Not Taking No for an Answer — Carey Lohrenz, the U.S. Navy’s first female F-14 Tomcat pilot, on what it means to feel the fear and go forward anyway

Carey Lohrenz is busy making sure her children have what they need — from a mouth guard for the next lacrosse game to finishing their homework in time for school. If you were to bump into her at the grocery store, she’d probably appear the typical mother of four, keeping up with the demands of ordinary life.

But what the average passerby probably wouldn’t realize is that Lohrenz’s day job was far from normal in the 1990s. While other people headed to an office abuzz with cubicles and people in slacks and dress shirts, Lohrenz suited up in 35 pounds of flight gear before heading to her office in the cockpit of one of the Navy’s most expensive pieces of machinery: the $45 million F-14 Tomcat.

Lohrenz is the first female F-14 Tomcat pilot and a pioneer in military aviation whose story has inspired thousands around the world to go for their goals by not taking no for an answer.

This mindset was indoctrinated in Lohrenz at an early age. The daughter of a United States Marine Corps aviator, Lohrenz, along with her older brother, grew up playing with flight gear from Vietnam. “We were raised imagining all of the amazing things we could accomplish if only we could be a pilot,” she says.

Born in Racine, Wis., and raised in Green Bay, Lohrenz worked hard to keep up with the boys during childhood. Not one to sit back and wait for opportunity, she played on an all-boys’ hockey team, spending a good amount of time in the penalty box.

That determined nature was something she developed in large part thanks to the support of her parents who encouraged Lohrenz and her brother to go for their dreams and to earn it.

“It’s one of the things my dad always shared with me when I was doubtful about something … or when people would say, ‘Why would you want to play on an all boys’ team?’ ‘Why would you want to fly?’” Lohrenz says. “People who tell you you can’t and you won’t are the ones who are most afraid you will.”

Lohrenz knew at a young age that there would be plenty of people who’d doubt her, but she’d try her best to not be one of them. Since childhood, she wanted to be a pilot, but with few female role models, the runway to become one seemed dark.

“I was familiar with lots of women who flew in World War II, but no one talks about them,” she explains. “It’s hard to envision yourself doing something that you don’t see anybody else doing.”

The scarcity of female pilots combined with a 43-year-old law barring women from flying warplanes in combat made Lohrenz’s dreams of becoming a fighter pilot look bleak. But on April 28, 1993, then U.S. Secretary of Defense, Les Aspin, lifted the Combat Exclusion Policy that prohibited women from accepting combat aircraft assignments. The Navy became the first to act on this order when Admiral Frank B. Kelso opened opportunities to women who wanted to fly fighters.

Lohrenz, who earned her wings in June 1993 at the top of her class, was ready. But even before becoming one of the first female fighter pilots, Lohrenz had her feet firmly planted in an industry dominated by men.

Even in college at the University of Wisconsin, where the six-foot Lohrenz was a three-time varsity letter winner in rowing, she was charting a pathway to becoming a fighter pilot, but she kept her dreams quiet.

She experienced challenges in her male-dominated flight schools, but still hoped that her performance would be enough to earn respect and end all discussions about women flying. But as she quickly learned, that wasn’t always the case and she would have to fight stereotypes and chart her own course.

“So often, people look at others who are in positions of leadership or doing something extraordinarily daring, innovative or creative and assume that those people aren’t afraid or have more resources or luck,” Lohrenz explains. “The fact is those people are usually just the ones willing to push themselves out of their comfort zone. They go for it knowing it’s going to be hard, knowing that they’re going to be uncomfortable and that it may be terrifying at times. But they go for it anyway.”

Lohrenz encountered many cultural barriers in the fighter community, a section of aviation she describes as egocentric. “And it needs to be,” she explains, “because it is inherently one of the most dangerous ones in the world.”

Instead of throwing in the towel and deciding she’d never be able to hack it in such a male-dominated environment, Lohrenz took the fighter culture head-on to challenge perceptions. She knew she could work against the stereotypes, argue and vow to change them, but she had to first recognize the framework people were operating in and meet them where they were.

“I didn’t understand why women flying was such a big deal. The jet doesn’t know the difference,” she says. “It takes a lot of grit and commitment. It takes an unwavering belief and mindset that you have the ability to write your own story and that you don’t need an invitation to make a difference. It’s never going to come. You are the one who needs to step up, go out and grab it.”

Lohrenz was elated when the ban on women flying combat missions was finally lifted and the doors of opportunity flung wide open. But with the excitement also came trepidation about the people she knew would want her to fail. “But the quicker you can realize those people are not your tribe and go for it any way, the happier your life will be,” Lohrenz says. “You have to feel the fear and go forward anyway.”

As it turns out, the same determined qualities that helped Lohrenz earn her wings as a fighter pilot also apply to business, and she’s spent more than a decade since retiring from naval aviation sharing those principles and coaching others to overcome fear and setbacks. Speed is life in a fighter pilot’s environment, as she describes, and the same rings true in business.

“As a fighter pilot, you have to make decisions quickly, take initiative or get left behind,” Lohrenz says. “It’s the same in business or your personal life. So often we get stuck because we are afraid of what could happen or think we need to have a perfect plan to be successful.”

She knows firsthand the danger that can result from an inability to act quickly — having operated in conditions that included rocketing off the end of an aircraft carrier going zero to more than 200 miles per hour in just two seconds. As if the adrenaline blast during takeoff were not enough, Lohrenz also knew all too well the harrowing process of landing a jet on a carrier, especially in the hazardous black of night.

“You can actually taste your own fear as you descend toward the pitching deck,” she says in her book Fearless Leadership, “knowing the back end of the ship is bobbing up and down in 30-foot rises and falls.”

A woman well accustomed to high-stakes flying missions, Lohrenz experienced a new kind of fear when she embarked on another journey in life: becoming a mother. Her husband, Doff, was a Marine Corps fighter pilot and Topgun graduate whom Lohrenz met in the service.

Lohrenz is a mother to four, a role that she cherishes and is not afraid to ask for advice and help about. “I joke that becoming a mother was like going from Mach 2 to preschool,” she says. “At least when you’re flying a high performance fighter jet, you have an instruction manual. There are lots of rules and lessons learned.”

Lohrenz, who will speak at this year’s NWA Business Women’s Conference on Sept. 13, strives to instill in her children that same sense of confidence and ability for not taking no for an answer.

“I encourage my kids to be fearless—to not be afraid to go for things,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. It’s in the mistakes that you can learn some of your biggest lessons.”