Merryl Tengesdal
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Colonel Merryl Tengesdal

Merryl Tengesdal is the first and only African American female U-2 pilot. Her military career included flying The SH-60B Seahawk in the Navy and instructing in the U.S. Air Force T-34C and T-6 Texan II, before joining the rarefied U-2 program. 

The U-2 is a unique platform that operates well above 60,000 feet in a thin atmosphere, demanding excellent airmanship and prolonged attentiveness. Its pilots must wear pressure suits for the duration of what are often 9+ hour missions.  When they return to land, a fellow U-2 pilot follows them down the runway in a sports car and counts down their height above the runway — a unique procedure designed to compensate for the airplane’s notoriously difficult landing characteristics.

Its pilot community consists of well-respected individuals, who are perhaps a bit eclectic. “It takes a mind shift to want to sit in an aircraft for hours on end”, says Tengesdal. Moreso in the pressure suit. But, she affirms, the U-2 community is a brotherhood/sisterhood filled with professionals who are passionate about the mission, what they do, and about flying. 

Becoming a U-2 pilot is a career pinnacle for many of its pilots, but nobody gets there alone. Colonel Tengesdal had mentors throughout her career journey — from a teacher who helped her maintain interest through school and fed her passion for math and science, to her instructors as she trained as a Naval Aviator. One of her mentors was incredibly difficult: very demanding in the cockpit, and wanted nothing but perfection. “It might have looked like he didn’t want me to succeed, she says “But it was quite the opposite.”

In training, Tengesdal was told that as a minority woman, she was likely to hear fellow pilots say she was in a program because of quotas. She was offered advice which she now passes on to others: if you are good enough, and work hard enough, people will only be able to say that for so long. “Over time people will not be able to say you’re here because you’re Black…you’re here because you’re good.”

Other advice she offers for aspiring pilots is to be prepared to work hard. If it was easy, everyone would do it. Wanting it, on its own, is not sufficient. You have to push hard, and be the best you can be. And realize that there will be some failures along the way, and you need to learn from them and overcome them. Especially for women and minorities looking at flying careers, she says that you need to realize that you can’t control how people feel about you. You can only control what you do.

As we concluded our interview with Colonel Tengdesdal, she emphasized the importance of staying humble and giving back. Although many aspiring pilots seek out mentors, we should remember that at some point you have a responsibility to become a mentor to others as well. And, she reminds us, everyone can be mentored by someone. 

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