How Star Trek Led to the U-2
In recognition of the 40th anniversary of Black History Month in the U.S., the U-2 Program is privileged to celebrate the achievements of Col Merryl Tengesdal, affectionately known as Col T.
Not every officer can say she knew what her career would be at the tender age of seven, but that’s just how it happened with Col T. She knew she was going to fly.
“I watched Star Trek when I was a little kid and that made me want to be in space, to fly,” said Col T. “Exploring and seeing different worlds from a Star Trek-perspective, working with a crew of people…that’s what the allure was for me. From that point on, I knew what my path was going to be.”
And, Col T stuck to the path. She did well in math and science, majored in electrical engineering in college and entered flight training in 1995. Then, when she graduated from Officer Candidate School, the U.S. Army’s main training academy for prospective Army Officers, she went directly into the aviation preflight pipeline for the U.S. Navy.
From the Navy, Col T entered the U-2 Program for the U.S. Air Force in 2004, becoming U-2 mission qualified in 2005, and when it comes to U-2 pilots, one of the coolest perks is the view.
“Seeing the earth from 70,000 feet is amazing,” said Col T. “It makes you realize there’s more to life than zeroing in on something specific that’s going on in your life. You’re doing something bigger than yourself.”
U-2 Pilot Diversity
Becoming a U-2 pilot is no easy feat. In order to apply, pilots must already have 500-1,200 rated hours, depending on the type of platform(s) flown. The interview is a two-week process between interviewing and flying, including three flights. To date, just under 1,000 pilots have flown the U-2, of which, only eight are women.
"To be one of a thousand U-2 pilots is definitely an honor,” said Col T. “To be with this group of people is awesome because of all of our diverse flying backgrounds from the Army, Marines or Navy. The different ideas, perspectives and personalities make us that much stronger as a community.”
Col T has the special distinction of being the first African American woman to pilot the U-2. But, that’s not what defines her.
“It’s tough for me, or any pilot, just because it’s a competitive field,” said Col T. “I worked hard regardless of the circumstances or mindsets I encountered. It humbles me a lot but I never thought about being a woman or the first African American woman when I applied to be a U-2 pilot; I just wanted to be a U-2 pilot. In a perfect world, I would rather focus on capabilities and whether or not you have what it takes to be a U-2 pilot.”
In fact, Col T received similar advice from a very tough instructor who once told her, “There’s going to be a point where people will no longer say you’re here because of your gender or race; they’re just going to look at your merits and how you fly. Keep doing what you’re doing and the rest will come in line. If they don’t, you don’t have time for that.”
Col T’s merits did indeed shine through; she was recently promoted to a full bird Colonel.
"As a senior leader, I can help make change but beyond my physical attributes –black, female– I’m a recce pilot, a U-2 pilot by trade with a physiology background and a degree in engineering who speaks Navy and Air Force,” said Col T. “That’s what brands me as different. I think it’s moved beyond the first African American female U-2 pilot. It’s more about who I am as a pilot.”
Before accepting a leadership position at the Pentagon, Col T reached the 1,000 U-2 flight hour milestone, and with a total of 3,400 flight hours in six different aircraft, it begs the question, does flying ever get old?
“Absolutely not,” said Col T.
So You Want to Be a Pilot? Here's Some Advice
This Bronx native and certified personal trainer has a full and busy life, impacting positive change at the Pentagon and spending time with her husband and son.
“I want to be a good role model to my son and show him you can have that balance of work and family,” said Col T. “Plus, it’s great to be a role model for younger people who may not think it’s possible to be a U-2 pilot to see someone with the same background. I do it because I know there are people out there who don’t think they have a future.”
Col T pointed out that becoming a pilot won’t necessarily be easy, and her advice applies to every career.
“Pull up your sleeves, get dirty and work hard,” said Col T. “You will have setbacks but that’s ok; it just makes you better. Have thick skin because it’s a competitive environment but more than anything, come in ready to do hard work.”
As for Col T’s advice for girls, she says, “Remember, there have been a lot of women in aviation throughout history; it’s something we excel at.”