17-Apr-2023 Source: US Navy
2023 is a milestone year for Naval aviation. Beginning in 1973 and continuing on to the present, the Naval aviation community has benefitted from the inclusion of women into its ranks. 50 years of history began in March 1973 when six women, termed the “First Six,” began flight training in Pensacola, Fla. These aviators are: Lt. Cmdr. Barbara Allen Rainey, Captain (Retired) Rosemary Bryant Mariner, Captain (Retired) Jane Skiles O’dea, Captain (Retired) JoEllen Drag-Oslund, Captain (Retired) Judith Neuffer, and Captain (Retired) Ana Marie Scott.
In the 50 years since women entered Naval aviation, many other women in addition to the ‘First Six’ made careers in the field. One such woman is Cmdr. (Retired) Stephanie Oram. Following her graduation from the University of Wisconsin, Oram commissioned as a general unrestricted line officer and began her Navy career at Naval Communication Station in Stockton, Calif., serving as the Legal Officer and Technical Control Division Officer. During this tour, her department head encouraged Oram to apply for aviation training.
In 1984, Oram was one of four women selected from the fleet to transfer to aviation training. It was during this year that she was promoted to Lieutenant as a Student Naval Aviator (SNA) in Training Squadron Two (VT-2), NAS Whiting Field, training in the T-34C aircraft.
Though Oram herself was relatively removed from the early days of the “First Six,” she still found herself without many fellow female aviators during much of her career. Oram credits a large portion of her success in flight school to the two other female SNAs with whom she progressed through the aviation syllabus, Sheila Bailey and Jane Stevens. Following advanced training in the TH-57 helicopter, Oram earned her wings of gold in 1985, joining approximately 150 other female Naval aviators amidst a sea of male counterparts numbering over 8,000. She has the distinction of being the 96th female aviator to earn her wings of gold.
Following flight school, Oram was selected to fly the CH-53E. Upon reporting to her first squadron in Hawaii, she found mentorship in Lt. Cmdr. Milady “Bunny” Blaha, the only other female 53 pilot on the island, as well as a female Department Head and maintenance chief.
After her tour in Hawaii, Oram transferred to San Diego. Unlike her previous squadron, Oram was one of many other lieutenants who were also fellow women in Naval aviation.
Her first overseas deployment took her to the Persian Gulf in support of Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm, where she spent eight months transporting mail, cargo, and people to the numerous ships and bases in the area.
Oram’s aviation career took her all over the world. Beyond Hawaii and California, she lived in Bahrain, Italy, the United Arab Emirates, and Ukraine. She spent five years of her career living overseas. In Bahrain, Oram was again the only female pilot in the country. She did, however, have two female aircrew in her squadron.
During her tour in Sigonella, she earned an air medal for a challenging operation of lifting two crashed helicopters out of the mountains of Turkey under fire from the rebels of the PKK, a Kurdish militant organization. While serving as the American attaché to the Ukrainian Navy, she provided support, education, and guidance to the Ukrainian Navy about how to cooperate and work with NATO and western countries.
Stateside, Oram worked at the Pentagon, and earned her master’s degree at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. She finished her naval career as the Executive Officer for Naval Air Station Whiting Field in Milton, Florida.
If you ask Oram, she will tell you that one of the most enjoyable aspects of working as one of the early women in Naval aviation was watching the landscape of opportunity change in real time. As a result of the integrated and successful involvement of women during Desert Shield/Desert Storm, a mass interview was done of women in service about their time during the operation. Oram was one of those interviewed. In 1993, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin lifted the ban on combat flights for women and opened the majority of Navy ships to women. As a direct result of her actions and words, Oram saw combat restrictions lifted for women in her own time.
While speaking about her time as a woman in Naval aviation, Oram makes no claims to have broken any barriers. She will even joke about helicopter pilots not being able to break the sound barrier – but she does take great pride, both in her career and in being part of the greater legacy of women in Naval aviation. She acknowledged that she and her peers, like those before her, chipped away at the ‘glass ceiling’ to help open new opportunities for the women who followed them. The work of Oram and innumerable women like her reflect well on the past 50 years of women in Naval aviation, and set the stage for success for the next 50 years to come.