Retiring Reservist reflects on expanding roles of women

  • Published
  • By Darlene Y. Cowsert
  • Air Force Safety Center
Col. Patricia M. Webb, Individual Mobilization Augmentee to Air Force Chief of Safety, Maj. Gen. Greg Feest, retired Nov. 1, culminating a 33-year career.

Webb joined the Air Force in 1978 to learn how to fly, with expectations of taking those skills to the commercial airlines. But once in uniform, she never thought of leaving, although pursued by major airlines in the early '80s.

Following three years of distinguished enlisted service in the intelligence field in the Michigan Air National Guard during the Iran Hostage Crisis, and while waiting for a flight slot, Webb pursued a commission through the active duty to move toward her determination to fly, and completed Officer Training School at Lackland AFB, Texas, in 1981.

"It was a different time, for sure," Webb said, referring to the limited career opportunities for women, and the novelty of women in uniform, especially those in fields other than medical or administrative support.

"The thought that I couldn't do something I wanted to do just never entered my head," she said. If she was told she couldn't do something, she asked, "Why?"

Air Force pilot training was opened to women in 1976, but female slots -- based on quotas -- were rare and the wait could be lengthy. When she realized the wait could push her beyond the age limitation, she eagerly accepted a slot for navigator training which she completed at Mather AFB, Calif., in 1982.

At that time in her training class, tankers were the only airframe open to female operators, even though she graduated near the top of her class and was the top graduate in tactical flying. Although she wrote two full pages on her "dream sheet" on why she should be assigned to an F-111, Webb was assigned to the KC-135Q, specially modified to carry JP-7 fuel, and featured additional highly classified navigational and communication equipment required to support the now-retired SR-71 fleet.

"When I found out I would be flying KC-135Qs," Webb recalled, "I knew it was a pretty amazing thing."

Webb spent the next four years navigating worldwide refueling and reconnaissance missions in support of the SR-71, followed by navigator instructor duty, C-130 tactical missions during Desert Shield and Desert Storm, humanitarian relief missions in Somalia and counterdrug and firefighting airdrop missions. A master navigator, she has more than 3,000 flight hours in the T-37, T-43, KC-135Q, and C-130E.

In 1995, Webb earned a second Master of Science degree in Strategic Intelligence at the Joint Military Intelligence College, Defense Intelligence Agency, Washington, D.C. She has worked in the intelligence and special operations fields as a senior military analyst and reserve deputy director for Counterterrorism in the Pacific and Middle East regions. She has also served at the Joint Intelligence Center Pacific and Special Operations Command Pacific.

In spite of continuously pushing through gender-based barriers, Webb doesn't see her success as anything extraordinary. Things began to change slowly, she said. "Opening flying to women was huge," she said, as was "women being admitted to the Air Force Academy the same year, and then more airframes and career fields became real options for women."

Webb never stopped asking, "Why?" and has been a consistent advocate for equal opportunity in the Air Force and, as a top performer, shown that women have the capabilities to succeed in any role. "It has never been about having numbers or a representative quota," she said. "It's about having the opportunity to compete. Doors must be open for women to compete fairly and equally."

Webb continues to work in her civilian capacity as a consultant and former Director at Science Applications International Corporation, specializing in technologies supporting airborne reconnaissance, counterterrorism/special operations and national security issues. She has also spent the past 11 years supporting the current Secretary of State in a variety of roles to include advisor and surrogate speaker.

Following retirement from the Reserves, Webb plans to devote more time to special interests, such as Vital Voices Global Partnership, an international, non-profit, non-governmental organization, founded more than 10 years ago by the Hon. Hillary Clinton. The organization works with women leaders in the areas of economic empowerment, women's political participation and human rights.