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Black History Month Leaders in Aviation: Lt. Ronaqua Russell

Hurricane Harvey hero makes history as first African American female U.S. Coast Guard Air Medal recipient

Aviation history was made during Black History Month two years ago when Lt. Ronaqua Russell, a native of St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, became the first African American female aviator in the Coast Guard to receive the Air Medal – awarded by the U.S. Armed Forces to an individual who distinguishes themselves by heroic or meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight.

Russell received this honor in recognition of her response to Hurricane Harvey, one of the most destructive storms in U.S. history. The first of two ceremonies to honor her achievement took place at Tuskegee, Alabama’s Moton Field on Feb. 21. This is the same location where 79 years ago, the first African American aviators in the U.S. Armed Services broke down racial barriers to earn their wings, and later go on to fly several heroic and critical combat missions in World War II. One of these Tuskegee Airmen was 1st Lt. Henry E. Rohlsen, Russell’s great uncle and namesake for the international airport in St. Croix.

Having the knack for “being the first” in her family history, her Coast Guard HC-144 Ocean Sentry aircraft was the very first in the sky to follow behind the Category 4 storm’s destructive track. Russell, along with the aircraft commander, piloted the plane through the outer bands of Harvey, hitting tropical-storm-force winds and zero-visibility conditions. Navigating landings on partially flooded runways, they delivered critical supplies and personnel in support of the ongoing rescue and port recovery efforts.

Leaving Corpus Christi, there was not a single aircraft in the sky. And on our approach into the Houston area, there were only a few helicopters. It was eerily quiet.
Lt. Ronaqua Russell

Russell continued flying supply and damage assessments for the next several days, and then served at the incident command post for the Corpus Christi area helping from the ground as well.

Shortly after a week and a half into the response, Russell faced a more personal crisis. The eyewall of another hurricane was taking shape and looking to be much stronger and bigger than Harvey. A few days later, her home in the Virgin Islands would take a huge hit from the Category 5 Irma, with winds topping off at 225 miles per hour.

Unable to evacuate, her family took shelter in their homes. Throughout the storm, Russell tried to call her mom with little success, until at one point a call finally started to ring. For just a brief second, she heard her mom’s voice, but the call dropped.

This was a really tough moment, because I wasn’t sure if that was a cry for help, or excitement, or what. I just knew I needed to do everything I could to get to them.
Lt. Ronaqua Russell

After more than 36 hours of desperate attempts, Russell was finally able to reconnect with her family and verify that while there was some damage around the home, they were okay. That moment of relief was interrupted by another storm that started to build in the Atlantic, Hurricane Maria.

Russell took to the sky once again, assisting with evacuations and large supply movements and doing all she could to help. Between performing these missions, she simultaneously arranged for her mother and grandmother to get to Puerto Rico by boat and then fly commercially to Texas. Here they would live with her for several months while homes were repaired and the islands recovered. Her grandmother accompanied her when she transferred to her new duty station in Miami.

She keeps me on my toes. I’m really a miniature version of her.
Lt. Ronaqua Russell

While Russell attributes much of her drive and recent success to her family, there is another group affectionately called “The Fab 5” that has had a huge influence too. This is the group of the five African American women pilots in the Coast Guard. They were also all present at the ceremony at Tuskegee.

We have all been the first at something. And they have all mentored me and helped me get to where I am today.
Lt. Ronaqua Russell

Russell is currently stationed at the Coast Guard’s Air Station Miami at Miami-Opa locka Executive Airport as an aircraft commander and flight safety officer. She is a 2012 graduate of the Coast Guard Academy and a 2006 graduate of Ivanna Eudora Kean High School in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands.