Rosemary Mariner blazed trails across Navy skies

Rosemary Mariner blazed trails across Navy skiesRosemary (Conatser) Mariner in 1975 — Navy Photo

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News Review Staff Report

The Jan. 24, 2019, death of Navy aviation pioneer Capt. Rosemary B. (Conatser) Mariner, 65, led to admiring headlines across the nation, tributes from the many female aviators she had mentored and and the first all-woman “missing-man” flyover during her funeral Feb. 2 in Maynardsville, Tenn.

She left behind a career filled with firsts, notably as the Navy’s first woman to solo in a tactical jet aircraft (the A-4E/L Skyhawk), first woman to fly a front-line light-attack aircraft (the A7-E Corsair II) and first woman to command an operational squadron — Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 34 (VAQ-34).

China Lakers remember her 1977-79 tour as the military liaison and sea control studies project officer for the Weapons Planning Group. Dianne Rindt, one of her collaborators on tactics development, was among those who paid tribute to her memory this week.

“Rosie was an impressive young woman,” said Rindt. “Very smart and competent, and also just a very nice person. This was around the time she met future husband Lt. Tom Mariner, who was visiting from Lemoore NAS.

“I was saddened to learn of her death.”

Born Rosemary Ann Bryant in 1953 in Harlingen, Texas, Mariner grew up in a Navy family. She washed aircraft and worked other odd jobs at several civilian airports to earn money for flying lessons.

She was only 19 when she graduated in 1953 from Purdue University with a degree in aeronautics. In pursuit of her dream of becoming an aviator, she joined the Navy’s first flight-training class for women. She was one of the first six graduates to earn wings in 1974, and the very next year she accomplished another first as she took to the skies in a Skyhawk jet.

By the time she arrived in our valley, she had been promoted to the rank of lieutenant. In addition to her busy schedule in Weapons Planning, she found the time to speak at an AAUW meeting about opportunities for women in the Navy.

Local aviators who recalled flying with Mariner during her time at China Lake include Stuart Witt, David Janiec and Jack Connell.

“We were close as professionals,” recalled Janiec, who now serves as China Lake Alliance executive director after retiring from military and civilian careers on base.

“Even though she was one of the first female pilots ever commissioned, she was never ‘in your face’ about her achievement. I never saw her let anything negative stop her from being a positive advocate and an absolute professional,” said Janiec.

“I know first-hand that she was an excellent aviator. During a dangerous evolution she was on my wing, and I had absolute trust and faith that she knew what to do to help me recover.”

Mariner was also involved in one of the most high-profile, and tragic, aviation incidents in the Indian Wells Valley.

When Lt. Ted Faller took off on his ill-fated flight in 1979 in his QF-86F Sabre, Mariner took off just after he did.

“When his engine failed, she was right next to him and watched him make the decision to try and belly land,” recalled Janeic. Faller’s choice not to eject, for fear of harming the civilian population below in the process, left him with the risky landing plan that ultimately sacrificed his life in exchange for the safety of others.

“During that incident, Rosemary was circling overhead, calling for aid.”

Icons like Faller and Mariner were a part of a close-knit circle of military aviators, where the loss of one ripples through those who remain.

“Naval aviators are a small community, but it’s also a profession that bonds people together,” said Janiec.

During Mariner’s accomplishment-filled career, she was also one of the first women to serve aboard a Navy warship, USS Lexington (CV 16), and to qualify as a surface warfare officer.

When she led VAQ-34, a 300-member unit flying out of Pt. Mugu in the early ’90s, women were still not allowed to fly combat missions, so she and her squadron (which was about 30 percent female) flew aircraft simulating Soviet planes for U.S. ship and squadron training — a significant contribution to operational readiness.

“If you cannot share the equal risks and hazards in arduous duty, then you are not equal,” she said. As the leader of the organization Women Military Aviators, she worked with Congress and a DOD advisory board to overturn laws and regulations keeping women from combat.

Mariner retired from the Navy in 1997 after achieving the rank of captain, logging 17 carrier arrested landings and completing more than 3,500 flight hours in 15 different naval aircraft. After retirement she taught military history at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

She is survived by her husband, Tommy Mariner, her daughter Emmalee and her sister Libby Merims.

Her earlier marriage to Douglas H. Conatser had ended in divorce.

Story First Published: 2019-02-08