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Sandra Durbin: Overcoming Prejudice with Bravery and Grit

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Sandra Durbin was still a teenager when she joined the U.S. Navy in 1966 and began her career in aviation. Her choice was motivated by a desire to go to college and the U.S. Navy promise to see her through four years of higher education if she served for three. Durbin had scored highly on her exams out of boot camp that determined her job in the Navy, so she was given a choice: electronics technician or air traffic controller.

“To be honest, I picked air traffic control not because it sounded exciting, but because air traffic control school was only six months, and technician school was a whole year, which sounds like a really long time when you’re only 18.”

Racial tensions in the 1960s were at a peak — not to mention the prejudice women faced for joining the military at that time, but Durbin faced her circumstance with bravery and grit.

The day she arrived at air traffic control school in December 1966, she was summoned for a Captain’s Mast — a meeting for disciplinary action and “pretty much the worst thing that can happen to you when you’re in the military,” Durbin explained. “I hadn’t even called my mother yet to tell her I’d arrived at school.” She put on her dress uniform and walked to the hangar to meet with her superiors at 8:30 at night, crying the whole time, she said, because she hadn’t even had a chance to do anything wrong yet. Seemingly, the only trouble was that she had reported for air traffic control school as a black female.

“They said, ‘white women are stupid, so what does that make you?’” Durbin said. “They said I couldn’t have made those scores, that I must have cheated. They said they didn’t want me to shame my family, so they were going to let me get out of school to go clean barracks back at home, because that’s what women were supposed to do.”

This harsh introduction to air traffic control school made Durbin determined to succeed. She explained that as a single black woman on the military base, her evening free time was in high demand from the male population, but that she didn’t make time for anything but studying.

“They made me so mad that I studied every single night,” said Durbin. “The school had mandatory study classes for remedial students. I wasn’t remedial, but I went every night.”

Her hard work paid off and she graduated in the top 10 percent of her class at age 19, an impressive feat.

“They had said I was stupid, and they didn’t understand why they even allowed women in that part of the service,” Durbin explains. “I proved them wrong.”

Soon after Durbin graduated Navy Air Traffic Control school, Eleanor Williams became the FAA’s first black female air traffic controller.

“God bless her,” Durbin said, “because it couldn’t have been any easier for her.”

Even after overcoming such hardship and establishing her worth, Durbin had more challenges to face. Durbin made E-4 (Petty Officer) before she turned 19, but was forced to brew the coffee and clean the air traffic control tower, because, “women do it so much better,” she was told. “Back then we were called ‘Tower Flowers.’ It was very very difficult,” Durbin said.

It was also a woman’s job to record the weather reports. “The Navy found that the naval officers were calmer if it was a woman telling them they were going to be screwed,” Durbin said.

Durbin recalls one particularly offensive incident that happened while she was working ground control during an emergency event with a military aircraft. While Durbin and the other controllers in the tower communicated with the pilot, the driver of a fire truck repeatedly requested permission to cross the runway. After repeat requests and Durbin responding to him several dozen times to hold his position, he spoke across the emergency channel that reached across the East Coast.

“He must have forgotten to let go of his microphone and said to the person in the truck with him, ‘this stupid b**** in the tower.’ And because it was the emergency channel in overlapping airspace, everyone heard it — from Guantanamo Bay to Norfolk. Everyone heard that this guy said that about a woman in the tower,” Durbin recalls.

A few weeks later, Durbin said the man’s superiors required him to give her an apology in front of everyone, at General Quarters during inspection of the troops. Everyone who worked for Naval Air Operations was there.

“I refused his apology, at the microphone, in front of God, and all in attendance, because they were making him apologize,” she said. Durbin said her manager urged her to accept the apology so that the man could have the offense removed from his record.

“He should have come immediately to the tower the day it happened, instead of our formal inspection meeting,” Durbin continued. “If I had let him go on the runway, and that emergency airplane came sweeping in, it would have killed him and the pilot and everyone else.”

Despite those who doubted her abilities as a black female in the tower, Durbin said she had a few good people who supported her in those early years. She recalls chiding a pilot in training who couldn’t remember his call sign in Pensacola where fighter jets trained. He had called the tower several times to request permission to take off.

“He kept calling in saying, ‘This is, uh…’, so I said, ‘Honey when you remember who you are, call me back,’” Durbin recalls. “His senior officer in the cockpit called me back and yelled at me, saying, ‘Do you know who you’re talking to?’”

Durbin’s manager got on the radio and told both the pilot in training and the senior officer to  stay off the air until the pilot could remember his call sign. “It prepared me to be and do just about anything,” says Durbin.

When she got out of the Navy, she knew that the FAA air traffic controllers were going to strike. There were civilian controllers at North Island where she was based due to overlapping airspace. Due to the PATCO strike, she knew she could be unemployed if she immediately pursued a civilian career in air traffic control. Instead, she took a “temporary” job at the telephone company, which lasted 15 years.

“I was one of the first women to climb telephone poles and put in switchboards,” she says. “At that time, I made more than a controller, so I stayed but was part of the layoffs of 1984. Even with 15 years of service, I could not compete with men who had been working there since the 30’s.”

When she was 36 years old, she tried to become a controller again, but was told by the FAA that she had aged out of civilian service. She took another “temporary” job, as a Right of Way Agent, for the Department of Transportation, State of California. She retired after 22 years of service.

“I know, having been born when the United States still kept the races separated, that I have had a remarkable life,” Durbin reflects. “I am the first woman in my immediate family to finish both high school and college. Because of my military background, I never had a terrible job. I know just how lucky I am.”

She added, “I’ve had the most amazing life. Women were doing things when we weren’t supposed to be, and we were good at it.”

Today, Durbin is retired from formal work, but tirelessly volunteers for homeless veterans, especially women.

“The fastest growing population of homeless people in California is women who have seen combat,” says Durbin. “You’re young and they give you a gun, when society has conditioned you to be a nurturer.”

Durbin now resides in California with her husband, who is also a veteran.