Blue Angels pilot breaks sound, gender barriers

When military aviation buffs pack into the Marine Corps Beaufort Air Show in South Carolina this weekend, they'll be wowed by the Navy's Blue Angels. But a new kind of history will also take flight in the team: a woman in the cockpit, CBS News' Michelle Miller reports.

It's the ride of a lifetime, and F-18 pilots like Capt. Jeff Kuss have spent a lifetime training for it.

"I got my pilot's license when I was 17, and I wanted to get in the military and fly the fastest, meanest thing they could give me, and this is it; the Hornet is it," Kuss said.

For eight months each year, the team of 10 pilots tours airshows around the country demonstrating staggering feats of aerial precision, sometimes as close as 18 inches apart.

Michelle Miller's thrilling ride on the Blue Angels' F-18

"You're so close that you're looking at the paint scheme, you're looking at the rivets on the side of the aircraft," Kuss said.

Since the team launched in 1946, an estimated half-a-billion spectators have watched a Blue Angel spectacle.

"I saw the Blue Angels fly when I was a young kid," Marine Corps Capt. Katie Higgins said. "I was definitely inspired by that."

Higgins is a third-generation military aviator and the first female pilot in the team's 69-year history.

"My dad was an A-7 pilot initially, and then he transferred to the F-18 Hornet, which is actually out here on the line," Higgins said. "It's a great family legacy to have, that's for sure."

Now, she's providing the inspiration.

"I think by including a lady on the team, that just shows little girls and guys that women can do whatever they put their mind to," Higgins said. "Little girls have told me that they didn't even know that ladies could fly aircraft, that women could be in the cockpit."

They've been in American military cockpits for more than 20 years, but it's taken this long for a woman to become part of the Blue Angels team.

"We do a very thorough interview where they get to know each one of us and find the right person for the team next year, and so it just so happened that they haven't had a female pilot that has fit quite perfectly," Higgins said.

Capt. Tom Frosch is the commander of the Blue Angels and said, "it's not that we weren't ready, we were just looking for the right person."

He was one of 17 officers that voted Higgins onto the team and said they haven't had any challenges integrating a female pilot into the unit.

"Any female can fly any aircraft in our inventory," he said.

He also said he "doesn't believe" there are any institutional challenges.

But the institution itself was challenged last year, when one of the Blue Angels' former commanders was found guilty of allowing "obvious and repeated instances of sexual harassment" and "condoning widespread lewd practices."

To people who find the timing of Higgins' being made a pilot with the Blue Angels convenient, Frosch said, "When we selected the members of that team, I was given zero pressure to select a female."

Higgins flies just like any other pilot.

"Well, honestly, I would tell 'em to watch the demo," Higgins said. "They can't tell the difference between mine and the other two pilots on here because I fly it just as well as they do."

That quickly becomes obvious to anyone sitting in the cockpit of the Angels' C-130, nicknamed "Fat Albert," the plane Higgins flies.

It may not go as fast as the F-18s, but it's every bit as integral to the show.

And the ride is no less thrilling.

"I definitely didn't come on the team to break any barriers or anything like that, that definitely wasn't my agenda," Higgins said. "It just so happened that I was the first female to perform in a demo here, and if that is inspiring to people, if that's inspiring to little girls around the country, then I'm doing my job."