Carey Lohrenz: The Navy’s First Female F-14 Tomcat Fighter Pilot
On fearless leadership, challenging adversity and pushing boundaries.
A former Lieutenant in the United States Navy and the first fully qualified female naval aviator to fly the F-14 Tomcat in the United States Military, Carey Lohrenz is used to breaking barriers. And she hasn’t stopped yet.
Now a founder, the best-selling author of Fearless Leadership and a successful Keynote speaker — Carey explains in this interview how she ended up a fighter pilot in the Navy, the importance of ignoring the naysayers, and how we can all live fearlessly.
Newnham: Carey, can you tell us a bit about your background and what were you like growing up?
Lohrenz: I knew from the very beginning that I’d be an aviator. Flying was in my blood. My older brother and I grew up playing with Dad’s silk maps and flight gear.
We’d perform imaginary feats of daring and skill, pretending to be pilots just like our dad, a former United States Marine Corps aviator. After he left the armed forces, my dad flew for a major airline until retirement; my mom had been a flight attendant before having us kids. Given this heritage, my brother and I had no doubt, even as kids, that we were destined for the cockpit — and we were both right.
The path to a piloting career is a challenge for anyone, no matter how driven and naturally skilled you may be. What I didn’t know as a child, though, was that it would require an extra helping of courage from me, simply because I was a girl. On top of that, I decided, while an undergrad’ at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, that I didn’t just want to be any ol’ pilot. I wanted to be a Naval Aviator — a coveted title even among men in the field. For a woman, especially in the 1990s, aiming for that goal seemed almost silly. Nevertheless, it’s what I wanted.
Some people were supportive and thought it was “cool.” Some thought I was batshit crazy; several of them said things like, “You seem way too nice. Why would you want to do this?”
It’s important to understand on your journey, people will tell you to give up. They’ll say you aren’t cut out for “this kind of work.” But so what if they think so? Why should their opinion change anything? This is your life, your path. These are your dreams. There will be bumps in the road, but there will also be awesome, unforeseen opportunities. And more often than not, as my Dad used to say, “Those who tell you ‘You can’t’ and ‘You won’t’ are probably the ones most scared that you will.”
Go for it anyway.
Newnham: As the Navy’s 1st Female F-14 fighter pilot, what were the biggest obstacles you faced and how did you overcome them?
Lohrenz: Wow. Too many to list!
Having a determined spirit and the courage to go after your dream when you feel doubt, or when others are telling you, “that’s not the way we do things here…” is not easy. It takes tenacity and grit to keep going after your goals when the deck appears to be stacked against you. But that is what being a Fearless Leader is all about. It is being willing to say “Why not me?” and to push yourself outside of your comfort zone.
It takes tenacity to keep pushing, to keep striving and working hard when the novelty of that first, decisive moment to go after your dream wears off. When the path ahead looks bleak or too daunting and it’s full of drudgery and challenges — those are the moments that require you to dig deep, and to stick with it.
Without the willingness to keep at it, success in any way, shape or form will not be possible. And that is just as true in life as it is in aviation or business. Everyone has his or her own personal self-doubts and fears to face. But to be a Fearless Leader, you must recognize your own value, and reframe obstacles and challenges as opportunities.
My advice is Don’t Play Small. I had to learn to stop flying under the radar.
Newnham: What do you consider your biggest achievement so far?
Lohrenz: Professionally, I was grateful for the opportunity serve my country and fly one of the best airplanes in the world. Writing Fearless Leadership: High Performance Lessons from The Flight Deck and it going on to becoming a The Wall Street Journal best-seller has been fun but raising four amazing kids takes the prize. I haven’t screwed that up yet, and it’s my biggest accomplishment.
Newnham: You are an inspiration and role model for many but who have been your role models and how have they inspired you?
Lohrenz: As one of the first female combat pilots flying F-14s in the Navy on and off aircraft carriers, I can definitely speak from experience on the need for mentors — particularly those who can relate to you on a personal level. While I was flying, there were very few other women accessible, either as peers or in senior leadership positions. Being one of such a small group, I found that leading can be a daunting task at times — though it can also be exhilarating and one of the most rewarding things you can do. But sometimes it is also very isolating.
I’m lucky to have many from several different walks of life, and different professions. From 96 year-old WASP pilots, to IT executives, entrepreneurs, Olympians and a few millennials — everyone has a story to tell and something interesting to share. As long as you take the time to listen.
This will make my kids cringe — but for a little inspiration I also follow The Rock and JJ Watt on Instagram. Those guys get more done, and work harder than most people I know in any given 24 hours. Seriously. They have unbelievable work ethics!
I run my own company and also have a husband, four kids, one yellow lab, I’m working on my MBA in Strategic Leadership and I also just finished being the President of the Women Military Aviators Association. So, time management expert level = Ninja…
There are days I feel like there aren’t enough hours though and that I have a foot on two different horses in the circus. But it’s my circus and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Newnham: What are your best Fearless leadership tips for women?
- Get comfortable with being uncomfortable!
Courage isn’t comfortable. Courage means breaking out of your comfort zone. Leading fearlessly forces us to confront uncertainty, doubt, and the possibility of failure, and that’s rarely a fun experience in the moment. Our natural inclination is to shirk discomfort. After all, life seems easier when you’re not pushing the envelope, when you’re not taking chances.
- Get in the arena
Take the initiative and take action. Fearless Leaders do this. If you don’t boldly take the first step, whether it’s acting with confidence in your team or accepting the challenge to speak the unpopular truth, how on earth can you ever expect the people you lead to do the same?
The experiences that get you out of your comfort zone are the ones that will make the difference in your leadership career. The uncomfortable experiences — the ones you think you’re not ready for, the ones that leave you with a little vurp in your throat or a knot in your stomach — are the experiences that will help you grow the most in the long run.
On your journey to becoming the best you and the best leader you can be, the single most powerful piece of advice I can give to you is:
- Be fearless
Follow whatever dream you have, and believe that it is enough. You will run into roadblocks, challenges, and naysayers. But you and you alone have the power to choose whether adversity will destroy you or make you better.
Newnham: Finally what advice, if any, would you give a younger Carey?
Lohrenz: Trust your instincts, and breathe. It’s going to be OK.
This interview was originally part of the F = series on inspiring women.