Mary “Missy” Cummings had originally been advised to join the Air Force growing up, often being told it was a better environment for women. However, she wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps and, in 1998, went on to study mathematics at the U.S. Naval Academy. She, like many at the time, was inspired two years earlier by the movie “Top Gun.” That’s when she decided to become a fighter pilot.
In high school, Cummings had interned for her congressman after writing letters in order to gain congressional nomination to attend the Naval Academy. Cummings originally entered the Naval Academy to become an intelligence officer, however, she changed her mind and entered as a fighter pilot. At this time, only 5% of pilots were female. She began basic flight training at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola and in 1988 she was nominated for “Glamour” magazine’s “Top Ten College Women.”
Throughout her flying career, Cummings became one of the first women to operate combat aircraft, flying the F/A – 18 Hornet in the VC-5 Squadron nicknamed “Checkertails.” In 1994 she continued her education with the Navy, obtaining a Masters in Space Systems Engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School. She loved to fly but was troubled, as she saw one pilot every month die in an aircraft crash throughout the Gulf War in non-combat deaths and training exercises. She wanted to become part of the solution and figure out how the design of the aircraft was affecting unnecessary pilot casualties.
Cummings was honorably discharged from the Navy in 1999 after 10 years of service. She earned a Ph.D. in Systems Engineering from the University of Virginia in 2004 and then spent 10 years as a research professor at MIT.
Recently, Cummings worked as a professor in the Duke University Pratt School of Engineering and the Duke Institute of Brain Sciences. She was also the director of the Humans and Autonomy Laboratory and Duke Robotics. She sought to better understand human-unmanned vehicle interaction and the social and policy impacts of unmanned vehicles in modern society. She also taught courses in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Material Science, Computer Science and other initiatives at Duke University. As of January 2023, she has adopted a new role teaching in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science at George Mason University.
today, she shares not only her stories as a fighter pilot, but how being a woman shaped her experiences as a professor, researcher, and Veteran. “I don’t know how people do it without having been a fighter pilot first,” she said.
We honor her service.
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Writer: Sarah McDonald
Editors: Mary Margaret Brennan, Marisa Bunton
Researcher: John Bergstrom
Graphic Designer: Kaylah HaywoodRecommend0 recommendationsPublished in