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First female F-14 Tomcat pilot will share her tips for navigating success at Women Connect event

Although Carey Lohrenz wanted to be a pilot since she was little, it wasn't until she grew older that she realized female pilots were few and far between. Undaunted, she not only became a naval pilot, but the first female to fly the F-14 Tomcat, which travels over twice the speed of sound and gained widespread fame in the original "Top Gun."

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Carey Lohrenz, the first female F-14 Tomcat pilot, will keynote the next Women Connect Celebration.
Contributed / Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce
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FARGO — From the time she was small, Carey Lohrenz wanted to be an aviator.

While growing up in Green Bay, Wis., Lohrenz and her brother used to act out "imaginary feats of daring and spectacular bravery," while playing with her dad's old flight gear from his days flying a C-130 for the U.S. Marine Corps in Vietnam. She also hailed from a long line of family members who had served in the military.

But it wasn't until Lohrenz grew older that she realized female pilots were few and far between. Undaunted, she not only became a naval pilot, but the first female to fly the F-14 Tomcat, which travels twice the speed of sound and gained widespread fame in the 1986 Tom Cruise blockbuster, "Top Gun."

Lohrenz will draw from the lessons she's learned in her extraordinary career to deliver the keynote address at a Women Connect celebration from 3 to 5 p.m. Sept. 27 at the Delta by Marriott, 1635 42nd St. S., Fargo. Women Connect is a program of the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce.

Her background as a U.S. Navy pilot has prepared Lohrenz well for working in fast-moving, dynamic environments in which inconsistent performance can generate catastrophe. Those skills are relevant to the modern workplace, with its multiple risks, time constraints and competitive pressures.

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The Forum recently visited with the Excelsior, Minn., resident to talk about fearless leadership, how to perform well in the face of pressure and the wisdom of pressing on with a goal amid uncertainty. Some of her answers have been edited due to space restrictions.

Q. It seems that, for you, aviation was in the blood. What other early experiences helped shape your interest in flying?
A. I grew up in Green Bay, Wis., and my dad would always take us down to the Experimental Aircraft Association air show, which is one of the world's biggest air shows. And when I was about 10 or 11, I ended up meeting a WASP, which was one of our original female aviators. Most people don't know about the WASPs’  history but they were the Women Airforce Service Pilots and they had flown during World War II. Over 2 million hours in every military aircraft. And so starting at a young age, because I met this amazing woman, it didn't even dawn on me that there was a debate about whether or not women could fly. What I didn't realize early on was that just endeavoring to choose the path of aviation was going to take an extra helping of courage to make that happen simply because I was a female.

Q. And what made you specifically choose to fly the Tomcat, one of the most difficult and lethal fighter jets to fly?
A. I was graduating from high school when the original “Top Gun” came out. And the F-14 has definitely been made famous by that movie. But also for me personally, it’s the way I'm wired. Flying fighters — only a very, very small percentage of people actually ever get that opportunity. Only the top 10% of people who make it through each different section of flight school may even potentially get the opportunity to make that selection. And that funnel actually narrows down to about 5%, and everybody within the industry knows that. For me, it was a combination of why not shoot for the top, why not throw it all in and see if you have what it takes even if you fail, right? So it was just trying to figure out what does excellence look like, what is it going to take to put yourself in a position to be successful?

Q. It seems making bold career choices like this can still sometimes be difficult for women because we’re often conditioned not to draw attention to ourselves — especially in the modest Midwest.
A. Coming from a fellow Midwesterner, we are pretty stoic people and we are all about, hey, don't toot your own horn. You don't have to do anything spectacular. Show up and do the work. There's nothing special about what you want to do. And I think for women, that's hard because then we start playing small. We start to think, well, as long as I perform, people will notice me. As long as I do the good work, I will get promoted. But the fact of the matter is that by doing that, you are playing small and that doesn't serve anybody. You're not honoring your voice, your instincts or your passions. And while you're trying to blend in and make nice and fly under the radar, somebody else is getting the opportunities.

You can still be humble. You can still keep your ego in check. But there has to be a piece of you that you internalize that also is able to develop a ‘Why not me?’ attitude. And that's essentially accepting that you're worthy of being a leader, you're worthy of being an owner, you're worthy of being an entrepreneur, you're worthy of using your voice, and that you can start from where you are right now with what you've got.

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Carey Lohrenz during her flight career.
Contributed / The Fargo/Moorhead/West Fargo Chamber

Q. What did you learn from being the only female in a field so overwhelmingly dominated by men?
A. I think that one of the big things was, again, that playing small serves nobody. But also that the line we’ve all heard that your performance is the only thing that matters is not true. And that I firmly believed that as long as I just showed up and did my job, that nobody would notice I was female. And that simply wasn't true. First of all, I’m 6 feet tall, so I’m not going to go unnoticed by anybody, just by default. But what I had to learn also was how to advocate for myself because of that, and that men naturally advocate for themselves all the time. They just don't realize they're doing it.

Q. You talk a lot about needing to push through fear to accomplish things that we’re afraid of or which seem hard. Can you elaborate on that?
A. You're going to have to get comfortable being uncomfortable. It means you get used to feeling that fear or feeling the feelings of being vulnerable and going forward anyway, taking the next step anyway. And that's critical because if you can't break through that discomfort and understand that discomfort is good — or having the hair on the back of your neck stand up, that is all good, it protects us —but you have to be able to move forward anyway and have that bias for action.

Q. What is the most fear you've felt in your professional life?
A. I'm going to say landing on an aircraft carrier at night. It's pitch black, you're sensory deprived. The ship is moving away from you being based on the West Coast. Oftentimes we went through the world's most dangerous sea states, which would mean the back end of the boat would be up and out of the water, sometimes 35 to 40 feet and it’s like trying to land on a postage stamp in the pitch black where you don't have any of your senses. It's how every time you're able to do that, it gives you a little more strength, a little more courage, and even a little more confidence to step up and go for it the next time.

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Q. What strategies do you suggest for helping us push through fear so we can accomplish what we want to accomplish? 

  1. Again, I think having that bias for action and not being paralyzed by thinking you need 100% of the information or you need the feeling of certainty in order to take that next step. This goes back to being able to trust and rely on yourself to be able to be constantly learning and figuring out (solutions). 
  2.  You have to be able to be really objective with yourself about identifying what's working and what not. On a personal level, it's about being able to take a step back and figure out really quickly what worked and what didn't, so that you're constantly being able to do something a little bit better next time. So it's just understanding that.
  3. And I think for women, we think we have to be perfect. But it's not about being perfect. It's about making progress and figuring out what we can control and what we can't. And as you know, I talk about this idea also of the span of control — understanding that the biggest opportunity right now is learning how we can overcome our circumstances instead of being overwhelmed by them. Because once you become overwhelmed, it doesn't matter how big your dream or how brave your heart is, you're simply not going to be able to get done what you want to get done.
  4. Write down just a quick plan for success — I call it a flight plan for success — and then share that.

Tables are still available to the Lohrenz event. For information, go to https://www.fmwfchamber.com/events/details/winning-under-pressure-women-connect-celebration-with-carey-lohrenz-8913

Tammy has been a storyteller most of her life. Before she learned the alphabet, she told stories by drawing pictures and then dictated the narrative to her ever-patient mother. A graduate of North Dakota State University, she has worked as a Dickinson, N.D., bureau reporter, a Bismarck Tribune feature writer/columnist, a Forum feature reporter, columnist and editor, a writer in NDSU's Publications Services, a marketing/social media specialist, an education associate in public broadcasting and a communications specialist at a nonprofit.
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