A winged steed, unwearying in flight,
Sweeping through the air swift as a gale of wind.
— HESIOD, The Catalogue of Women
Imagine being strapped in a chair, fastened with a seatbelt across both shoulders while immersed chest-deep in water of a swimming pool. You wear opaque goggles and the “window” next to you is closed, essentially simulating a murky scenario.
Now, imagine escaping this contraption after it is flipped backwards in a gentle whoosh sending you into the water upside down. This exercise is just one of many tests the Navy requires its pilots, and those who fly with them, to endure to prepare them for an ejection and parachute descent or crash landing into water.
“I can’t think of any person I know who anticipates doing these tests, but they are life savers,” said Nicky Alvord Robinson, a 2001 Admiral Farragut Academy alumna who is one of three Navy aviation physiologists at the Navy Survival Training Center in Norfolk, Virginia. “The training is very valuable. It’s not something that pilots look forward to, but it’s something that helps them feel secure if anything were to happen while in flight.”
Nicky is part of the Medical Service Corps in charge of physically preparing pilots for the rigors of flight and survival at the Naval base, where pilots are required to take a two-day course every four years. During the course, students must pass the Modular Shallow Water Egress Trainer (the test with the chair being flipped upside down), a swim test while wearing boots, flight suit and helmet; demonstrate that they could inflate a life preserver with a breathing tube while treading water; and complete several situational exercises; and escape the dunker, a test similar to the egress trainer except pilots and crew members are strapped in an actual cockpit of a helicopter or plane.
More importantly, Nicky is part of an alumni base that have been pioneers of sorts, including LCDR Stefanie J. Haseman (Schuyler) ‘01, LT Jennifer Kearns (Wells) ‘04, 1st Lieutenant (1LT) Brittany Cross ‘08, and LTJG Natalia Widulinski ‘08. In the early 1990s, Farragut welcomed its first female students and graduates, including the late Megan McClung ‘91N – who was the first female United States Marine Corps officer killed in combat during the Iraq War.
Over the years, Farragut has helped shape the lives of young women in a way other schools could not, just as much as the women have helped transform Farragut into an institution unlike any other. They all credit Farragut as an incredible starting point.
For Nicky, the journey from Farragut to Vanderbilt to her eight-year career as a Naval Flight Officer to her current stint as a Navy physiologist has swept through the air like the wind.
“I know it sounds like a cliché, but it literally seems like yesterday when I was in Pensacola for my training,” said Nicky, who originally had gone to Vanderbilt on a NROTC scholarship for medical school before switching to a career in flight. “I now look at my students and I think of me back in 2006. They have that bright-eyed, bushy-tailed look about them. They have their whole career in front of them.”
Nicky’s path in the Navy admittedly began when she first stepped onto the campus at Farragut where her father, Gregory, worked as a science teacher and her mom, Deborah, worked in residential life. She already had some structure ingrained in her having grown up in Zimbabwe, where her father served in the police force and her grandfather served in World War II, but her time at Farragut became a life changer.
“The influence of Farragut and the naval tradition, wearing a uniform, understanding the rank structure, marching during drill, becoming a qualified boat handler — all of it helped with my confidence and ultimately helped guide me into a career as a Naval officer,” said Nicky, who attended Farragut eight years. “During my first summer of CORTRAMID (Career Orientation Training of Midshipmen), I had a sense of comfort and confidence because I had a good idea of what to expect.”
Nicky’s sister, Andrea Alvord, echoes this sentiment.
“I am not sure that I would have thought about a career in the Navy if I had not been exposed to the Navy heritage and customs through Farragut,” said Andrea, who graduated from Farragut in 1999 and also attended Vanderbilt on a NROTC scholarship where she attained her bachelor’s in English.
Nicky and Andrea are happy to have been a part of a Navy – and a military – that has significantly evolved over the past two decades, especially in the past five years with the rise of Robin Braun as the first female commander of the Navy Reserve, Michelle Howard as the first female four-star admiral and Nora Tyson as the first woman to lead a Navy ship fleet.
In fact, Andrea – who was featured on a video for Wired magazine’s website – was one of the first women to join the Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron Light FOUR TWO (HSL-42) unit as a qualified pilot for the SH60B Seahawk helicopter. During her tour with the “Proud Warriors,” she was deployed to the Arabian Gulf and the Eastern Pacific but had her “best moment when she landed the helicopter on the football field at Farragut for a demonstration.”
With a Navy that currently has a little more than 50,000 women serving in active duty in some capacity, possibly the most remarkable development occurred in 2013 when Leon Panetta removed the U.S. Military’s ban on women serving in combat (the services have until the end of 2015 to draw up a plan to implement it or seek special exceptions to keep it closed).
“Of course, all the developments are considerable, but I am proud whenever I put on the uniform, no matter who I am standing next to,” said Nicky, who spent three years with the E-2 squadron in Atsugi, Japan. “Being a woman in the Navy and having been a flight officer has been incredible, but at the end of the day, I am most proud to be one of the women AND men in the United States Navy. The people that you meet, the bond of being in a squadron together, those are the most endearing moments of my naval career.”
Other notable female graduates from Farragut who are currently serving our country in the United States Armed Forces:
LCDR STEFANIE J. HASEMAN (SCHUYLER) — daughter of Farragut’s own William Schuyler — graduated from Farragut in 2001 and accepted an NROTC Scholarship through Jacksonville University, where she received a degree in Psychology. She was commissioned as a Naval flight officer, completed her fleet readiness training for the P-3C Orion in Jacksonville and joined the “Golden Swordsmen” of Patrol Squadron Four Seven, deploying to Iraq in support of OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM in 2007 and to Japan in 2009. In May 2010, Stefanie reported to Air Test and Evaluation Squadron One (VX-1) at NAS Patuxent River, MD. In 2013, Stefanie returned to Hawaii to join the “Wizards” of Special Projects Patrol Squadron Two. In March 2016, Stefanie will transfer to NAS Jacksonville to begin her Department Head tour.
LT JENNIFER KEARNS (WELLS) USNR graduated from Farragut in 2004 and attended the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, NY, where she received a degree in Logistics and Intermodal Transportation, a U.S. Coast Guard Deck Officer License (unlimited tonnage), and a commission in the U.S. Navy Reserve. From 2008-2011, she sailed with Military Sealift Command (MSC) as the ship’s navigator, delivering supplies to the U.S. Navy and its U.S. allies around the world. In 2011, she transferred to MSC’s headquarters in Washington DC as a Marine Transportation Specialist for all Combat Logistics Force vessels. In 2014, she transferred to National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) as a maritime analyst.
LTJG NATALIA WIDULINSKI graduated from Farragut in 2008 and was commissioned through the Boston College Consortium NROTC program and subsequently attended Northeastern University in 2013, where she received a degree in Environmental Sciences. Following graduation, she reported to her first Navy command aboard the USS Milius (DDG-69) in San Diego, CA where she served as the Strike Officer and Ordnance Officer. In October 2014, she departed with the Milius for an 8 1/2 month Ballistic Missile Defense deployment to the Fifth Fleet (Middle East) Area of Responsibility. As Ordnance Officer, she maintained accountability for the ship’s ammunition stock. While on Milius, LTJG Widulinski qualified as a Surface Warfare Officer (SWO) which included achieving qualifications such as Combat Information Center Watch Officer, Anti-Terrorism Tactical Watch Officer and Officer of the Deck. After 2 1/2 years onboard Milius, LTJG Widulinski will be moving on to her next command, USS Anchorage (LPD-23) as the Assistant First Lieutenant.
1LT BRITTANY CROSS graduated from Farragut in 2008 and then attended Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, where she received her degree in Aerospace Studies. While at Embry, she competed in the NCAA as a part of the cross country and track and field teams. She was commissioned into the United States Army upon graduation and is currently serving as an Ordnance Officer for 64th Brigade Support Battalion, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division in Fort Carson, Colorado. Over her past three years in the service she has served as a Distribution Platoon Leader deployed to Kuwait, a Battalion Maintenance Control Officer, and is currently running the Brigade Unit Maintained Equipment program for 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team at Fort Carson.