FARGO — The Fargo Air Museum will pay tribute this month to the Air National Guard’s first female pilot, who ironically had to leave her North Dakota unit in the late 1970s because women weren’t allowed to fly fighter jets at the time.
Marilyn Koon, a native of Beach, N.D., was the only woman in the country chosen from the Guard to go through Air Force pilot training.
The farm girl and college student had her private pilot’s license and liked to operate machinery.
Retired Maj. Gen. Alexander Macdonald, then-commander of the North Dakota 119th Fighter Group, or Happy Hooligans, said Koon was a natural candidate.
“She had every trait that seemed to be what we wanted,” Macdonald said during an interview last week at the Air Museum.
Koon became the Guard’s first woman pilot after completing training in January 1978.
She went on to fly KC-135 refueling tankers for the Arizona National Guard, and later began a long career in the commercial aviation industry.
- 'The real Wonder Women': North Dakotans among WWII nurses who could become honorary vets
- Fargo South grad becomes first man on NDSU's dance team
Now 65 and a resident of Pittsburgh, Koon retired recently after 37 years with American Airlines.
She said the end of her flying career is emotional, but she’s embracing it as a new beginning.
“I feel good about it. I feel great. I’m glad that I got to contribute to my country,” Koon said.
Retired Maj. Gen. Terry Scherling was a student at North Dakota State University when she entered the Air Guard.
She and Koon happened to be sorority sisters, and Scherling told her friend the Guard was considering taking women pilots and that she should join.
“I go, ‘Really? And to have somebody pay for your flying?’" Koon recalls saying, excited about the opportunity.
The next thing she knew, she was meeting with Macdonald, taking the required physical exams required and signing up for the Guard.
She went through interviews, and was the lone female Guard member chosen to go to pilot training school in January 1977.
“One spot. She got it. Out of the whole 50 states,” Macdonald said.
Koon successfully completed the training a year later. The rest, as they say, is history.
She credits an uncle for giving her money to take flying lessons, Scherling for telling her about the Guard's pilot opportunity and Macdonald for believing in her.
“It was really fortuitous for everyone. Good luck and timing,” Scherling said.
'A great legacy'
When Koon reported back to her North Dakota Guard unit upon completing pilot training in 1978, there wasn’t a place for her.
Members of the 119th Fighter Group, or Happy Hooligans, flew fighter jets, and women weren’t allowed to fly that aircraft at the time. That change wouldn’t come until 1994.
There was uncertainty over what would happen at first, but Macdonald and Koon found a home for her with the Arizona Air National Guard in Phoenix, flying KC-135 air refueling tankers.
She would fly the big planes for years, even leading the first Air Guard all-female refueling mission in 1984.
The planes would make for a good transition to the commercial aviation industry.
On her last flight for American Airlines, Koon had the support of an all-female crew, and the aircraft received a water cannon salute as a sendoff.
Even though she had to go elsewhere to fly in the Guard, the North Dakota Guard claims her as its own. Koon said she would have stayed here had women been allowed to fly fighter jets at the time.
While she wasn’t able to do so, one of her two grown sons is getting the opportunity. He's an Air Force pilot who will learn to fly the military’s premier F-22 Raptor next spring.
She said her son’s current squadron commander is a woman and she's happy to embrace the role of trailblazer.
“I hope I made it easier for someone else. If I did that, then that’s a great legacy to have,” Koon said.
The Fargo Air Museum, 1609 19th Ave. N., will honor her achievements at its annual Celebrity Dinner and Auction fundraiser taking place 5-10 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 14.