Meet WD’s only female Marine pilot
CHINA LAKE — Marine Corps Capt. Leigh G. Irwin, a UH-1Y Huey pilot and the operational test director for Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 9, has the distinction of being the only female Marine Corps pilot here.
“I put this uniform on every day because I want to serve my country and do everything I can to protect democracy and the freedoms of the United States. There is no greater honor,” said Irwin.
“Without the women in our history, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I think it’s very important to honor those women who came before us and broke down the doors, making it easier for me to be a female Marine in a male-dominated field.”
Ophae Mae Johnson was the first female to enlist in the Marine Corps in 1918, and Lt. Col. Sarah Deal was the first female Marine aviator in 1993.
“Without the first female Marines, first female aviators, breaking down those doors that have been closed to female service members, we would not have the military we have today,” said Irwin.
“Ophae Mae Johnson was obviously a pioneer and had great ideas of what women could contribute to society, and I don’t think that the levels women in the military have reached would even be in her realm of understanding. She started all of this for the Marine Corps and women everywhere should be grateful.
“The beauty of me choosing to become a pilot is that I was not worried if I would be accepted, and that says a lot about where we have come in our society,” Irwin added. “Thanks to the women pioneers before us, female Marines are having more paths readily available.”
Growing up, the New York native said, she always liked airplanes. At age 2, she went on her first plane ride. Her mother flew a lot and exposed her at a young age to airports and planes.
“The loud noise, the power and their grace in the air is something I always enjoyed and wanted to become a pilot someday,” said Irwin.
She earned her bachelor’s degree in exercise physiology at the University of North Carolina in 2001.
“After college I worked in the world for a while and knew that I wanted to be part of something bigger and I knew that if I didn’t do it that I would regret it, so I joined the Marine Corps.” She was selected for officers’ candidate school and was commissioned a Marine Corps second lieutenant in 2003.
She completed flight school in Pensacola, Fla. in 2004. After requesting to be a Huey pilot, she was sent to Camp Pendleton, where she completed her training.
During her five years at Pendle-ton, Irwin served one deployment to Iraq in 2008 and two 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit deployments aboard naval ships, giving her extensive experience in aircraft carrier flight operations.
Irwin’s responsibilities consist of ensuring that the warfighter has the equipment needed to complete the mission safely and efficiently.
“The work we do is critical in that the developmental and operational tests are run so that our friends and colleagues have the necessary tools in the field,” she said. “Working with the people here has been a great experience and I have learned a lot working with the civilian and military professionals in my squadron.”
Irwin said even though she is the only female Marine Corps pilot here, she is treated equally among the men.
“I would like to see female service members in the future being treated just like the men. If there is something females have a desire for and are professionally qualified, they should be able to pursue that career. There should be no closed doors, and job equality in the military and society,”?she said.
“Anyone who wants to join any branch of the military don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t. I told a woman in college that I wanted to be a military pilot and she laughed at me and said I wouldn’t make it.
“I worked hard and look at me — I have been flying for seven years and loving every minute of it. If there is something you want, you should go for it, no matter the challenge.”Story First Published: 2013-04-03