The earliest humans likely sat on a rock watching a maple tree seed slowly twirl its way to the ground, or wonder how hummingbirds and dragonflies could hover in the air in one spot. By 400 B.C. the Chinese had a small stick with a propeller at the end they could rub with both palms and watch it fly away. Leonardo Da Vinci was ahead of the pack when he drew an “air screw” craft in 1483 he figured might be able to fly vertically.
Things began rolling in the 1880s when Thomas Edison began building helicopter models. That went further in 1907, only three years after the Wright brothers first airplane flight, when three Frenchmen began experimenting with helicopters, which unfortunately were incapable of sustained flight. They were followed by two Russians who built vertical lift machines which were underpowered for flight. In the 1920s, autogyros became somewhat popular with non-powered rotors atop what appeared as a hybrid airplane/helicopter and saw a number of uses.
The Germans built the first practical helicopter in 1937 and demonstrated it by flying it inside the Duetchlandhalle a year later, being piloted by the famous test pilot Hanna Rietsch. The U.S. soon followed when Igor Sikorsky built the first working U.S. helicopter in 1940. Sikorsky’s model R4 was used by the U.S. during World War II in reconnaissance and rescue missions. The Korean War proved the worth of helicopters in combat areas, while the arrival of the more powerful and lighter turbine engines and the many uses of helicopters during the Vietnam War had it sometimes called the “helicopter war.” That war saw the coming of heavy development in helicopters.
Last fall, during the B-17 bomber visit, my old Army buddy Eddie Woods called me over to meet a personable lady, Sophia Conerly, whom I found to be a retired Navy commander who had been one of the early female naval aviators. I recently met up with my 95-year-old Marine Iwo Jima vet, former college instructor and recent author, Joe Mack High, to visit with Sophia at Jefferson City’s Creek Restaurant and hear her interesting story.
Born in Torrence, California, Sophia was the only child of Robert and Dee Shuhida Mulligan. Sophia was an Air Force brat who was destined to follow her father’s footsteps in the military, but not as young as he did. Robert joined the military at age 15 and would rise to the rank of major.
“My dad got his pilot’s license and took us flying,” Sophia said. “He’d do some fancy moves in the air that would make my mother scream, but I loved it. Flying with my dad convinced me that I wanted to be a pilot and a pilot in the military. I was only seven years old but nobody ever told me that I couldn’t fly or fly in the military. We moved to Utah in 1971. My dad was killed in a plane crash in 1973 and my mother and I stayed in Utah. His death did nothing to change my mind about flying.”
Sophia graduated from Roy High School in 1980 and the headed to Weaver State College. With the military and flying in her blood, she attended ROTC classes at the University of Utah. When she wasn’t accepted by the Air Force, she looked for other services.
“I had the choice of Army, the Marines, or the Navy and chose the Navy because the uniforms were cool and they had pilot slots,” she continued. “It was the right choice. I fell in love with the Navy and got a pilot slot. After graduating from college in 1984 I went to Pensacola, Florida for primary flight training and started in the T-34, which at the time was the training aircraft that all pilot trainees started in. After completing primary, I was selected for helicopters. I cried because I wanted to fly C-130s, but once I started flying helicopters I knew that it was the right assignment. God takes you where He wants you to go and I was winged as a helicopter pilot in January, 1986.”
During her senior year in high school Sophia met a college boy, Keith Conerly, who lived across the street from her grandmother. They were married in 1984 while Sophia was in pilot training and have been married for more than 35 years. They’re the proud parents of Kelley (Brayden) Snyder, who works for a helicopter company in Colorado; Sara, who is a Naval officer going through flight school in Florida; and Cody, who will graduate from UT Knoxville in May, and who also wants to fly for the military.
Sophia said the three things about flying a helicopter are that you need to be able to move both hands and feet in different directions at the same time, and if you stop in the sky you won’t fall out of the air, and to trust your crewman. She added the hardest things to learn were hovering, night landings on small ships, and ship landings in rough seas without a good horizon. She said she didn’t experience much discrimination because of her sex. Her first experience that she recalled was from a civilian male on base when she and other females went to the “men’s gym” because they had heavier weights and better equipment than the “womens’ gym.” She feels her (and others’) success was because she considered herself as a “Naval officer” and not a “female Naval officer.”
“We didn’t want special favors because we were females,” she said. “We just wanted the same opportunities as the men. Some said the standards would need to be lowered to allow women the opportunities, but that would only jeopardize the safety for everyone, and we didn’t need the standards to be lowered.”
Having earned her wings, Sophia was assigned to San Diego, where she flew the H-3 helicopter, the type that carries the president to and from the White House. It was an old, big helicopter she enjoyed flying because “we could do everything and land on just about anything,” The helicopter had a top speed of 120 nautical miles per hour and a range of three hours when not carrying external tanks. Since women were excluded from flying combat missions because of the Combat Exclusion Law, Sophia flew support missions to combat ships and search and rescue. While in San Diego she and Keith had their first child, Kelley. Being pregnant didn’t ground her from flying and she flew during her first six months of pregnancy and logged Kelley’s “flight time” in a separate logbook.
Sophia’s next assignment was to the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, Hawaii, where she flew support for the Navy’s ocean practice range and the facility testing for President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars) anti-ballistic missile system. With the beginning of Desert Storm, her mission shifted to training ships on the kind of attacks they might see in the Arabian Gulf. At the time, Keith was flying tours around the island and doing fruit fly eradication over coffee fields. After two and a half years in Kauai, she and the family were transferred to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, where she served three years as company officer overseeing the training and well-being of a company of about 100 midshipmen, and as the assistant operations officer for the brigade of about 4,000 midshipmen.
“We didn’t want to go at first,” she continued. “But it proved to be one of our best assignments. I met so many amazing people – Seals, submariners, all elements of the Navy. Working with them made me a better officer and lifted me to a whole other level of professionalism.”
While at the academy, the Conerly’s second child, Sara, was born and Keith began working toward his career as a nurse anesthetist. Moving on to Norfolk, Virginia, Sophia returned to flying and deployed to Bahrain for six months. There she served as the officer-in-charge fo the “Desert Ducks,” a two-helicopter detachment which supported the mission of the Fifth Fleet and ships deployed in the Arabian Gulf.
Returning from Bahrain, she spent the rest of her career in Norfolk, where her son, Cody, was born. Promoted to commander, she served on the USS Nassau (LHHA-4) as the safety officer during the Iraq War.
“It was a tough and enriching tour,” she said. “The war broke out while we were deployed and our cruise was extended, and we returned after nine months at sea. I learned a lot and gained a great appreciation for the people who work aboard ships. The Combat Exclusion Act had been in effect for most of my career, so I had never deployed on a ship before the Nassau. Life aboard ship is hard. There isn’t a weekend and work is 24 hours a day with the same routine every day. I was 40 years old at the time and it kicked my butt.”
After retiring in 2005 as a commander with 21 years in service, Sophia and Keith decided they wanted a change in scenery and moved to Sevierville where they’ve now lived for 14 years.
“When we moved to Sevierville, Cody and Sara were still young and I got to be a full-time mom. I also volunteered at their school and with the American Cancer Society Relay for Life. My husband will be retiring soon and our goal is to travel and see our kids now that they are living elsewhere.”
A big moment in her life last year was meeting Rosemary Mariner, the sixth female Naval aviator, a jet pilot and the first woman to command a combat jet squadron. Mariner was responsible for getting the Combat Exclusion Law changed so women now have the opportunity to fly any military aircraft and serve any mission. Sophia had known of Rosemary, but the two had never met even though their paths had come close to crossing many times. At Rosemary’s death last year, she was honored with an all-female Missing Man Flyover at her funeral.
“Mr. High is from the Greatest Generation”, Sophia ended. “But we still have a great generation in our military. We’re all volunteers and we continually train and have the best equipment. If there comes a time when we have another war, we will be defended by the best.”
-Jim Claborn is a retired history teacher and a historical reenactor, as well as a published historian.