In 2004, Lt. Col. Merryl Tengesdal stepped close to her goal of becoming an astronaut when she became the first African-American woman to fly a U-2, a high-altitude aircraft used for reconnaissance missions.
“You’ve got to be kind of special to fly that plane,” she said. “The altitude puts a lot of stress on your body.”
For six years, Tengesdal donned a 30-pound pressure suit and flew more than 900 flight hours at 70,000 feet—more than 13 miles above the Earth. “If I can’t become an astronaut, this is the next-best thing,” Tengesdal said.
In December, Tengesdal moved to Colorado Springs to work as a staff officer at Peterson Air Force Base.
Growing up, Tengesdal, 39, enjoyed studying math and science, and played multiple instruments in band. At the University of New Haven in Connecticut, Tengesdal said she was one of three women to make it through the electrical engineering program.
Tengesdal’s fascination with flying and space began at an early age. “I watched a lot of ‘Star Trek’ as a kid,” said Tengesdal, who listed Chekov and Capt. Kirk as her favorite characters.
At age 7, Tengesdal said she dedicated herself to school. In middle school, she and her lab partner performed a science experiment using cryogenics and mealworms.“It was inspired by the episode ‘The Wrath of Khan,’” Tengesdal said, laughing.“My science teacher put up with my shenanigans.”
After graduating college, Tengesdal took a four-day bus trip to San Diego to test to become a Navy pilot. “There was a lot of push by the Navy to recruit minorities” in themid-90s, Tengesdal said. “From what I saw, only 25 to 30 percent made it through.”
Tengesdal said she was the only one of five African-American women to make it through pilot school. “I had my goals, and I knew what I wanted to do,” Tengesdal said. Tengesdal became a naval aviator, specializing in helicopters. For 10 years, she flew missions in the Middle East, South America and the Caribbean.
In 2004, Tengesdal left the Navy for the Air Force to join the U-2 program.“That was a highlight in my Air Force career,” said Tengesdal, referencing her acceptance into theU-2 program. “The U-2 is difficult to land and fly.”
Designed for high-altitude flying, the surveillance plane has a long wingspan, and its landing gear has two wheels instead of the usual three. “When you land, you actually have to stall the aircraft at 2 feet because of the wings,” said Tengesdal, who listed the nine-hour-plus missions, decompression sickness and claustrophobic conditions of the plane as other challenges.
Tengesdal deployed multiple times in support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Three months ago Tengesdal moved to Colorado Springs to work as a joint staff officer at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). “I’m getting used to the area and the altitude,” Tengesdal said.“Even though I’m a pilot, the altitude still gets to me.”
As for her astronaut aspirations, Tengesdal said NASA isn’t out of the question.“We’ll see how I do here,” she said.
Her advice to others is simple: “You decide your fate,” Tengesdal said.“Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s too hard.”
This story on Merryl Tengesdal, ’94 B.S., first appeared in the Colorado Springs Gazette on February 22, 2011.
Posted Summer 2011