleming, as she described the early years of her military service. “The idea of being a CO was just so far out there.”

Fleming provided the museum a number of personal objects from her career, including a flight suit she wore while serving as both the executive officer and commanding officer at Pax River between September 2014 and April 2016.

“While in those roles, I flew the C-12M primarily, but also had some time in P-3Cs, P-8As, KC-130s and even an orientation flight in an F/A-18E/F,” she said. “I finished my flight time in the aircraft from my first tour in VR-22.”

Fleming, now working for a contractor in government affairs, realizes there have been many exceptional women leaders who contributed to the RDT&E work being done at Pax River.

“This exhibit will be a great tribute to women’s contributions and a recognition of their impact at both Pax River and in naval aviation,” she added. “Capturing this history is important to the overall story and hopefully will encourage young girls — and boys — to pursue similar paths. It is an honor having been asked and included.”

Featured on the civilian side is Leslie Taylor, current Vice Commander of Naval Air Systems Command and former Executive Director for Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division. With more than 36 years of civil service behind her, Taylor is the first woman to hold each of those positions. She is thankful the museum has committed to honoring women in aviation and says it has been a privilege to work for, and with, many talented female professionals from all functional domains — from STEM to contracting, human capital, and business/financial.

“We stand on the shoulders of giants,” Taylor said. “I’ll leave it to the naval aviators to shout-out for the females who paved their way; for me on the civilian side, I think often of Jessalynn Swann and Karen Schanck for their enormous contributions to weapons planning and delivery data used by fleet operators on every platform that carries ordnance. I’m honored to have served for and with them and far too many others to name. I’m humbled to be part of this exhibit. Mostly, though, I’m honored to have gotten to serve and play a role in naval aviation for nearly four decades.”

Physical and online display

In addition to the physical exhibit in Test and Evaluation Hall, Rios has decided to include an online component as a supplemental “display.”

“The physical space we’re using is not very large and this topic could fill an entire building,” Rios said. “I still keep learning more about new women and their diverse roles, and I want the online portion to expand what the physical cannot accommodate. We’ll also have an education resource section to suggest further reading, and we’re working with Andrea Templeton of Amelia Media, who did all the filmed interviews, to provide us with five-minute videos to go with the exhibit.”

Women have come an incredibly long way in just 100 years, but there is still ground to cover.

“As women come and go and contribute on base, we want to constantly share that through this exhibit, whether it be the physical or online portion,” Rios said. “I have come to think of these women as celebrities and I’m in awe of what they’ve been able to accomplish. Their experiences differed through each decade. Hopefully, we can show that continuing evolution as the years go by.”

The Patuxent River Naval Air Museum’s mission is to “preserve, educate and inspire” by presenting the continuing story of naval aviation with a focus on research, development, testing and evaluation at NAS Patuxent River. To learn more, visit their website at www.paxmuseum.com, or check out their activities at facebook.com/paxmuseum.

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