A Navy brat, Joellen Drag Oslund lived all over the world growing up. A few years here and there – Illinois, Maryland, Puerto Rico and the Philippines – was an accepted way of life as a kid. Finally, after settling down in California’s Castro Valley as a teenager, she decided to attend college close to home at Cal State Hayward graduating in 1972 with a degree in political science. 

Although undecided coming out of university, she knew she wanted her career to be something out of the ordinary. One day, a friend who was in the Naval Reserves showed her a naval message and said, “I think you should go for this.”

“Chief of Naval Operations, Elmo Zumwalt, had opened the Navy flight training program to women just as I was graduating from college,” remembered Joellen. “I realized it was the something different that I longed for.”

Book author, Beverly Weintraub, and retired Navy Capt. Joellen Oslund, during a book signing event on Midway’s hangar deck.

In June 1973, Joellen entered Navy flight school. A trailblazer for women in military aviation was born.

Joellen’s story is chronicled in the recently released book “Wings of Gold: The Story of the First Women Naval Aviators.” Authored by Beverly Weintraub, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, the book tells the true accounts of six extraordinary women who made history in a naval aviation experiment in the early 1970s.

Joellen and Beverly conducted a book signing on the hangar deck of the USS Midway Museum sharing the tale of the challenges and achievements of the pioneering women who fought to break through the barriers of a historically male-dominated profession.

“There are gaps in the historical record that need to be filled, not only to give people the recognition they deserve, but because important lessons from the past are too easily forgotten,” said Beverly, who is also a pilot. “This is especially true when the story involves women.”

According to Beverly, the debate of whether women have the upper-body strength, temperament and mental toughness to fly military aircraft was answered by the more than 1,000 female pilots recruited by the Army Air Corps to fly non-combat operational, test and support missions during World War II. For Joellen and her five female groundbreaking classmates, they had to confront those same doubts and answer those same questions all over again.

“It is so gratifying to know that the efforts of the first six of us really has made a difference for women in the Navy,” said Joellen, who became the first women to complete the Navy’s helicopter flight training program and the fourth women to get her Navy wings in April 1974. “I’m pretty sure we far exceeded the expectations of most Navy leaders of the time, and I’m very proud of that. As a group and individually, we did very well in every aircraft and environment in which we found ourselves.”

Joellen, who was presented her wings from her father, retired Navy Cmdr. Theodore Drag, went on to fly CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters in her first fleet assignment with Helicopter Combat Support Squadron 3 (HC-3) in San Diego. However, after reporting to the squadron, she found that existing federal legislation limited Navy women to only shore-duty billets. Thus, Joellen was unable to land her helicopter on Navy ships at sea. This restriction would not only hamper her professional development as a pilot, but also hinder her opportunities for promotion.

The book “Wings of Gold: The Story of the First Women Aviators” chronicles the experiences of the first six women Navy pilots.

In 1977, Joellen joined a class-action lawsuit against the Navy, Owens v. Brown, that aimed to overturn Section 6015 of Title 10 that kept women in the Navy from serving and operating on ships. The following year, the District Court in Washington, D.C. ruled in favor of Joellen and the other women in the lawsuit and in the fall of 1978, women were finally allowed to be assigned to shipboard billets.

“As soon as I got to my first operational duty assignment, I realized that 10 USC Sec 6015 was going to be an insurmountable barrier to any hopes of a normal career path,” said Joellen, who would later marry Dwyane Oslund, also a Navy helicopter pilot. “There was never any question in my mind that it needed to be challenged. I was gratified that we prevailed and the law was found to be unconstitutional. But in the end, though, the ruling was just the first battle in a long series of battles that only truly ended in 1993 with its complete repeal.”

Beverly’s book not only recounts Joellen’s journey, but the accomplishments of each of the first six women naval aviators.

Retired Navy Capt. Joellen Drag Oslund was the U.S. Navy’s first woman helicopter pilot earning her wings of gold in 1974.

“One thing that blows me away is how humble they are about their accomplishments,” said Beverly. “They were, among other things, the first woman to solo a tactical jet, the first female Hurricane Hunter, the first woman to command an aviation squadron, the first military pilot mom and a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit challenging the combat exclusion.”

Joellen transitioned to the Naval Reserve in 1979 and was assigned to Helicopter Combat Support Squadron 9 (HC-9) where she became the first combat search and rescue helicopter aircraft commander. In 2017, she was inducted into the Women in Aviation International Pioneer Hall of Fame.

“I didn’t really realize at the time that everything I did was a first,” said Joellen, who rose to the rank of captain before retiring from the Navy in 1998. “To me it was just the logical progression of qualifications that every pilot, woman or man, had to accomplish to compete for promotion. I feel so very honored to have helped pave the way for today’s women and the amazing opportunities and experiences they can now enjoy.”

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