Col. Merryl Tengesdal, the only Black woman to fly U2 spy plane, inspires St. Paul students

Merryl Tengesdal stood at the front of a school auditorium in St. Paul, wearing a t-shirt that said "Dragon Lady."

It is her nickname.  It also happens to be the nickname of one of the most famous airplanes in the world.   It is no coincidence.   It is a distinction.

"I don’t want to be the only," she said.  "I want to be one of many."

Tengesdal, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, is the only Black woman to have ever flown the U2, the spy plane that has been in service since 1955.  It has been modified and upgraded through the years, but what flies today is still essentially the same design.

"When I started in the U2 program it wasn’t with that intent," she said. "Someone whispered it in my ear when I soloed in the U2 for the first time, I go oh, really?"

Tengesdal shared her story to the students of Farnsworth Aerospace Magnet in St. Paul, a magnet school that is pre-k through 8th grade and infuses aerospace throughout its curriculum.

Students at Farnsworth are predominantly children of color and Tengesdal’s message for the hour she had their attention is to live your dreams, not letting anyone tell you what you can or cannot be.

"I love that I’m able to share my story and tell them the sky is…. there’s more than just the sky’s the limit. Shatter that sky and be the best version of yourself that you can be."

Growing up in the Bronx in New York, she showed them a form she was given to fill out in elementary school, indicating what she wanted to be when she grew up.  There were only professions listed to check, and they were very much limited by gender.   Boys could choose to be firefighters, for example, and girls had choices like nursing.

She didn’t check any of the options given to her.  Instead, she wrote in "astronaut."

While she never achieved that dream (though she still hopes it could happen), her path into flying in the military landed her in the U2 program.  Less than a thousand pilots have flown that aircraft.

She hopes her brief time with the students at Farnsworth Aerospace inspires more kids of color, and more young girls, to chase their dreams despite obstacles.  She hopes her distinction of the only black woman to fly the U2 is not permanent.

"Women of color, for pilots, in all services, make up less than 2/10ths of a percentage point, so it’s to be a challenge," she noted. "But I can’t wait!"