PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) — For the first time in the history of Helicopter Training Squadron Eight at Naval Air Station Whiting Field, two women held the top two leadership positions in the Navy's oldest helicopter training squadron.
For the past 14 months, Cmdr. Jessica R. Parker, commanding officer, and Cmdr. Lena C. Kaman, executive officer, have held the reins at the elite training unit, which — along with two other squadrons stationed at Whiting — trains 100% of all rotary pilots for the Navy, Coast Guard and Marine Corps.
In a change of command ceremony Friday at the Whiting Field Atrium, Parker relinquished command of HT-8 to Kaman. Parker is heading to Norfolk, Virginia, to become the air boss onboard the USS Bataan, an amphibious assault ship, while Kaman assumed the title of commanding officer of HT-8 at Whiting. Prospective Executive Officer Patrick O'Neill became executive officer.
"I loved having Commander Kaman as my executive officer," Parker said after the ceremony. "She's just superb."
Parker, whose wife Kathy Jensen and young children Tommy and Emmy were in the crowd cheering her on, said that although she didn't want her service to be defined by her gender, she was aware that having women in leadership positions in the military is important to recruiting more women.
"I would say that, although I don't want to be defined as the 'female commanding officer' or the 'woman pilot' — I'm just a great pilot — I do recognize that I needed role models that I could look up to and I could relate to when I was younger," Parker said. "And so it's just thrilling to be able to be that role model for other young men and women."
Kaman, who is expecting twins with her husband, Christian, in November, was beaming as her husband placed the command pin on her white Navy uniform.
"I am so honored and excited to be the commanding officer of the squadron. It's a huge responsibility that I don't take lightly," Kaman said after the ceremony. "We're responsible for training the next generation of warfighting aviators."
Kaman also said she would prefer not to be known as the "female commander," but acknowledged the significance of her position.
"As part of the first female front office ... we are very honored to have that role, we are able to be mentors to everybody, no matter the gender or the race," Kaman said. "But it is special to be a role model team of females for those who would like to stay in and who don't see other females in top leadership positions."
As commanding officer and executive officer — or the "front office" team — Parker and Kaman were in charge of training student helicopter pilots at Whiting Field. Kaman and O'Neill will now assume that duty as Parker goes on her next tour to Virginia.
Parker and Kaman are the third and fourth women, respectively, to be commanding officers of HT-8 in its 68-year history.
HT-8 is staffed by 60 fleet-experienced, active-duty instructor pilots, 15 Navy and Marine Corps reserve instructor pilots and 11 government civilians. During their six-month training regimen with HT-8, 120 student naval aviators, known as "Eightballers" participate in 120 hours of ground school, 48 hours of flight simulator and 114 hours of actual flight training before being designated instrument rated helicopter pilots.
HT-8 designates 180 new unrestricted naval aviators each year.
Michelle Tucker, the Public Affairs Officer Chief of Naval Air Training based in Corpus Christi, Texas, said the Navy was proud to have Parker and Kaman onboard.
"These two women are exceptional officers, but being women doesn't define their service," Tucker said. "Their strengths are their leadership, their flying ability and their dedication to their mission. It's about selecting the right person for the job, not the right gender."