Amy in the sky
Last week we got an unexpected call from a woman named Amy Sheridan, the first American Jewish woman pilot in the U.S. Army. She was in town, and I was privileged to sit down with her and learn her story. She showed up with fiery red hair, a plucky sense of humor, and an incredible knack for storytelling. Thirty years ago today, Amy Sheridan became a Chief Warrant Officer 1. Thirty years ago tomorrow, she became an aviator for the U.S. Army, making her the first American Jewish woman to earn her wings in any branch of military service.
We often think of the women of World War II as military pioneers, and it is true that some women, like Selma Cronan, actually flew planes as members of the Women's Air Service Pilots (WASPS) during that time. However, these women were civilian pilots and were not allowed to command flights overseas. After the war ended, opportunities for women to serve disappeared as quickly as they had come.
It was surprising to realize that it wasn't until the late 1970s that the Women's Army Corps (WAC) was integrated into the regular military, and women could finally become full-fledged Officers and pilots for the U.S. Army. When CW4 Sheridan became a pilot in 1979, she experienced prejudice and harassment as both a woman and a Jew. She may not have been the first American Jewish woman to fly a plane, but to call her anything other than a pioneer would be an insult to the courage and dedication she demonstrated throughout her remarkable 22-year career as a woman flying in a man's world.
In the following clip from our interview, Amy's discusses her decision to pursue Warrant Officer Training and go to flight school.
Amy is full of stories. In Israel, she met Ben Gurion. In Turkey, she saved the day by interpreting for a Hebrew-speaking and a Turkish-speaking Black Hawk pilots. She was also invited to attend the graduation of the first Turkish woman pilot in the Turkish Air Force, which she describes as a deeply moving experience. In Korea, she commanded the first all-woman reconnaissance flight crew in military history. And those are just some of the operations she's at liberty to talk about.
In this video, Amy talks about the advantages of being a "knuckle-dragger," flying Colin Powell, and what it took to make it as one of the first woman pilots in the Army.
But not all of her stories are happy ones. Amy recounted examples of harassment and discrimination because of her efforts to stay involved in Jewish life. At Fort Rucker, she was given a hard time for taking time off for Jewish holidays and attending services on Friday nights at the nearest synagogue, which was 18 miles away. In order to offset this resentment, Amy volunteered to work every Christmas and Easter, which she did for the next 20 years. CW4 Sheridan says she will never forget those few who did speak up on her behalf and support her, even when it wasn't the "guy" thing to do.
CW4 Sheridan also encountered a great deal of harassment towards women, everything from "harmless" pranks to assaults. Even though women can do almost everything a man can do in the military today, CW4 Sheridan still sees harassment and sexual assault as a serious problem. In the following clip, she discusses a few of her experiences and her commitment to education and activism on this issue.
Amy Sheridan retired from the Army as a Chief Warrant Officer 4 in 1999. She was awarded the Legion of Merit by General Clark upon retirement. She made sure to have all of her airline ratings intact as she jumped into what she called her "amateur civilian" life. Amy left the Army with the intention of becoming a commercial airline pilot. But after some dealings with the industry, she realized that to do so would mean starting all over again as one of the only women in a male-dominated field. Instead, she decided to pursue her other passion: education. She put a Masters she had earned in the Army to work, becoming a high school guidance counselor and teaching at the pre- and post-secondary levels. She also became a special needs advocate and prison facilitator.
In 2004, Amy was hit by a drunk driver. She now walks with a cane, and is unable to fly. She told me that she missed flying. "To me, flying was great therapy. When I was focused on flying, nothing could get in the way." Still, Amy delights in her current opportunities to inspire young women to pursue careers in aviation. CW4 Sheridan is an American heroine, and a heroine of the Jewish community. She proved that with determination, courage, and a positive attitude, a Jewish woman can fly.
To learn more about Amy Sheridan's life and career, visit her article in This Week in History.
How to cite this page
Berkenwald, Leah. "Amy in the sky." 18 December 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 2, 2014) <http://jwa.org/blog/amy-in-the-sky>.