Patriot Profiles: ‘The excitement never ends,’ says female Navy pilot

Lt. Darby Clemson Driscoll with one of the ‘Battle Cats’ helicopters in her fleet squadron at North Island, San Diego. Landing on an aircraft carrier, she said, is a milestone: ‘That’s when you feel like you’re a Navy pilot.’

By Jeanne McKinney

Since the founding of these United States, women have poured out their skills and talents for the cause of liberty. Martha was a pillar of support for her husband, Gen. Washington, as he led America’s first Army. Thanks to Betsy Ross, our flag colors the skies with red (hardiness and valor), white (purity and innocence), and blue (vigilance, perseverance and justice). During World War II, women kept the home fires burning, worked in war industries, filled jobs left vacant by men at war, and served in uniform at home and abroad. Today, females fill ever-increasing roles in our military that stands on the summit of world power.

Lt. Darby Clemson Driscoll, a U.S. Navy pilot, has joined the ranks of her predecessors to carry freedom forward. “Women over time have proven they’re far more capable than people necessarily give them credit for,” said Driscoll, who flies a multimission MH-60R (Romeo), the Navy’s new primary maritime dominance helicopter. As part of HSM 73, “The BattleCats” (a fleet squadron), she described her largest role as “providing security for the (carrier) strike group from surface and undersea threats — keeping the ships and sailors of the strike group safe.”

Because of the combat exclusion that was lifted in 1993 by then-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, women were permitted to serve in almost any aviation capacity. Years later, this allowed Driscoll to become an integral part of what she called “a very positive, upbeat, and introspective aviation community. We’re very self-critical. There are always new qualifications, new missions and new things to experience. The excitement never ends.”

“When you go to a ‘winging’ down in Pensacola, where they pin on your wings of gold, probably 1 in 5 of the new pilots are women,” said Driscoll. “It’s a testament to the 1990s women who broke the glass ceiling that (gender) is a non-issue. We can go about doing our jobs and being professionals.”

Even though she grew up in a storied military family, Driscoll wasn’t winging it to any recruiter’s office near her hometown, Pennington, N.J. Her grandfather was a warrant officer in the Army, her brother is an Army captain and her grandmother, Nelle Clemson, was one of the first female Marines in World War II, serving as a meteorologist. It wasn’t until after high school, when Driscoll was recruited by the Naval Academy for swimming, that she became interested in the military.

Driscoll saw what she called “a personality fit” at the Academy when she met all the midshipmen there and the girls on the swim team. “Everybody was really ambitious and took care of each other. All saw themselves serving a larger purpose. That was really neat to encounter as an 18-year-old, so I wanted to be a part of it.”

Academy life was studying hard and swimming fast to win various events, and later, when she joined the Club Triathlon Team, to win a National Championship in 2009. From the Naval Academy, she went on a Pownall scholarship to the University of Cambridge for a graduate degree in International Relations and International Development, and then reported to Pensacola, Fla., for flight training.

The first helicopter Driscoll learned to fly, the Bell TH-57 Bravo, was the hardest. “It’s like learning how to ride a unicycle. Every input you make with your feet or hands affect each other’s axis of motion. When I put my right foot in, what do I do with my hands, and when I put my left foot in, what do I do with my hands? When I pick my collective up (pitch control), what do I do with my cyclic (rotor tilt) and (anti-torque) pedals (yaw)? A pilot has about four flights to learn their first qualification — how to hover.

“It (the TH-57) really teaches you the dynamics of how helicopters fly. Once you accomplish that, you fly in a helicopter that has stability control and is a little bit easier to handle. By the time you get to the MH-60 Romeo, there are a lot more systems to make it a smoother ride.”

After completing her training in HSM-41, Fleet Replacement Squadron, she was flown to the U.S.S. Carl Vinson for pre-deployment workups.

“Landing on ships is really complicated and dangerous,” said Driscoll, summarizing, “I’m brand-new to the squadron and flying with the skipper. (It’s) very stressful, because you don’t want to do a bad job. You realize there are five people talking to you at once on the radio, and you’re trying to fly off the aircraft carrier, and there are aircraft everywhere.

“Learning how to hover and trusting the aircraft is going to maintain its position, while the ship is moving underneath you, is the most unsettling thing for the first time. Then learning to do it at night, when it’s so dark — it’s putting your fears aside.”

Landing on a carrier is a big milestone. “That’s when you feel like you’re a Navy pilot,” said Driscoll.

“Your mission is constantly changing,” she said. “The helicopter itself is like a pick-up truck. There are all these different weapons and flight systems you can put on the helicopter and change its mission, change its role. One day they’re completely loaded out to do anti-submarine warfare. The next day they’re stripped down to do anti-surface warfare and so they don’t even look like the same helicopter.”

Always in the back of her mind is “the safety of the crew, being a safe pilot, and doing the best I can.”

Driscoll enjoys the self-reflection her job and the aviation community allow her and being able to admit to herself, ‘I’m not very good at this and I need to work on it.’”

“There’s a balance of needs,” said Driscoll, in regard to aviation threat assessment. With more advanced missile systems coming out, she voices her thoughts in line with others: “Do pilots have time to react to these threats or would unmanned aerial vehicles be a more appropriate platform to use?”

The Navy’s Fire Scout program is exploring what helicopter drones can do vs. human-piloted aircraft and assessing the overall benefits of each.

Driscoll described her first aviation experience in a neighbor’s Cessna as “being able to take off and be in a second world — away from problems on the ground and the rest of life going on. When you land, it’s funny to realize that life continues — the clock has continued to tick while you’ve been gone.”

She’s also experienced the opposite as a pilot: “You get so task-focused and task-saturated that it takes you away from daily life. But when you get into that moment of intense crew coordination — when things start to work seamlessly and you start to work as a team and back each other up — it’s a neat experience to be accomplishing all these things with only three people on the aircraft.”

On a recent walk down the street to get coffee, Driscoll recounted, “I got stopped by two people saying, ‘Are you a female pilot? Do you fly helicopters?’” I said, ‘Yes.’

“They were so excited and said, ‘That’s awesome — you go, girl!’”

Go where next with The BattleCats?

“We’re heading west,” is all Lt. Driscoll revealed. “We’ll see what happens in the world.”