Women’s History Month: First female FRC-WP aircraft planner and estimator reflects on her career

Diane Sullivan works on USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), researching maintenance manuals, blueprints and other technical data as part of her role as the first female aircraft planner and estimator ever at Fleet Readiness Center Western Pacific. (U.S. Navy photo)

Diane Sullivan works on USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), researching maintenance manuals, blueprints and other technical data as part of her role as the first female aircraft planner and estimator ever at Fleet Readiness Center Western Pacific. (U.S. Navy photo)

Mar 30, 2017

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FLEET READINESS CENTER WESTERN PACIFIC, ATSUGI, JAPAN — Diane Sullivan has always kept her eye on the sky.

Inspired by the aircraft on television shows such as “Airwolf,” “The A-Team” and “Magnum, P.I.,” and by her love of numbers and building models, she always dreamed of working on helicopters. Today, Sullivan is the first female aircraft planner and estimator ever at Fleet Readiness Center Western Pacific (FRC-WP) — her dream job.

“I always thought helicopters were the most incredible machines out there, and I wanted to know how they worked,” she said. “I wanted to figure out how they were built and how they could do what they did. I never thought being or doing what I wanted to do would be closed to me. I grew up with the belief that I can do or be anything I want to do or be as long as I worked for it.”

She cited Amelia Earhart’s independence as an early inspiration.

“She loved to fly and went out and did it, even during a time when women weren't supposed to have dreams and ambitions and live a life that was predominately a male profession,” she said. “I admire the fact that she had her own voice. She proved that women could do what men could do, and in some instances, she did it better. She set the standard, in my book, of do what you want to do and love doing it. Don't let anyone tell you that you can't. Prove that you can and do it.”

Sullivan’s job takes her on every forward-deployed aircraft carrier — currently USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) — and around the world to places such as Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan and Bahrain, where she plans the procedures and needs of the mechanics who will perform structural repairs.

“I have loved working with the military on their aircraft. It is really the most rewarding of jobs,” she said. “Seeing these young men and women benefit from my expertise on providing them with working and safe-to-fly aircraft has really been a huge impact on my life. I am happy to come to work and know that I can make a difference in what these young people have to work with.”

Sullivan’s career began in 1994 at Fleet Readiness Center East in Cherry Point, North Carolina, where she worked as a sheet metal mechanic, work leader, supervisor and in quality assurance for close to 22 years.

Her love of helicopters, including taking them apart and putting them back together, was inspired in part by her father, a mechanic. She remembered him teaching her how to change a car tire, change the oil and perform other basic maintenance skills before she even had a driver’s license.

“I worked with him at his body shop during the summers as a kid, and I think that is where I really appreciated the artistry of metal work,” she said. “He taught me that if you wanted to do something, you had to learn to do it — that you could not always rely on others to help you out, and that it was in your best interests to know how to do things yourself.”

Her work didn’t come without its challenges, such as learning to overcome being a woman in a traditionally man’s field.

“I proved to most of those good ol’ boys that I belonged. I did my work, and I did it with a smile,” she reflected. “I never let their bad attitudes and old-fashioned sense of where a woman was supposed to be keep me from enjoying the opportunity to work on some fantastic aircraft. My love of helicopters and my sense of adventure made me some very good friends there. After a few years, I got a reputation for being good at what I do, and a lot of the negativity went away.”

She then started to think about applying for the job of her dreams at FRC-WP but had to overcome the hurdle of thinking women weren’t eligible.

“I was told the logistics of having a female as a mechanic, or even as a planner, would be a nightmare. Now that more women are in the military, the logistics aren't as complicated as they once were. So with the new mentality and the new sense of easier logistics, I was finally offered the job of my dreams,” she said.

“Diane's journey is not unlike many females within NAVAIR and the Fleet Readiness Centers,” said Robynn Storm, the Fleet Readiness Center East Women’s Advisory Group champion. “Many women strive to do good jobs right alongside their male counterparts and to be recognized for their skill and a job well done. It takes a lot of courage to be the only female in the room, on the ship or on the flight line, where you have to speak up, defend a position and ensure the work is completed safely and with quality. I applaud Diane for blazing that trail for others.

Sullivan credits learning her positive, enthusiastic attitude from her mother. “Even with the hard work she did and the hard times she has had to endure, she always keeps a smile on her face and an upbeat attitude. I think I get my ability to adapt to any situation with a positive attitude from her,” she said. “No matter what happens, I roll with the flow and keep smiling through it. I truly love my job, and even on days where things don't go right, I remember to smile and keep pressing forward.”

Most fulfilling, to Sullivan, is not just being able to travel the world, but working with the Sailors, Marines and Air Force air crews.

“Having them come to me for advice and assistance on keeping their aircraft flying is very rewarding and humbling at the same time. I appreciate their service to the country, and I want to do all that I can to make sure that they have the assets they need to accomplish their missions.”

While Sullivan is one of the only 6 percent of women who comprise NAVAIR’s workforce in Japan, she does not see her role along those lines.

“I am not defined as the first female planner and estimator with FRC-WP; I am supported and encouraged as just another planner and estimator with FRC-WP,” she said. “That is what is most important to me — to be recognized for doing my job well, not for being a woman and doing the job.”

March is Women’s History Month, focused on commemorating and encouraging the study, observance and celebration of the role of women in American history. This year’s theme is “Honoring Trailblazing Women in Labor and Business.”

Kathleen Donnelly, an executive champion of NAVAIR’s Women’s Advisory Group, said the purpose of Women’s History Month is to showcase some of the contributions of women from the past and present, such as Sullivan, because of a previous lack of recognition and credit.

“The Navy has come a long way and still has further to go. Having a diverse workforce with different perspectives is what makes our great teams perform well,” Donnelly said.

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1 Comment, Please review our Feedback Guidelines.

Deb Burney said

Way to go Diane! I was a sheet metal mechanic on Sea Kings and Sea Hawks and understand how it feels to be the only female in the shop. It sounds like you are very smart and have that much needed confidence to hang in there. Your personality and drive are commendable. Keep up the great work!!!

April 12, 2017 at 10:05:53 AM EDT


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