Don't Tell Me I Can't

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Landon Gunsauls
  • 90th Missile Wing Public Affairs

Straight from the pages of history, a UH-1N Huey lifts off from the pad outside the 37th Helicopter Squadron. The helicopter shakes and sways in the windy Wyoming day and begins to rise into the air over F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming.

The pilot of this particular Huey is Lt. Col. Kathleen Tenpenny, 37th Helicopter Squadron commander. Though she’s been flying for 14 years, she has wanted to fly since she was just 2 years old.

With a passion for flight, Tenpenny joined the Air Force through the Air Force Academy, landing a tentative pilot slot to fly helicopters, but it wasn’t easy. Due to a height requirement that is no longer enforced, Tenpenny had to fight for the opportunity to be allowed to fly.

She refused to take no for an answer, and with support from the first female B-1 Lancer pilot and Tenpenny’s then Air Officer Commanding, now-retired Lt. Col. Debra Lee, Tenpenny pushed her way through the waiver process with a group of her peers. That process required her and other pilots to sit in the cockpit of multiple airframes to prove they could manipulate the controls of each aircraft.

“When I went through getting our waiver, they made us do what was called a functional cockpit check,” said Tenpenny. “We had to sit in different aircraft to manipulate the controls and then the evaluators decided, ‘because you fit in these aircraft, you can fly X percentage of the Air Force inventory’.”

After proving she could manipulate the controls of multiple airframes, Tenpenny’s waiver was approved, and she was eligible for a pilot slot upon leaving the Air Force Academy.

As of 2020, the Air Force has since removed the height requirement component for pilots, though there is still a requirement for pilot candidates to prove they are capable of manipulating the controls of airframes through the same process that Tenpenny once had to.

After graduating from the Academy, she was attached to an A-10 squadron at Davis-Montham Air Force Base, Arizona. She then moved to Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi, where she learned to fly the fixed wing T-37. After six months of training, and letting her flight commander know she wanted helicopters, Tenpenny was selected for helicopter training and headed to Fort Rucker, Alabama, now known as Fort Novosel.

Six months of training at Fort Rucker pushed Tenpenny closer to her childhood dream of flying helicopters, while also being one of only two female students in her class. After graduating from Fort Rucker, she was sent to Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, for initial qualification training and chose to work toward flying the HH-60 Pavehawk for search and rescue style missions. However, she was selected to go to Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana, to fly the UH-1N Huey.

“After getting to fly there in the mountains doing search and rescue, I was like, ‘Oh, I'm doing the things that I wanted to do with UH-60s’ and after emailing with my buddies on 60s, they responded with ‘I flew 50 hours in this whole deployment’,” said Tenpenny. “And I responded ‘I flew that in two weeks’. The more I got in to being at my assignment at Malmstrom, I realized this is definitely where I'm meant to be.”

Believing the Huey side of helicopters is the perfect definition of multicapable Airmen, Tenpenny loves the different aspects of the airframe’s mission. From the excitement of search and rescue missions and missile field security to the flying in high density areas over Washington D.C., Tenpenny thinks of the Huey as the multi-tool of helicopters.

“The Huey mission is almost the epitome of what it is to be a multicapable Airman,” said Tenpenny. “You have the Global Strike Mission, you have the [Joint Base] Andrews mission, you have the Air Force Education Training Command mission, and so you have to have different skillsets to go from one to the other – we’re kind of like a Leatherman.”

After a few years and many friends later, Tenpenny left Malmstrom to be an undergraduate instructor at Fort Rucker. The next 4 years would be dotted with changes and a deployment to Al-Udeid Air Force Base in Qatar. Although the cadre team at Rucker began to introduce Flight Engineers and Special Missions Aviators into the training, for many female flight engineers it was their first time flying with a female pilot.

For Tenpenny, flying with a crew is just how flying should be, and the Huey is a great example of how a close-knit crew can work together to achieve a common goal. From the co-pilot to the flight engineer, a Huey can’t function without crew cohesion.

“The flight engineer isn’t twiddling their thumbs - they’re running numbers and they're also the person that runs the gun or the person that's going to make sure the cops are good to go on and off the helicopter,” said Tenpenny. “Without having the crew to collectively get the mission done, to think together, to work together like that, we couldn’t do the job. I wouldn't trade that for anything.”

After departing Rucker, Tenpenny went on to Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, where she worked mainly for the Wing Staff Agency and the Air Force District of Washington Staff. With a unique position and the opportunity to work directly with the JBA command team, she received some of the best mentorship in her career.

Tenpenny landed at the 582nd Helicopter Group here at F.E. Warren after receiving orders in 2019. Then in 2020, she became the operations director of the 37th Helicopter Squadron, then taking command of the 37th in May 2022.

Lt. Col. Tenpenny will be leaving the 37th this summer to take on a new mission, where she will continue to shatter ceilings and dedicate herself to both the Huey community and the mentoring of those around her.

“Just like my Air Force Academy ring says, ‘don't tell me I can't’,” said Tenpenny. “I think about people who have helped along the way, and the people continuing to push that glass ceiling further and further and even breaking it and if there an overarching message I want to get across, it’s don't let people tell you that you can't.”