In honor of Women’s History Month, I’d like to tell the story of Kelly Latimer, a woman who spent her career making history. We spent an hour with her in 1994.
That fall, my daughter Ali was five years old. She underwent several hours of surgery which freed her from the hearing aids she had worn for four years.
Her aids had been a blessing, allowing her to understand us well enough to learn speech. Within weeks, her language exploded and she was exceeding normal ranges.
But hearing aids have some drawbacks, so we were elated shortly after the surgery that her unaided hearing was better than ours and we were over a long struggle.
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We were elated until the incident. Our backyard is on a flight path to McChord. One day as she was playing there, a military cargo plane flew low and loud overhead. My wife and I didn’t notice but Ali did. Her hearing aids had filtered sound. Her new unaided ear did not. That day, she heard the loudest sound she had ever heard. It hurt and frightened her.
She stopped playing outside.
A few days later, we got a call from school that she was alarming other kids on the playground about planes falling and everyone dying. We needed to do something.
My wife called the base. There, an official informed her that the Air Force had no planes; that if they did, the planes did not fly; and if they ever did fly, they would never fly near our house. A spirited discussion ensued.
A few days later we got a call that the Air Force was setting up a tour for our daughter and one of her parents. I volunteered. My wife insisted that our host be female.
As the day approached, my daughter and I could not sleep. Her 5-year-old self was terrified. I found a 5-year-old in me who hadn’t been this thrilled since my first bike. I had the kind of excitement they treat with a paper lunch bag.
At the appointed time, we went to the base and were welcomed by a young woman who introduced herself as Captain Kelly Latimer. She offered to show us what she did.
We visited a hangar, looked at some maps and then walked across the tarmac to her plane. The hold of the plane was enormous. By the time we left it, I was unsteady on my feet. Ali was so wired, she didn’t want to leave. It was hard to keep her hands off the switches in the cockpit. Captain Latimer gave us a photo of herself and it hung in our home for years.
By giving Ali a real person to picture piloting the planes, Captain Latimer had freed our daughter from the demons of her imagination. From that day forward, she would run outside to greet the big planes.
Kelly Latimer graduated from the Air Force Academy, got an advanced degree in Astronautics from George Washington University and then flew colossal military cargo planes for the Air Force out of McChord from 1993-1996. She returned here for a couple of years in 2002. During her career, she assisted in an overflight noise study, graduated as a test pilot, and trained pilots in the US and in Iraq.
She retired as a lieutenant colonel after flying 30 different aircraft for 5000 hours, including 90 combat sorties.
After her service, Latimer became NASA’s first female research test pilot at their Armstrong Facility. Then she tested planes for Boeing. She now tests space craft for Virgin Galactic, their only female test pilot.
She is one of those rare people who thrive at being an only, a first. She is a pioneer and a hero. But she is a hero to us, above all else, for spending one hour with our daughter.
Sometimes an hour is all it takes.
Chuck Kleeberg recently retired from public service. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org