By Mike Hixenbaugh
© January 5, 2013
Capt. Sara Joyner laughed when she realized that as the first female fighter pilot to command a carrier air wing, she would answer to the call sign “Battle Axe.”
“If you look up the word ‘battle-axe,’ it is a slightly overbearing and domineering woman,” Joyner told reporters Friday after assuming command of Carrier Air Wing 3 – nicknamed “Battle Axe” – during a ceremony at Oceana Naval Air Station. “I found that humorous.”
As air wing commander, Joyner is responsible for all of the planes, pilots and support staff that are preparing to deploy with the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman sometime in the next few months. She replaces Capt. Michael S. Wallace.
Her promotion represents a significant breakthrough for gender equality in a profession still dominated by men.
Joyner, 46, has sought to deflect attention from the milestone since learning she would assume command more than two years ago. During an hourlong ceremony Friday at Oceana, the achievement was never mentioned.
“I don’t think that it needs to be said; it’s out there. My hope is to be as good as the best of the best CAGs that I’ve had,” Joyner said, referring to the Navy’s acronym for the commander of an air group. “It doesn’t matter what you look like; it matters how you do the job.”
Joyner was born in Hoopers Island, Md., where she grew up watching old Westerns and Star Trek movies. She named John Wayne, Ronald Reagan and James T. Kirk among her childhood heroes.
She was 11 when the Naval Academy started accepting women, and she decided early on, over her naval officer father’s objections, that she would be among the first to attend.
She graduated from the academy in 1989, the first class to include more than 100 women. She attended flight school in Texas and piloted the A-4E Skyhawk in the Philippines and Puerto Rico.
In 1993, Congress repealed the law barring women from combat ships. By 1996, Joyner was a fighter pilot, flying the F/A-18 Hornet.
In 2007, she became the first woman to assume command of an operational fighter squadron: Strike Fighter Squadron 105, the Gunslingers. She led that Oceana-based squadron on a combat deployment to the Arabian Gulf.
Over her Navy career, Joyner – who goes by “Clutch” – has had mentors who went by “Dog,” “Nasty,” “Killer” and “Norm.”
All of them were men.
“And that’s OK,” she said after the ceremony.
Joyner thanked her mother – who stayed home to raise her and taught her to love adventure – and her late father.
“He managed to raise a daughter who had absolutely no concept of limitations in her life,” she said.
Joyner also thanked her husband, Navy Cmdr. James Joyner, for supporting her. He sat in the front row, holding their 3-year-old son, Mark. The couple’s 9-year-old daughter, Sara Beth, sat next to him.
Does she want her daughter to follow in her footsteps?
“Only if she wants it,” Joyner said after the ceremony. “I think that’s what’s so great about being an American citizen. The opportunities are there if you want them. You can be anything from a homemaker, a schoolteacher, a fighter pilot. It doesn’t matter.”