The Sky Is No Limit
As the first Black woman aviator in the military, Marcella Ng ’78 is used to breaking through barriers.
Marcella Hayes Ng ’78 calls herself a drug baby. “But a different type of drugs,” she clarifies. “I was drug to church every time they opened the doors — in and out, in and out.”
Ng’s imagery might suggest that she went unwillingly, but she follows with a burst of warm laughter. Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church, just across the street from Ng’s childhood home in central Missouri, was a center of joy and community. As a young girl, Ng helped her parents keep the church clean. She’d go with her mother to choir rehearsals, and her dad was a member of the deacon board. These daily visits to church while growing up led Ng on a path to continued service as an adult: religious, family, community, and military.
They also led her toward shattering a glass ceiling: becoming the first Black female pilot in the United States military.
Mount Olive didn’t only form Ng’s faith; it gave her a space to form a thick skin. In the church’s large lot, she liked to play football with her older male cousins, though they didn’t usually welcome her participation. In fact, the boys often played with the intent of making Ng cry so that she’d stop bothering them. It wasn’t uncommon for her to run the ball and end up at the bottom of a heavy pileup of bigger cousins. “But you don’t dare cry,” she’d tell herself. “If you do, it’s game over.”
Game over was not something Ng wanted to hear — ever. She spent her childhood roughhousing with cousins, climbing trees, and ignoring her father telling her, “Go on, girl, get out of here,” as he worked on engines. She remembers one of the church ministers saying that the sky was the limit: “And if you shoot for the stars and you don’t reach them, at least you’ll hit the moon by some chance.”
As a young Black girl growing up in the 1960s, Ng wasn’t going to let anyone shoot her down. Although she had a number of very good childhood friends in her hometown of Centralia, she also encountered unkindness and hateful names. She switched to a school in the neighboring university town with a more welcoming community. At Hickman High School in Columbia, Missouri, Ng loved going to the football games — not for sport, but to revel in the uniformity and regimen of her high school marching band. She didn’t know it at the time, but studying the band’s formations and precision would serve her well.
In her senior year, Ng buckled down to focus on her grades and made the National Honor Society. She focused her college search on three schools: the University of Missouri, the University of Kansas, and the University of Wisconsin–Madison. None of them required an application fee: “If they decided that I was not worthy of going to their college,” she says, “I couldn’t stand the thought of paying for rejection.”
All three schools accepted Ng. She settled on the UW for two reasons. First, a pair of her high school teachers had done a training at Madison the summer before, and they told her how great the campus was. “If you go far away and it doesn’t work, you can always come back home,” they advised her. “But if you never leave, you may never break out of this cycle.”
The second thing that swayed Ng toward the UW was a daytime call from the ROTC department. She was impressed that an organization had called her during daytime hours when phone calls were charged at a higher rate.
“All I could think — this naïve kid — ‘They must really want me,’ ” she recalls. “ ‘They’re calling during daytime hours. This is high dollar, man.’ ”
Ng arrived on campus in the fall of 1974. During spring semester, she began training in the ROTC program — and she excelled. In 1976, she was chosen as one of only two women to participate on the ROTC’s Tri-Service Exhibition Drill Team at the UW. With a competitive nature and experience literally tackling whatever came her way, she was a standout.
In 1977, Ng was selected for advanced camp in Fort Riley, Kansas, where she continued to impress. In a physical training test involving five different events, Ng earned 497 out of 500 possible points. But when she heard that some of the men at camp were complaining that the few women there were showing them up, Ng considered pulling back. Her master sergeant noticed her change in demeanor and learned what the men had said. “Lady Hayes,” he told Ng, “if you back off, I’m going to drop you like a hot potato. What makes you think that if you slack off and don’t give your best that they’re going to step up the ante?”
Ng didn’t wait to see if anyone else would step up. She decided to compete against herself instead and committed to doing her best. She took on leadership positions and seized opportunities that had only recently been opened to women. After ROTC advanced camp, she took army airborne training at Fort Benning, Georgia, to learn how to “jump out of perfectly good airplanes.”
One of her ROTC advanced camp instructors, Lt. Col. Bobby Pedigo, encouraged Ng to apply to flight school, another new opportunity for women in the military. She hadn’t had any previous ambitions to fly, but Ng looked at it like every other adventure she’d already taken on, thinking, “Oh, well, that sounds cool — something new to try.”
After graduation, Ng was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Army, and she headed off to flight school at Fort Rucker, Alabama, in 1979. The first woman to graduate from flight school in the U.S. military, 2nd Lt. Sally Murphy, had reached that milestone only five years earlier. When Ng showed up for processing, the mail clerk did a double take and exclaimed, “You’re the first one of you guys I ever seen come through here!” Ng didn’t believe him until a member of the base’s public affairs office approached her with a photographer and informed Ng that she really was the first Black woman to go through flight school.
Instructors at the base quickly stopped public coverage of Ng’s training to protect her privacy and prevent any animosity from her peers. She notes that, while there were a couple of classmates who still gave her sideways glances, she and the one other woman in her class were largely accepted. One classmate, Dennis Ng, became her husband; they’ve now been married for 42 years.
For everybody coming through behind you
In 1979, Ng completed her flight training and qualified as a helicopter pilot, becoming the first Black female aviator in the U.S. military. Once it was a sure thing, the public affairs specialist was welcomed back to talk to her about her historic achievement. The barrier was never something Ng set out to break, but she’s grateful for the opportunity and humble about her accomplishment. “It’s just where God allowed me to be.”
The newly married Ng next set out to a post in Germany with her army aviator husband on the Married Army Couples Program. Assigned to the 394th Transportation Battalion, she was the first Black officer, the first female officer, and the first female aviator within her unit in Germany. She had a personal first, too, albeit less joyous: she came up against a subgroup within her unit known as “No Blacks, No Broads” and faced similar sentiments from a few of her superior officers. She lost her flight status in Germany and repeatedly fought to get back in the air, but to no avail.
While it hurt Ng deeply to have flying unfairly taken away from her, her friends comforted her. “Marcy,” they explained, “you’re going through those doors. And you are encountering the hard times. And the hurtful times. If it did nothing else, it caused it to be a little bit easier for everybody else who has to come through behind you.”
After moving from base to base in the United States and South Korea, Ng eventually became the commander of the 49th Transportation Battalion at Fort Hood, Texas. She retired from the military as a lieutenant colonel in 2000 after 22 years of service and stayed in the area with Dennis and their three children.
Of course, Ng hasn’t really stopped serving. During her transition to civilian life, her next career move was decided by her youngest daughter’s unplanned pregnancy. Ng was no stranger to such things — her biological parents had been in the same position when she was born, and her grandparents legally adopted her when she was eight years old. While looking for ways to support her daughter and new grandchild, she discovered a local pregnancy resource center and was inspired to get involved. She joined the organization as a peer counselor and served for seven years as its director until retiring in 2013.
Ever the thrill seeker, Ng and her husband took up motorcycling in the 1990s and are still active with the Christian Motorcyclists Association, a religious organization aimed at ministering to bikers and spreading the faith. Ng explains that evangelizing doesn’t always require words — sometimes she’s just along for the ride, with the simple goal of showing where her joy comes from. “Sometimes you got to use words, but most times it’s just you, living your life, and people being able to see what makes you different,” she says.
Ng’s latest adventure is taking place right on her own lawn in Nolanville, Texas. In 1998, she and her family started putting together a large Quonset-style building on their property. It was a project aimed at family bonding more than anything else — they didn’t have a specific use planned for the building until Ng’s oldest daughter married. Ng decorated it as a reception hall and saw that they could be putting their land to better use.
It formed the basis of the Ngs’ next venture, Mililani Woods, which provides an inexpensive venue for weddings, community meetings, and outdoor photography. The name bridges Dennis’s Hawaiian upbringing with the couple’s faith. Mililani comes from the Hawaiian translation of Psalm 100:4 and is posted on the venue’s website: “E komo ‘oukou i loko a kona ‘īpuka me ka mililani!” In English: “Enter into his gates with thanksgiving.” And for Ng, there’s every reason to be thankful.
“All 11 acres — it belongs to him. We’re just stewards of the vineyard.” •
Esther Seidlitz is the editor of the Wisconsin Alumni Association’s Badger Vibes.
Published in the Winter 2022 issue
Careie Hayes November 22, 2022
That was and is. Awesome. To GOD be the glory
Robert Merrill December 13, 2022
Thank you for sharing this inspiring story.