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Distinguished Alumni: Aviator Patricia Webb never wavered in her quest of the skies

Patricia Webb has made an indelible mark from the skies around the globe, serving her country and inspiring others.

Many young girls growing up in Patricia Webb’s tiny Michigan farm town in the 1960s dreamed of becoming teachers or nurses. Young Patty wanted to be an astronaut.

“But my mother told me that girls couldn’t be astronauts,” said Webb, who became mesmerized by the idea of flying in 1962, the year John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth. “She said I could be a flight attendant.”

Instead, Webb set her sights on earning her pilot’s license. She did so at age 21, the first step in an impressive career in which she broke barriers and helped pave the way for countless women who followed her path. For her accomplishments, Webb is the recipient of a 2021 Distinguished Service Award as part of the Sacramento State Alumni Association’s Distinguished Alumni Awards.

When Webb received her pilot’s license,  opportunities were limited for female aviators, especially women like her who wanted to be fighter pilots. Webb joined the Air Force as an intelligence specialist and was among the first women to attend flight school. Quotas were in play back then, and she grew tired of waiting for a female pilot slot to open, so she accepted a job as an Air Force navigator.

“I loved it, and I was very good at it, but I didn’t understand why men were allowed to do things that I wasn’t allowed to do” even though she was equally qualified, she said. “It didn’t make sense. I was raised on a farm, and there weren’t ‘boy jobs’ and ‘girl jobs.’ Everybody did everything.”

Webb traveled the world as a navigator, flying refueling and reconnaissance missions, tactical missions during the Gulf War, and humanitarian relief missions in Somalia. She fought fires from the sky, and dropped paratroopers from planes.

In 1989, during a stint as a flight instructor at Mather Air Force Base near Sacramento, Webb earned her master’s degree in International Affairs at Sac State.

“I wanted a real academic environment with lots of other students pursuing different paths,” Webb said. “I already had an undergraduate degree in liberal arts from Kalamazoo College in Michigan, and Sac State had a good Master’s program in International Affairs. We had international instructors, and the whole class had experience living overseas.”

In 1996, Webb left active military duty and joined the Air Force Reserve. At the same time, she began working for Science Applications International Corporation in the company’s technology unit, supporting national security and intelligence operations.

Webb spent 33 years in the military, retiring as a colonel in 2011. Since then she has worked as a counterterrorism advisor to presidential Cabinet members and members of Congress, and has taught counterterrorism and covert operations courses at the National Intelligence University, a federally chartered research university in Maryland.

“Her contribution as a trailblazer for future generations of women aviators rises to the top” of her résumé, said Kelly Siefkin, director of development for the Sac State Alumni Association. “Col. Webb trained and flew alongside women during a critical time in our nation’s history where she exemplified the truest expression of equal opportunity.”

In recent years, women have managed to crash through the military’s glass ceiling, Webb said.

“We’ve proven our worth as aviators, and women get a pretty equal shot today,” she said.

Since her retirement, Webb has continued to fly recreationally. At home in Virginia, she occasionally takes to the skies in a friend’s private plane.

“It’s just enormous fun to do basic flying,” without the aid of modern technology, she said.

As a member of the Coast Guard auxiliary, she has participated in rescues and patrols, both by boat and airplane. Webb also has been involved with an international group investigating pioneer aviator Amelia Earhart’s disappearance over the Pacific Ocean in 1937.

“She’s always been intriguing to me,” Webb said of Earhart. “The fact that her disappearance is still unsolved keeps people interested.”

Webb’s advice to current and future Sac State students? Never turn down a chance to learn something new.

“Throughout my patchwork career, I took advantage of what was in front of me,” she said. “Every job I had yielded more opportunities that I never knew existed.”

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About Cynthia Hubert

Cynthia Hubert came to Sacramento State in November 2018 after an award-winning career writing for the Sacramento Bee. Cynthia believes everyone has a good story. She lives in East Sacramento with her two cats, who enjoy bird-watching from their perch next to the living-room window.

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