‘We have the watch’

All-female naval aviators fly high for the late Capt. Rosemary Mariner

  • LT Kelly “Ston’er” Harris, Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 213, landed safely in Maryville after being a part of the first female flyover in history in honor of Capt. Rosemary Mariner. - Crystal Huskey

  • Eight female naval aviators flew in honor of Capt. Rosemary Mariner on Saturday, including Lt. Cdr. Danielle “Purple” Thiriot, right. - Crystal Huskey

  • A “missing man” flyover was held for the late Capt. Rosemary Mariner. Mariner was the first female tactical fighter jet pilot in the United States military, and she paved the way for females in naval aviation. - Crystal Huskey

As naval aviator Lt. Cdr. Danielle “Purple” Thiriot pulled her jet up out of formation and flew high into the sky to symbolize Capt. Rosemary Mariner’s passing, she heard fellow pilot Cdr. Stacy “Stigs” Uttecht say, “For Rosemary.”

“We’re all combat veterans, and we were honoring Capt. Mariner and what she did for us,” Thiriot said. “We stand on the shoulders of giants, and hers were the tallest.”

Thiriot and Uttecht were part of a historic all-female ‘Missing Man’ flyover that took place during Mariner’s funeral service on Saturday.

Mariner and her husband, Tommy, lived in Norris. Tommy Mariner was the senior naval instructor at Anderson County High School for 17 years and was an attack pilot prior to that with the U.S. Navy.

“I’m extraordinarily honored that the Navy is paying attention to this event,” Tommy Mariner said just before Rosemary’s funeral at Norris United Methodist. “People have come from all over the country. This is a sad get-together, but one which hopefully will allow us to recognize the path that Rosemary helped lay.”

Neither Tommy nor Rosemary planned to make a career out of the Navy, but they both discovered quickly how important it had become to them. She had always loved aviation, earning her private pilot’s license by the time she was 17 in San Diego.

“But she knew that to have a naval career, she needed to push to open some doors,” Tommy said.

Capt. Ray Lambert was one of her first mentors. He was an African-American naval aviator and told her, “The way you’re going to survive and do well in this endeavor is to network, talk to people and mentor others,” according to Tommy.

“And Rosemary very quickly realized that was sage advice,” he said.

The couple was married almost 39 years.

“We got married in the high desert [of California],” Tommy said. “They loved her in the high desert, and so did I.”

On their first date, he asked her what was most important to her. She told him that she wanted to be seen as a person, not as a “first.”

“She didn’t want to be looked at as exceptional,” he said, “but to be seen as the first person that opened the door and left it open for others to follow her through.”

One of the restrictions placed on Capt. Mariner when she first became a pilot was that she wasn’t allowed to land on an aircraft carrier on the open sea.

But, she wanted to.

It took a decade, but the Navy did end up lifting that restriction, and Mariner did land.

Capt. Mariner mentored lots of men and women, according to Tommy —black and white, rich and poor, and they let her run her squadron the way she wanted to.

According to a press release from the U.S. Navy, after completing flight training in 1974, Mariner was designated a naval aviator and received her Wings of Gold to become the Navy’s first female jet pilot.

She flew the A-4/L Skyhawk and the A-7-ELEVEN Corsair II. She was the first female military aviator to achieve command of an operational air squadron. During Operation Desert Storm, Mariner commanded Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 34 (VAQ-34).

She even fought Congress to change the laws and allow women as combat aviators.

She was in the Navy’s first flight-training class for females, becoming one of six graduates.

In 1982, she was among the first females to serve aboard a U.S. Navy warship, the USS Lexington, and qualified as a Surface Warfare Officer.

“She felt it important to go to sea as much as she could,” Tommy said.

She retired in 1997 and moved to Norris with her family. She went on to become a lecturer at the University of Tennessee.

“Life can deal you a lot of curveballs,” she said once in an interview at UT. “You hang in there and you don’t quit. I think the most rewarding thing as a teacher is when people get something and hang in there and do well.”

She passed away on Jan. 24 at age 65 after a five-year long battle with ovarian cancer.

Thiriot first met Mariner at a Women in Aviation conference in 2015. She had already been diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

“But she showed up and had her full dress uniform on and was being inducted into the Hall of Fame,” she said. “She was always so humble.”

Thiriot joined the Navy 12 years ago and knew immediately she wanted to fly.

Her grandfather was a pilot and fought in World War II.

“It was really emotional, being a part of this,” she said. “Our hearts were pounding a little bit too, just understanding that gravity.”

Participating in the flyover is something she considers one of the top moments in her career.

When asked what this all-female flyover would have meant to Rosemary, Tommy answered: “Mission success.”