U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Merryl Tengesdal has apparently grown quite comfortable with the great distances in her life — she’s based in northern California, 2,800 miles from her Bronx, N.Y., home, and she pilots the famous, high-altitude U-2 aircraft at more than 13 miles above the Earth!
Saying Tengesdal is flying high — literally and career-wise — is an understatement. One of eight female pilots of the Lockheed U-2 aircraft, she is the only black female in U-2 pilot in history and also inspector general of the Air Force’s 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., where the U-2’s are based.
“I have seen the curvature of the Earth,” Tengesdal said in a 2015 Air Force article marking her accomplishments and the 60th anniversary of the U.S.’s use of the aircraft. “I have seen sights most people will never see. Flying at more than 70,000 feet is really beautiful and peaceful. I enjoy the quiet, hearing myself breathing, and the hum of the engine. I never take it for granted.”
Tengesdal came to the military well-prepared for service — with strong math and science skills that were encouraged by her mother and teachers, in addition to her childhood desire to fly.
She graduated with a bachelor’s of science degree in electrical engineering in 1994 from the University of New Haven in Connecticut, and later attended Navy Officer Candidate School.
She was commissioned as an ensign the same year. Then came flight training and her path to the skies. Taking advantage of new opportunities in combat for women in the military in the mid-1990s, she first flew the Navy’s SH-60B Seahawk helicopter, which is used for anti-submarine warfare and other missions.
In 2004, she cross-commissioned into the Air Force and joined the nine-month U-2 training program at Beale. “The Air Force has always been on the forefront of breaking aviation and racial barriers,” Tengesdal said. “I am extremely proud of being the first black female U-2 pilot in history.”
The U-2 is a unique plane. Formerly used by the Central Intelligence Agency, it is used today by the Air Force and NASA for high-altitude aerial reconnaissance, gathering military intelligence and scientific research.
Astronaut-like pressure suits and helmets are required for U-2 pilots, and special skills are required to land the plane on its two-wheel landing gear.