First Black woman to pilot the U-2 shares her story

At 7 years old, Merryl Tengesdal knew she wanted to be an astronaut. She also knew that to become an astronaut she would need to first become a pilot. So Tengesdal joined the U.S. Navy where she began a career as a Naval Aviator in 1994, flying the SH-60B Seahawk helicopter among other aircraft. Then in 2004 an opportunity presented itself to her at Beale Air Force Base in California – to fly the U.S. Air Force’s U-2 Dragon Lady used for high-altitude reconnaissance missions. She applied, got selected and “the rest is I guess you say history in terms of my career,” Tengesdal said on the The American Legion Tango Alpha Lima podcast.

Retired Air Force Col. Tengesdal is the first and only Black woman to pilot the U-2.

“I always say (the U-2) is the angel in the sky just listening and observing. And providing near time real information to end users …,” she said. “I’m incredibly honored to fly that aircraft.”

In awe of her accomplishments, Tango Alpha Lima hosts Ashley Gorbulja-Maldonado said, “I wish I was that motivated when I was seven. I’m trying to remember what I was doing when I was seven. I was chasing the ice cream truck on my bike saying ‘Wait! Slow down!’ And you were just reaching for the stars. Literally.”

Tengesdal also has over 3,400 flight hours in six different aircraft and over 300 combat hours in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Her book, “Shatter the Sky,” talks about her life growing up in the Bronx, wanting to become an astronaut and then “embarking on this journey and setting my own way,” she said. “You have to embrace who you are and be yourself and be authentic in everything that you do. The only person you can really be good at is yourself. I hope (this book) gets out to kids and young folks who maybe struggle with who they are.”

Host Jeff Daly added in that you might recognize Tengesdal from her TV appearance on Season 2 of the CBS reality show “Tough As Nails” – the same show that Legionnaire Lia Mort won in Season 3 and talks about on her episode of the podcast. The show tests the competitor’s physical strength, endurance, life skills and mental toughness in a series of team, individual and elimination challenges that take place at real-world job sites. “It was definitely an honor, it was great, it was hard, very hard,” Tengesdal said. “It was a great experience and I’m glad that after my retirement life I was able to do that.”

Tengesdal is now a personal trainer and uses fitness to motivate and inspire others. She’s also involved with youth through fitness, STEM and public speaking at schools, hoping to inspire the next generation to reach for their dreams.

This episode is among more than 120 Tango Alpha Lima podcasts for veterans, servicemembers and others. All episodes are available in both audio and video formats here. You can also download episodes on iTunes, Stitcher or other major podcast-hosting sites. The video version is available for viewing at the Legion’s YouTube channel.