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Female Pave Hawk pilot fulfills dreams, avoids clouds

Capt. Marisa Catlin, 83rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron HH-60G Pave Hawk pilot, conducts a pre-flight check at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Captain Catlin is deployed from the 48th Fighter Wing; Royal Air Force Lakenheath; United Kingdom. (Air Force photo by Senior Airman Sheila deVera)

Capt. Marisa Catlin, 83rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron HH-60G Pave Hawk pilot, conducts a pre-flight check at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Captain Catlin is deployed from the 48th Fighter Wing; Royal Air Force Lakenheath; United Kingdom. (Air Force photo by Senior Airman Sheila deVera)

Capt. Marisa Catlin, 83rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron HH-60G Pave Hawk pilot, talks with Airman 1st Class Marcus Freitas, 455th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron communication navigator, while troubleshooting a radio discrepancy after a flight from Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Captain Catlin is deployed from the 48th Fighter Wing, Royal Air Force Lakenheath, United Kingdom, and Airman Freitas is deployed from the 718th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, Kadena Air Base, Japan. (Air Force photo by Senior Airman Sheila deVera)

Capt. Marisa Catlin, 83rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron HH-60G Pave Hawk pilot, talks with Airman 1st Class Marcus Freitas, 455th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron communication navigator, while troubleshooting a radio discrepancy after a flight from Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Captain Catlin is deployed from the 48th Fighter Wing, Royal Air Force Lakenheath, United Kingdom, and Airman Freitas is deployed from the 718th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, Kadena Air Base, Japan. (Air Force photo by Senior Airman Sheila deVera)

Capt. Marisa Catlin (left), 83rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron pilot, flies back from a recent reposition mission in Kunar province with 1st Lt. Nathan Lowry, 83rd ERQS co-pilot.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Capt. Erick Saks)

Capt. Marisa Catlin (left), 83rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron pilot, flies back from a recent reposition mission in Kunar province with 1st Lt. Nathan Lowry, 83rd ERQS co-pilot. (U.S. Air Force photo/Capt. Erick Saks)

BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan -- Growing up as a self-proclaimed "tomboy" Capt. Marisa Catlin would probably never have been one to draw pictures of clouds like the other little girls. As an adult though, clouds now scare her more than the bullets whizzing by.

Captain Catlin, an HH-60G Pave Hawk pilot deployed from Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England, to the 83rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron, has been under fire numerous times while conducting personnel recovery and casualty evacuation operations for Regional Command East, but it's the weather and terrain which worry her most.

"We're more concerned with the environmental threats in RC East - the mountains, the weather - than anything else," said the Chattanooga, Tenn., native. "I'm way more concerned with accidentally flying into a cloud than being shot here."

The helicopter instructor pilot explained that the loss in visibility resulting by flying through a cloud can mask other threats such as 14,000- to 15,000-foot mountain peaks and U.S., coalition and commercial aircraft.

She has nearly 500 combat hours in Afghanistan and Iraq, and on the occasions that her aircraft had been fired upon, Captain Catlin said that the training "kicked in" and she felt little fear.

"Everybody probably has their own reactions to being shot at," she said. "We train at home so much that I think that it almost desensitizes you. When it happens, it almost feels like it's not that big a deal."

The captain has dreamt of flying as far back as she can remember.

"As a kid, I told my mom I wanted to work at the airport," said the captain. "She asked why, and I told her because I thought flying was cool. She said 'let's think a little bigger.'"

Captain Catlin entered the U.S. Air Force Academy with the intent to become a pilot, but it wasn't until she received an orientation flight from the Navy that she knew that she was destined to fly helicopters.

"I went on this exchange with the Navy for three weeks, and I just happened to get attached to this squadron that flew SH-60s, the ones that hunt submarines," Captain Catlin said. "They gave us a couple of rides, and I thought 'this is pretty much the coolest thing ever.' After that, I was sold."

During her six and a half years flying Pave Hawks, the captain has received her instructor pilot qualification and has become a flight lead with her unit.

"Helicopters are awesome," said the captain. "I love them for their flexibility. You can pick your landing spot. You don't always have to be moving forward, and the helicopter aerodynamics are significantly different than fixed wing aircraft so you really have to think about what you're doing, where you're going to be landing, and the winds."

But, Captain Catlin's favorite part of her job is the mission.

"If we're out there doing our job, then we're helping someone out, and that's a pretty good feeling," she said. "At the end of the day, if we've moved somebody, it's because they needed it, and regardless of what we think of the precedent of that mission, that dude probably appreciates it."

The captain is currently serving on her sixth deployment. Her rotations have ranged from three to four months, and despite her annual rotations to the Central Command area of responsibility, she is upbeat about being in theater.

"We're part of small squadrons, and we deploy with the same people all of the time. We're family." Captain Catlin said.

The squadron's only female pilot said that her gender is not an issue within the organization.

"It's no big deal," she said. "And, it's kind of nice that it's not a big deal. To say I'm 'just one of the guys' is slightly inaccurate, but I'm 'just one of the people.' I've been in the Air Force since entering the academy in summer 1997 where I was one of five girls in a flight of 30, so I'm just used to it."

When the organization is called upon to reposition forward to support ground operations, Captain Catlin generally shares quarters with the men of the unit. Despite the lack of privacy, she said she prefers it this way.

"Everybody's together, and if a mission comes down, you're not off by yourself," she added. "Plus, there's a social aspect to it. If you're stuck off in a room by yourself, you are off on your own, and you have to find everyone and find out what's going on. It's so much easier just being collocated."

Despite the uniqueness of her position and mission, the captain doesn't think of herself as out of the ordinary.

"I don't look at what I do as any different or special than what anyone else does," said Captain Catlin. "We all just want to get out there and accomplish the mission."