Sally Murphy: First Female U.S. Military Helicopter Pilot

SallyShe thought she was going to be a history teacher. Then, in 1972, Sally Woolfolk — a young woman barely into her 20s — mailed in her army commissioning papers, setting her on a course to become the first female U.S. military helicopter pilot.

During her U.S. Army career, during most of which she used her married name of Murphy, she served with distinction, rising to the rank of colonel. “I turned to the army as a first step to financial independence and an adventure of my very own,” she says. And Murphy talks about these adventures in this month’s HFI Heritage Series interview.

No Girls Allowed

According to Murphy, growing up in the 1950s and ’60s was different. Although she was “a tomboy,” schools in the Kansas City suburbs, where her family lived, had no sports for girls. However, she learned from her parents that “I could do anything as long as I worked to make it happen.”

She went to Kansas State College, her “hometown” college, heading for a teaching career. At that time, women’s opportunities after college were pretty limited to nursing, secretarial work, and teaching, Murphy says. Then she saw a recruiting brochure, entitled Begin as an Executive, which spurred her to apply for the Women’s Army Corps (WAC).

“In the early ’70s, women were still excluded from being directly in the army,” she says. But that was about to change.

The Door Opens

Murphy became a WAC officer in intelligence, taking the military intelligence basic officer’s and tactical intelligence courses at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. Also attending the first course was Capt. Dan Murphy, a Vietnam-era helicopter pilot.

The two became close, and Dan encouraged her to apply for flight school. She describes him as her “cheerleader in bucking me up through many other challenges in the years to come.”

Sally2Dan and Sally married in 1974. Their son, Sean Murphy, followed both parents into the army and served in Afghanistan and Iraq before his death in 2009, following a parachute failure in a training mission.

During Murphy’s initial intelligence training, the army flight program was opened to female candidates. Picked by military intelligence and aviation to attend the first session of initial rotary-wing instruction that was open to females, Murphy ended up the only woman in the class at Fort Rucker, Alabama. After graduating, she became the first woman Army helicopter pilot.

She started training on the Hughes TH-55 Army training helicopter. The two-person craft was so small it was often described as being made by toymaker Mattel, but Murphy soon moved up to UH-1 Hueys. She later switched to the U-21 Beechcraft Queen Air, a turboprop with enough room for the equipment for signals intelligence work.

It was at this time that Murphy crossed paths with Jean Ross Howard Phelan, the founder of the Whirly-Girls, an organization that promotes women in helicopter aviation and HAI affiliate, and someone who Murphy regards as a role model.

“The commander of Fort Rucker, Maj. Gen. [William J.] Maddox, was a friend and strong supporter of her activities. Jean was on post for public relations purposes and she provided me with my membership credentials. I had not heard of this wonderful group of women helicopter pilots until then,” Murphy says.

“Over the years, I … became increasingly flattered to be considered a Whirly-Girl,” she says. “Several of their speakers rank among the best I have ever heard.”

An Army Career

Over the course of her career, Murphy had a wide range of assignments, which she discusses in detail in her interview.

She flew RU-21 aircraft on the border between East and West Germany while conducting signals intelligence missions for the 330th Army Security Agency Company. A later assignment took her to Fort Riley, Kansas, where she worked to prepare U.S. forces to fight with NATO forces against any Soviet attack. She worked on force modernization both at Fort. Riley and with V Corps.

After an European assignment, Murphy returned to the United States, where her responsibilities included the Army’s just-beginning UAV program. “I wrote, staffed, and received approval for the first Joint requirements plan for unmanned aerial vehicles,” Murphy says.

Her later posts included service with the IX Corps in Japan, where she was the corps aviation officer and commanded the 78th Aviation Battalion (Provisional). She later served as the chief of the Army Intelligence Master Plan and director of intelligence, futures.

After promotion to colonel, Murphy knew future assignments would not include aviation duties. She chose her final flight carefully.“I selected a Huey flight in Japan with a very good friend because it was most probable that it would be my last one forever.”

Murphy retired from active duty on July 1, 1999, after nearly 27 years of service, and moved on to a job in defense contracting.

Sally3Looking to the Future

Murphy’s advice for those starting a helicopter — or any — career is simple: get up every day and do the best you can.

“Set goals, but don’t limit yourself by adherence to a strict plan because the unexpected … can often present better opportunities and satisfaction,” she says.

As someone who broke through barriers to women in the military, Murphy says, “If you chose a career that is male dominated and historically closed to women, don’t be surprised when it is often harder than you think is fair.

“Never believe those who tell you something can’t be done or has never been done before, because that is looking to the past and you are the future.”