FRONTLINE Interview with Roxanne Baxter

Baxter became a naval aviator in the mid-seventies, one of the groundbreaking group of early women aviators. In having to confront the aviators' subculture in which women had to join in and 'act like one of the guys,' Baxter eventually realized she was betraying herself. At Tailhook '91 she experienced incidents of abuse, spoke out about it, and believes her career was damaged as a result. Baxter has since retired from the Navy.

Q: How did you find yourself interested in the Navy in the first place?

BAXTER: My father was [in the] military..... He was a bombardier navigator, B-52s in the Air Force. It was kind of a life style that I was accustomed to. I always wanted to fly..... Since I was a little girl. I went up on an airplane when I was about 5-years-old and really liked it, and I think the next time I had a flight experience I liked it. That was in the airline. I liked the acceleration. I liked the thrill. I liked the adrenaline rush.

Q: When you thought about flying as a young girl, did anyone say, well, Roxanne, you're a girl?

BAXTER: If they did, I don't remember. I didn't make it a front line issue anyway. I didn't go out and tell people I wanted to fly or do it for a career, so I probably never got challenged because of that.

Q: And then when did you make the decision, well, I'm going to be a pilot?

BAXTER: I actually made the decision to go into the service first, and then right after I was commissioned, I wanted to go a further step and get into flight training. And I applied after I was commissioned.

Q: Where did you go to college?

BAXTER University of Arkansas.

Q: So you finish Officer Candidate School, and you decide to fly. Was anybody in your family surprised?

BAXTER: I think they knew I enjoyed flying. Even just as a passenger, just riding along. No, I don't think it surprised anyone.

Q: What is it you liked about it? I always ask people who are pilots what it is that they like about it....?

BAXTER: I think for most pilots part of it is a challenge and part of it is being addicted to the thrill of it. There is a kind of junky aspect of it. It's a rush.

Flying the airplane, taking off, landing, especially on a carrier. It's a rush.

Q: Does everybody go to Pensacola for primary?

BAXTER: Pretty much. When I say Pensacola, I am referring to the whole area. Whiting Field is where they had the primary squadron at the time.

Q: And primary for you, how did it go?

BAXTER: It went fine. The flying part went fine, the grading part went fine. I ran into some problems with some of the other male students. They made it pretty rough. I think some of them couldn't handle it that I was doing well and that my grades were good. Especially the ones that were struggling. I had some pretty bad comments made to me.

Q: Were you among the first group of women coming through? Had there been a lot of women come through Whiting Field before this?

BAXTER: No, there were some women. At the time there weren't a lot of women. They were taking 16 women a year. They had a quota, basically. And I'm trying to think. I know when I finished I was... number 52 to get my wings in the women. So maybe three or four years in there of women going through.

Q: What do you chalk it up to...the comments you heard?

BAXTER: At the time I don't think I was able to chalk it up to anything or to really fully understand what was going on. Looking back, it's kind of [a] social phenomenon where men are raised to think that they have to be a certain way to be a man, and part of being a man is not being a girl or woman, and not having the negative connotations. So when a woman comes in to fly a plane and do something a man is supposed to do, they kind of have to redefine for themselves what it means to be a man, and that's pretty tough for some of them.

Q: Especially this kind of a guy? Guys who fly airplanes. Guys who think of themselves as Tom Cruise......

BAXTER: I think it's the ones where men are predominantly there. I know that some more problems happened in the medical field or used to happen in the medical field years ago when a woman wanted to be a doctor and wanted to go to medical school. And generally what you see is as the population of women come in or it could be blacks come in to a predominant white male arena, when you get to a certain percentile, like 33 and up, that type of pressure backs off and people relax a little bit, and it works.

Q: Did you feel like a ground breaker at the time?

BAXTER: Yes, I knew I was a ground breaker at the time.

Q: What did it feel like?

BAXTER: It felt good, but it wasn't easy. You had encouragement, too. There were people that encouraged me. Some of my instructors really encouraged me. And so you had to balance it for yourself, and you had to take that on board and enjoy that and try to dismiss the other stuff that was happening.

Q: How early did you know, or what was the moment you knew hey, I can do this, I can fly an airplane. Is there a certain breakthrough moment that happens in primary for all beginning pilots?

BAXTER: Your training is so intense that if you reach that moment, you bypass it pretty quickly. You don't have time to think about it.

Q: So what was the scariest part of primary for you? What was the big hurdle moment for you in primary for you?

BAXTER: My first solo flight.

I was a little nervous. I think everyone reaches that point where they wonder about can I do this or not. I was nervous about it.

Q: People always talk about primaries at the moment when there's a lot of subjectivity in the grading. No, yes?

BAXTER: I don't think that there's that much subjectivity.

You know what you've gotta do. You know that you have to be able to land an airplane. You know you have to deal with certain emergency procedures. All the standards are pretty clear cut.

Q: Is there opportunity for an instructor to harass in that environment?

BAXTER: Oh, yes. And in terms of what grade they want to give you, that can be kind of subjective. If they're having a good day and they feel good, they might be a little bit more generous with a grade, or if they're having a bad day and somebody makes the same mistake that he has been seeing for the past week, and he's just tired of seeing that mistake, he might come down a little bit harder. That does happen.

Q: Did you ever feel you were unfairly graded because you were a woman?

BAXTER: No, I think probably what happened is that I wasn't given information because I was a woman. You can set the same standards for everybody and say that yes, you need to be able to accomplish these tasks. But part of being a flight instructor is instructing. And if the flight instructor omits certain information and you go on to the next flight and you don't have that information or you haven't been taught a certain skill, you can be set up to fail.

Q: Do you feel that happened to you?

BAXTER: One flight, yes. I was supposed to get certain information on a flight and it wasn't given to me. And I went on. That was the only down. I got one down in flight training. That was the only time.

Q: So you got one down.

BAXTER: I got one down in flight training, and it was following a flight where I was supposed to be taught certain things about maintaining a ... (inaudible) log and how you do a cross country flight. And I don't know whether it's because I was a woman. I think it was because the instructor I had at the time didn't normally fly. He worked at another command. And I think it was just he missed something.

Q: So what year was this?

BAXTER: I think this was back in 1980.

Q: So no downsizing. We're heading toward Lehman's navy. A 600 ship navy. Everything is on the upswing. So no one's feeling that their jobs are threatened or anything by women pilots.

BAXTER: Not really. And at the time women were not allowed into the training command or at the time women were not allowed to go directly into jet training from primary. It was not open to us. If a guy wanted to go in the jets, he finished primary, then he'd go to intermediate and advanced jet. If a woman wanted to go to jet, she had to go to primary training, then either go to helicopters or propeller training, get her wings, and then apply to go to jets regardless of whether or not she had the grades to do it.

Q: So jets were not only combat oriented. You could fly jets that had nothing to do with combat jets, like F14s whatever, huh? What are other jets that a woman would fly at that time.

BAXTER: Right, they couldn't fly the F14s back then. They would fly adversary type missions or they would be in a ferry squadron. You don't have too many actually, you don't have any ferry squadrons any more. That's when you just take an aircraft back and forth at different commands. Or you could possibly go to the training commander, say the training commander and teach.

Q: In these early phases, do you feel there was a sort of socialization process. Aside from learning to fly, was there a sort of way that you as a woman were expected to be?

BAXTER: Well, you weren't supposed to be any certain way. As a woman, you were supposed to be as a man. The socialization process the men obviously had a certain idea of how men were supposed to be, and if you wanted to be in with them, you had to give up certain feminine ways. You had to be able to take jokes, make crass jokes, pretty much let things roll. You couldn't be sensitive. You had to tough it out and you had to be like a man on the exterior.

Q: And were you that way?

BAXTER: Yes. I was indoctrinated, and it worked for a while.

Q: Describe yourself. Roxanne Baxter in those days--

BAXTER: Roxanne Baxter, with her flight bag and her boots on and her flight suit on strutting up to the airplane, checking it out, looking tough. Come back and depending on what job I was working at the time, put my feet, my boots up on the desk and lay back in my chair and do my work or whatever.

Q: So you fit in, finally. You taught yourself to fit in?

BAXTER: I couldn't do it completely, it didn't work. I gave up a lot of me to try to fit in, and that was wrong.

Q: When did you know that?

BAXTER: I think very late in my career. Very late.

Q: So you graduate from primary, you meet the test, you know how to do an emergency, you know how to do a landing, you know how to [do] take-offs, you know how to fly out on your quadrant, you've done a cross-country, you've done a bunch of stuff, and you're a full-fledged graduate of primary. And then where'd you go?

BAXTER: I flew the 244. The 228, that's a squadron. And that went pretty well. I met my husband there. We were students together. That went fine.

Q: So you finished there, and that's where you and they make a decision...what you're going to fly: helicopters, or crops is that right?

BAXTER: It was from primary.

Q: From primary, that's where you decide.

BAXTER: In a combo jet.

Q: You wanted to?

BAXTER: Yes, and I have the grades for it. I know that, grade-wise, they calculate your grades, and I was above the minimum for jets.

Q: So nowadays, if you were in, you might have gotten that. It's probably combat, the F-14.

BAXTER: I was just a little bit too early in the system.

Q: Would you have wanted the F-14?

BAXTER: Oh, yeah, yeah.

Q: Why?

BAXTER: More rush! (Laughs.)

Q: You talk about this rush.... Now what is this rush? Describe it for me.

BAXTER: Adrenaline. You know what adrenaline is, it pumps you up, it charges you up, hyper-alertness. Landing on an air-craft carrier takes just every ounce of what you have, especially if you're doing it at night. When you're done with a night-trap, your body is just drained, because you use every cell in it.

Q: Describe coming in, for us. What are you thinking about? What do you have to be thinking about.

BAXTER: The only thing you're thinking about is watching the ball--

That's the lens on the aircraft carrier that tells you whether you're high or low, you're hawking your line-up, you're watching the angle of attack. Those are the three big things. That's all you're doing, is you're eyes are just going fast across those three things. To make sure they stay where they're supposed to stay. And you don't have time to think about if you're scared or if you're going to get on board. You don't have time to do that. You have to put it all right into those three little things that you have to scan. When you get done, then you become jelly a little bit.

Q: The first time you hit it? How scared were you?

BAXTER: I was scared. Yeah. At night. There was no moon. There was no horizon. There were just three little things you were looking at. And you had to get it just right, or you die. It was fun.

Q: Yeah, sounds fun.

BAXTER: It was! It was fun..

Q: Explain flying a COD.

BAXTER: The COD is a large cargo-aircraft; it lands in the aircraft carrier. And our mission was to carry people out, to carry the aircraft parts out for broken aircraft any other types of cargo. We'd bring up movies for the ship, the mail. That was always pretty popular. They always wanted to know how much mail you had on board when you checked in, and right before you landed.

Q: You spent nights on ship and all of that.

BAXTER: Yes, I've done that a few times.

Q: So, in that sense, you were part of-- Well, I won't say male culture, but certainly on the Enterprise it felt like a male kind of a place. Even now, it felt very much like a mail joint. Yes?


Q: Why,would women want to be there?

BAXTER: It's not the environment so much, it's the job, it's the mission, it's doing something that is just so totally interesting and unique and challenging. It's the mission, it's not the place. The food's, it's okay. It's not the reason you go out.

Q: We've talked about the rush of it all. However, we haven't talked about the sort of patriotism, and the sort of serving your country. Is that part of the equation for you?

BAXTER: Yes. But I think you lose sight of it sometimes, why you're doing it. Especially in the peace-time role, it's difficult to keep sight of that. But you do put up with a lot of hardships, and that is one of the reasons why you do it. It's for the patriotism.

Q: Describe it from your perspective. What was it like, the Navy in the '80s?

BAXTER: In the '80s, you had enough money to do your mission. You had enough money to stay proficient. You had enough money to do training. You had enough money to do the things that you needed to do to carry out your mission. You don't have to be as creative in how you use your resources.

Towards the '90s, the money kind of disappeared. You had to cut back, you had to really weigh what you were doing in terms of benefits, cost-benefit analysis. You had to really stretch your dollars. You didn't get the flight hours that you needed. It hurt when the money went away.

Q: Really a different place by the early '90s?

BAXTER: Yes. Yes. When I came in, it was around 1977, 1978. And it was a very different Navy than what I left.

Q: In what sense?

BAXTER: Well, the finances that support the military; those were the biggies. The other thing that changed was the social structure, in terms of how men treated women, how women treated men. You had some good things that came about, but you also had some bad things come about. Back when I was an infant in the Navy, at a party, if a male officer encountered somebody who was a hooker, a professional, he would still treat her like a lady. When I left the military, women who were not hookers were being treated like they weren't ladies. You had that change, there.

Q: Roxanne, what do you chalk that up to? That's a huge sea change.

BAXTER: That's a big change.

I would have to say that something in our socialization, when we're growing up--

Q: You look sort of pained in your eyes in a way you haven't for the last 25 minutes.

BAXTER: I think some of it is a type of backlash. To use a popular phrase. Where men who have been socialized a certain way that women aren't supposed to be doing these male things, now that when they are doing it, it's almost as if there's a hidden message as well: You deserve this, or you've earned this, or what'd you expect, coming into our male world.

And a lot of men really think like that. That's the part that really disturbs me. There's no more personal responsibility that I came into the military, I'm supposed to be an officer and a gentleman. It's almost as if the burden's on you and not on they themselves for accountability.


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