When it comes to stories of espionage and intrigue, Hollywood rarely casts a sister in the starring role. But in real life one Black woman has accomplished what once seemed like mission impossible: Last October Lieutenant Colonel Merryl (David) Tengesdal became the first Black female pilot of a U-2–the legendary stealth planes the U.S. Air Force deploys for risky reconnaissance missions, such as identifying terrorist activities in foreign countries.
Tengesdal, a former naval officer, is one of only five women and three African-Americans to be accepted into the Air Force’s elite First Squadron, where U-2 pilots get their training. Now she’ll have to withstand the pressure–literally. Solo flights can exceed 70,000 feet and last nine hours, and U-2s, with their tremendous wingspan, are one of the toughest crafts to land.
But Tengesdal has had her sights set high since childhood. Growing up in The Bronx, New York, the Star Trek fan dreamed of being an astronaut. Since then she has boasted an impressive flying career, operating combat helicopters and airplanes for the Navy in the Middle East and South America. In July she’ll leave her Lincoln, California, home and be deployed as part of the Ninety-Ninth Squadron to Korea. “You don’t see many Black females flying in any service,” she says. “I hope this will show young girls that this is an option they can have.”