March 7, 2011 —
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. - When people think about celebrating Black History month they normally envision high profile individuals from the past such as Phyllis Wheatley; the first African-American woman to publish a book in 1700s; W.E.B. Du Bois the first African American to earn a doctorate degree from Harvard University in 1800s; but if you are Air Force Lt. Col. Merryl Tengesdal your dreams lead you to research people like Dr. Mae Jemison who became the first African-American woman astronaut aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1992, which inspired other African American women such as Colonel Tengesdal toward her goal of becoming the first African American female to fly the Air Force's elite U-2 reconnaissance plane.
Though these people are great in their own right, the fact is we don't have to look so far back into the past to see great African American role models because they work around us every day. Currently stationed at U.S. Northern Command, Colonel Tengesdal has a story to tell about achieving her goals. But you would be surprised to know that it's not a bitter or sad story about how others tried to keep her back based on her color. Her story is one of opportunity, hard work and determination. It's a story of a young black girl from Bronx, N.Y., who knew at the age of 7 that she wanted to become an astronaut. Of course, she was inspired as most kids were who watched Star Trek in the '70s, but her inspiration didn't fade as she grew into her teenage years. Colonel Tengesdal reinforced her desires by excelling in math and science courses in high school and then by majoring in electrical engineering at the University of New Haven.
After her college graduation, she applied for Naval Officer's candidate school and was selected for the U.S. Navy's flight aviation program. It was after her OCS graduation that she began a career of flying the Navy's SH-60B Sea Hawk helicopter. Colonel Tengesdal spent 10 years flying in the Navy before transferring to the Air Force in 2004 to fly the U-2 reconnaissance plane.
"I was one of five women in my class and the only female that graduated, I just stayed focus as I went through the training process," she said. "The U-2 plane is used for reconnaissance and can reach above 70,000 feet in the air while lasting over nine hours in the sky. One of my greatest highlights was providing ground troops pertinent information during Operation Enduring Freedom."
Colonel Tengesdal believes that her success was a culmination of things that happened to her along the way such as having a supportive mother, growing up with different cultures, and having mentors to push her along the way. When asked if there was anything she would like to leave with young people today she said "Decide your fate, stay focused and don't give up because of one obstacle, there's always a way to get what you want if you don't give up so quickly."