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CHIPS Articles: Talking with Capt. Sara A. "Clutch" Joyner

Talking with Capt. Sara A. "Clutch" Joyner
By CHIPS Magazine - April-June 2011
This year the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard celebrate 100 years of naval aviation with a series of events across the country. One hundred years ago carrier flight operations were unimaginable — except to a few visionaries. Today, America's seapower would not be possible without them. From medical evacuations, to search and rescue, to combat, naval pilots have stood tall among America's heroes, including Capt. Sara A. Joyner.

Joyner had just detached from the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations for Warfare Integration (OPNAV N88) as the Joint Strike Fighter requirements officer when she spoke to a Women in Defense group in Norfolk, Va., in January.

As the JSF requirements officer, Joyner was responsible for bringing the next generation of carrier strike aircraft to the fleet. She has been selected as the first woman carrier air wing (CVW) commander "CAG" and will go to CAG-3 as the deputy CAG starting this summer. She reported for duty at the end of January for refresher training.

Joyner doesn't like to emphasize the "firsts" she has achieved as a woman aviator, rather she refers to them as the "fantastic opportunities" that the Navy has provided; opportunities that are available to all who are willing to give their best.

Joyner said she was 11 years old when the U.S. Naval Academy announced that it would be accepting women, and she knew that she wanted to be among the first to graduate. At first, she did not get a lot of encouragement from her father, who was a Naval Academy graduate. "My dad actually said, 'Over my dead body.' " But he was quickly won over when he realized how hard Joyner was willing to work to achieve her dream.

Indeed, Joyner said she didn't want the Navy to reduce its requirements for women to succeed, rather she, and pioneers like her, wanted to exceed the Navy's expectations. She received her commission in 1989 graduating with merit from the Naval Academy with a Bachelor of Science degree in oceanography.

After graduation, Joyner attended flight school and earned her naval aviator wings in July 1991 from VT-24 in Beeville, Texas. In 1994 Joyner reported to Commander Strike Fighter Wing, Pacific in Lemoore, Calif., as assistant operations officer. Joyner has flown the FA/-18 Hornet and Super Hornet; she has served in many capacities, including department head for maintenance, operations and safety.

In January 2002, she reported to U.S. Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., where she served in the current operations branch as force deployment officer for U.S. Northern Command, U.S. European Command and the U.S. Central Command areas of responsibility in support of Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom. In March 2007, Joyner assumed command of VFA-105, the "Gunslingers," a Super Hornet Strike Fighter Squadron.

On Nov. 2, 2007, she led the Gunslingers on a combat cruise to the Persian Gulf in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Under her leadership, the squadron performed more than 1,880 combat missions totaling more than 4,950 flight hours delivering 35,000 pounds of ordnance in support of coalition ground forces in Iraq. Carrier aircraft have provided the majority of close air support in Afghanistan. Super Hornets have sensors that can locate improvised explosive devices or roadside bomb positions.

Joyner calls carrier operations the best example of men and women coming together on equal terms to do a job. "When I was dropping ordnance to defeat IEDs, those on the ground didn't care who was in the plane. They were just glad you were there."

When asked about the Navy's efforts for recruiting a diverse force, Joyner said the Navy has led the other services in offering opportunities, and she looks forward to the day when there are no more "firsts." "I think of what the Navy offers as an equality of opportunities."

CHIPS: How important is information technology to the aviation community?

Joyner: It is incredibly important. Every aspect of the Joint Strike Fighter is IT-related; the JSF is a flying sensor. There are antennas and sensors all over the aircraft, all of which have to be integrated, all of which have to process and fuse [data], and that information then needs to be put into the right places so that it is interpreted and put together into a coherent picture for the pilot but also for off-board [processing] as well.

Every aspect of what we are doing in aviation now is IT-related, especially with the newer aircraft. Each generation that we bring in, the demands become higher and higher for your IT capacity, your expertise and your ability to process and work with the information and how you use it. All of those systems have to integrate into our existing equipment that we have onboard so interoperability is huge.

The communications and the ability to integrate with legacy systems are so important for information exchange, and new systems must be integrated with legacy systems.

CHIPS: It is a complex process.

Joyner: One of the systems that we work with in the Hornet is JMPS, which is the Joint Mission Planning System. It is an IT process where we load up a ‘memory brick’ (we call it a memory card); we take it out to the plane and then we plug it in.

When we get it wrong, the plane does not do what it is supposed to do, and there are a lot of problems. Any fighter pilot today recognizes that we are in a high technology world where information systems are so important. When JMPS malfunctions we are banging our head against the computer screens trying to fix the problem and bringing in the right people to assist us to make sure that we can handle what is going wrong, and so we can program and have the planes do what they are supposed to do because they are technological machines.

Aircraft are no longer legacy analog systems; computers are part of the plane. Systems that are on the ground are as important as what is in the plane, and they have to work well with each other, and they all have to function coherently.

CHIPS: Can you talk about your role as the Joint Strike Fighter requirements officer?

Joyner: As the requirements officer I represented the CV variant, the carrier variant, which is the F-35C. Part of our requirements is for information exchange and to be able to 'talk' with legacy shipboard systems, and to be interoperable with the rest of the fleet systems, including the other aircraft.

Overall warfighting requirements also include IT and that is part of what I was working with to make sure we get the right capabilities so that when the new plane comes out, the interoperability requirements are met and we don’t have a standalone system that is isolated from the other shipboard systems.

CHIPS: Did you bring lessons learned from performing close air support to the job?

Joyner: All of the requirements officers are warfighters from their various platforms. When you are bringing in a new platform you try to get somebody from the most equivalent platform, and I was a Super Hornet pilot flying Lot 28s. Production lots reflect increasing capability so a Lot 28 was a pre-AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar Super Hornet, but still had a lot of high-tech toys, and it was very technologically advanced.

Super Hornets and JSF will be the two complementary platforms on the 2020 aircraft carrier. My background in Super Hornets gave me a firm foundation for JSF requirements and an understanding of the required missions to include: close air support, air-to-air, suppression of enemy air defenses — all of the missions including those that require working with the troops on the ground.

The need to be able to go in different warfare environments against different types of threats — and the threat awareness — all of that comes from the job that you do. That was my qualification coming through the door. Most recently, air-to-ground is mainly what we have been doing in theater, but there is always a requirement to maintain air-to-air skills as well.

CHIPS: What other qualifications do you need?

Joyner:It is an essential balance. We require an understanding of the budget process combined with warfighting experience. We learn the budget aspect of the requirements billet, but we come through the door with operational experience. Within the naval service we combine budget with requirements so we know when we say this platform has to do a specific mission or have a specific capability that we have to make it fit in a budget ‘box’ which I think is service unique to the Navy.

I don't think the other services do that. I think that is very powerful because it makes us question whether we are getting every requirement correct. It is a Navy-unique approach to requirements planning. None of us are budget experts, but we have a good understanding of what we are given and how well we need to optimize within our budgetary limits. It puts constraints on us. It's the difference between going to the store with an open credit card that is not yours vice walking in with a debit card that has a specific balance that you cannot exceed. You have a better understanding [of the] limitations placed on your wish list so that you can appropriately prioritize your warfighting requirements.

CHIPS: Will you have to qualify when you go back to the carrier?

Joyner: I will, and I will be training for the next six months in order to refresh my flying skills. I am trying to get tactical again. I am looking forward to the first day I take off, and I look out of the side of the windscreen and I see that LAU. The LAU is located on the tip of [the] Hornet wings out of the canopy and carries [the] AIM-9 (Sidewinder). It is very visible from the cockpit, and I am lucky enough to fly more than one TMS (type/model/series). I am going to fly legacy Hornet, the Super Hornet, and I hope the Growler a little bit as well.

Then I get to be 'guest pilot' with the E2 (Hawkeye) and the helos. It is really a great job. It is a fantastic opportunity.

My job as CAG is to direct all aviation from the carrier, but also to lead from the front and be involved with what the squadrons are doing and to understand what the squadrons need. I will have great skippers, COs of the squadrons, working for me, the best staff ever, all hand-picked professionals.

CHIPS: What did your dad say after you graduated from the Naval Academy?

Joyner: I did him a disservice by only mentioning his initial reaction to my wanting to attend the Naval Academy. He is deceased now, but he was my No.1 fan. He thought it was going to be too rough of an environment for his daughter, and he did not want me to have a rough time because he knew it was not going to be easy. My dad wanted me to join the Coast Guard. He said you can be in command of a ship as a young person. But he was very proud of me and got to see me go out on my first deployment.

CHIPS: Do you consider mentoring junior officers part of your job?

Joyner: Yes, absolutely. I am on a mentorship website for the Navy. It is very difficult to find mentors of the same gender, so a lot of us turn to men that are willing to step in, and there is a lot of value in that as well. I am involved in women mentorship groups because we have unique needs that come up in childcare, marriage and pregnancy. There are a lot of issues that men don’t have to deal with, and you need advocates that understand.

I will be honest, a lot of the women quit because they just don't see a way ahead, and they don't know how to get where they want to go. They look at it and say, 'This is insurmountable, and I just can't get there.' Some of what the mentorship program does is we take away those barriers by saying, 'Here's a way you could and here's another way, and if this doesn’t work …'

There are plenty of great moms out there, who were fighter pilots, who couldn't see a way to get around that or just thought that their families were so important that they did not want to give up on that and that's OK too. Being a mom is a hard job too, and being a parent is the most important job in the world since you are basically safeguarding our country's future. Doing it all doesn't always work out for men or women, and sometimes we are forced to prioritize.

CHIPS: What made you persevere against the odds?

Joyner: Family support. My husband [Cmdr. James Joyner] is fantastic. Because we are both fighter pilots, we have an understanding of what the other is doing. Without him I wouldn't be here; there is no doubt. There is not a single decision we made that wasn't done as a family where we discuss it and figure out 'OK, how do we do this to make this work?'

What I tell women that I mentor is don't look too far ahead; don't plan how you are going to be the CO when you are a lieutenant. Instead, plan how you are going to get to the next step because if you look too far ahead, it looks too hard. Don't listen to bad advice.

CHIPS: What kind of bad advice?

Joyner: There are plenty of people who will say don't have a family; you won't be able to do it. Don't listen to the don'ts and the can'ts. Just do the best you can, and if it is not working, or if it is so painful that it's not worth it, then give up. But if you never try, you will never succeed. Don't give up in advance; get to the point where you know you have tried your best.

CHIPS: What have been your most satisfying accomplishments?

Joyner: Overall, the most satisfying event has to have been the opportunity to take a finely honed Hornet squadron to sea on a combat cruise and then bringing them all safely home again. I can't think of a greater opportunity.

All of my career milestones required doors to be opened just in the nick of time and individuals having faith in my ability to succeed.

My initial warfare transition and people believing that I could be a Hornet driver required a leap of faith by leadership in Lemoore back in 1995 when things weren't going all that well for women training in combat aircraft. The support of my peers and leaders has allowed me to be where I am today.

F-35C Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter
The Joint Strike Fighter program is building a tri-service family of next-generation strike fighter aircraft that is flexible and survivable. With its all-aspect stealth strike design, internal weapon carriage, fully fused mission systems, and unrefueled combat radius of approximately 650 nautical miles, the Navy’s F-35C Lightning II will complement the capabilities of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet now serving as the Navy’s premier strike fighter. The F-35C will enhance the flexibility, power projection and strike capabilities of carrier air wings and joint task forces. Initial operational capability for the F-35C Lightning II is late fiscal year 2014. The F-35 Lightning II Program is in the test phase.
Capt. Sara A. Joyner
Capt. Sara A. Joyner

ATLANTIC OCEAN (March 24, 2007) – Commanding Officer Cmdr. Sara Joyner of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA-105), puts on her gloves while dressing out in full flight gear before flight operations aboard Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75). Joyner is the first female commanding officer of a fighter squadron. Truman is underway conducting Tailored Ship’s Training Availability (TSTA), a standard used to evaluate a ship’s readiness for deployment. U.S. Navy photo by Seaman Kevin T. Murray Jr.
ATLANTIC OCEAN (March 24, 2007) – Commanding Officer Cmdr. Sara Joyner of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA-105), puts on her gloves while dressing out in full flight gear before flight operations aboard Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75). Joyner is the first female commanding officer of a fighter squadron. Truman is underway conducting Tailored Ship’s Training Availability (TSTA), a standard used to evaluate a ship’s readiness for deployment. U.S. Navy photo by Seaman Kevin T. Murray Jr.

NAVAL AIR STATION PATUXENT RIVER, Md. (Feb. 11, 2011) The U.S. Navy variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35C, conducts a test flight over the Chesapeake Bay. Lt. Cmdr. Eric "Magic" Buus flew the F-35C for two hours, checking instruments that will measure structural loads on the airframe during flight maneuvers. The F-35C is distinct from the F-35A and F-35B variants with larger wing surfaces and reinforced landing gear for greater control when operating in the demanding carrier take-off and landing environment. U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin.
NAVAL AIR STATION PATUXENT RIVER, Md. (Feb. 11, 2011) The U.S. Navy variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35C, conducts a test flight over the Chesapeake Bay. Lt. Cmdr. Eric "Magic" Buus flew the F-35C for two hours, checking instruments that will measure structural loads on the airframe during flight maneuvers. The F-35C is distinct from the F-35A and F-35B variants with larger wing surfaces and reinforced landing gear for greater control when operating in the demanding carrier take-off and landing environment. U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin.
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