Breaking barriers and becoming the change for women in Coast Guard aviation

Lt. j.g. Jeanine Menze, a Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules airplane pilot stationed at Coast Guard Air Station Barbers Point, Oahu, Hawaii, proudly sits at the controls of one of the  27 Hercules currently used throughout the service, January 2006. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Jennifer Johnson.

Lt. j.g. Jeanine Menze, a Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules airplane pilot stationed at Coast Guard Air Station Barbers Point, Oahu, Hawaii, proudly sits at the controls of one of the 27 Hercules currently used throughout the service, January 2006. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Jennifer Johnson.

March is women’s history month – it’s a month to commemorate women of character who have made an impact on our society; women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton for her role in women’s rights and abolition, or aviation pioneers like Amelia Earhart for breaking the barrier for women to fly their own aircraft. Within the Coast Guard, we have our own women pioneers.

Lt. Jeanine Menze, the first black female pilot in the Coast Guard, is one such pioneer.  She attended Coast Guard Officer Candidate School in 2003 and later attended flight school where she became an HC-130 Hercules airplane pilot in 2005.

Menze, originally from Jamaica, is an exuberantly vibrant and outgoing woman. Usually found smiling in her olive-drab green flight suit, the pilot is tall and athletic with short, cropped black hair.

Menze became enthralled with aviation as a child. “I used to think it was really funny because when I heard family was coming, I wanted to go to the airport not to see my family but to be at the airport,” said Menze. “I used to love the smell and that feeling of walking into an airport as a kid.” Menze recounts going to a rooftop room at the airport in Jamaica and watching the passengers disembarking from the airplanes and the powerful feeling of being at the same altitude as the top of the airplane. “I was fascinated.”

When Menze was 10-years-old, her family moved to Canada and then to Miami when she was 16. Her love of traveling and being in an airplane resonated with her. “I knew I had to do something in an airport, with an airplane or do something flying.”

Her interest in the military started during high school and combined with her fascination with aviation, she started contemplating her future. When Menze asked her high school counselor what she should do after graduation, she was told she could become a flight attendant. “I saw the requirements but I really wanted to go to college,” said Menze. A college education wasn’t required for work as a flight attendant.

She also thought about going in to the Air Force and was told that even with a four-year degree, it was not a guarantee that she would be able to fly. Menze decided the Air Force wasn’t for her and instead worked her way through college at Florida International University earning a bachelor’s degree in international business.

“I figured if the pilot thing didn’t work out, if I do international business, I’d have to fly a lot…as a passenger. I was committed to traveling,“ she laughed.

While earning her bachelor’s degree, Menze started taking fixed-wing flying lessons in Daytona Beach, Fla., and became hooked.

“I was just so addicted to flying,” said Menze. “I went and got my private license, my instrument rating, my commercial license and my certified flight instructor license  all because I was just addicted.”

After working for a year as a flight instructor in Miami, 22-year-old Menze met two Coast Guard flight mechanics that worked part time at the airport with her. They would talk about the Coast Guard missions and opportunities. Menze became highly interested in the Coast Guard and within a year, she had applied and was picked up for OCS.

Lt. Jeanine Menze and Lt. Israel Young, both Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules pilots with Air Station Kodiak, plan out a route while at base air operations on Eielson Air Force Base 25 miles south of Fairbanks, Alaska, June 4, 2013. Menze joined the Coast Guard in 2003 and has been assigned to units in Hawaii, Florida, Alaska and is scheduled to transfer to Maryland in the summer. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis.

Lt. Jeanine Menze and Lt. Israel Young, both Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules pilots with Air Station Kodiak, plan out a route while at base air operations on Eielson Air Force Base 25 miles south of Fairbanks, Alaska, June 4, 2013. Menze joined the Coast Guard in 2003 and has been assigned to units in Hawaii, Florida, Alaska and is scheduled to transfer to Maryland in the summer. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis.

In the 11 years since becoming a Coast Guard pilot, Menze has seen and experienced a lot from her time assigned in Hawaii, Florida and Alaska. Currently stationed in Kodiak, Alaska, Menze is now married to a Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter pilot and has a daughter.

In 2010, Menze and her crew were among the first responders  to arrive in Haiti to provide aid after the catastrophic 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck near Port-au-Prince affecting an estimated 3 million people and killing at least 100,000. After completing a routine mission south of the Cayman Islands, Menze and her crew overnighted in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, before heading back to the air station in Clearwater, Fla. During that night, the devastating earthquake hit Haiti and Menze and her crew were directed to respond at first light. The Hercules crew conducted overflights of the region and provided the first imagery of the damages seen by the public on CNN. 

One of her most recent memorable moments as a Coast Guard pilot is the Kimberly Heritage case that occurred in Alaska in 2012.

On a dark, windy and bitterly cold night in January, Menze and her crew were called to action for the fishing vessel Kimberly response.  The vessel was being plagued with 90-mph winds that made travel impossible, ultimately leading it to run aground. Menze’s crew was tired and the weather was treacherous during this mission. While providing on scene coordination, communications coverage and a self-rescue capability for the Jayhawk crew, another mayday call came in from the sinking fishing vessel Heritage, about 30 miles south of the Hercules crew’s position.

“I’m getting chills just thinking about it right now,” Menze reminisced. “To sit there in the aircraft at altitude and hear someone on the radio saying ‘mayday, mayday, mayday. This is the Heritage. We’re going down, we’re taking on water. I’ve got two people in the water,’ It was like…this is what we do. This is what I’m trained to do. I’m trained to help this person; to coordinate a helicopter, to pick him up out of the water, this is the moment. Moments like this in my opinion make it all worth it.”

Both cases concluded with all the fishermen safely rescued and brought back to Kodiak.

While most of the daily grind is a pain and highly annoying, there are some really cool opportunities that make it all worth it according to Menze. The reward of doing the mission wipes all the pain away.

Lt. Jeanine Menze, an HC-130 Hercules airplane pilot, takes a moment for a photo at Air Station Kodiak in Kodiak, Alaska, Jan. 25, 2013. Menze is recognized as the first black female pilot in the U.S. Coast Guard. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg.

Lt. Jeanine Menze, an HC-130 Hercules airplane pilot, takes a moment for a photo at Air Station Kodiak in Kodiak, Alaska, Jan. 25, 2013. Menze is recognized as the first black female pilot in the U.S. Coast Guard. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Klingenberg.

Menze didn’t set out to break any barriers when she joined the Coast Guard. For her, the joys of flying and doing the missions were what were most important. “It’s a privilege to be in that position, but I didn’t do it on purpose,” said Menze. She does state however, that the privilege has its benefits.

Being a woman in aviation, Menze feels the benefits and importance are the same. For her, the benefit of representing something she didn’t see as a child is most important.  

“When I was a kid, I would go to all these airports and always see men in uniforms walking in the airplanes or in the cockpit. Even on television or aviation-type toys, you would see two guys sitting on the flight deck – never a woman and a man flying the airplane. I think that is the coolest part of being a female aviator no matter if it’s Coast Guard or civilian – it just represents something I didn’t have when I was a kid. I have always believed in the Gandhi quote, ‘be the change that you wish to see in the world.’ We’re the change – the past, the current and the future female aviators. All the women in aviation are key because we are changing the demographics, changing the culture and industry. We’re changing history.”

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