The first and only Black woman to fly the U-2 Dragon Lady reconnaissance aircraft has a starring role in a CBS reality show highlighting "everyday Americans" who use their physical and mental toughness to overcome challenges.
The second season of "Tough as Nails," which began airing Feb. 10, is far from Merryl Tengesdal's first time testing her grit, though.
"I don't think it's for everyone," Tengesdal, who retired as an Air Force colonel in 2017, said in an interview Monday about flying the impressive U-2. "I joke about the community -- in a good way -- [when I say] that you have to be a little bit not quite right to want to fly this aircraft, because it's difficult … "You come back from a 10-hour mission. You're tired. You're sweaty. So for a lot of people, they're like, 'Thanks but no thanks.'"
Tengesdal said flying the Dragon Lady was physically demanding in ways most people never experience.
"You put your body under a lot of physiological pressures that some people would not like to be under. The movement in the suit is difficult. You're not hearing much, except your breathing, maybe a bit from the hum of the engine. … You're basically sitting at Mount Everest altitudes breathing 100% oxygen."
Tengesdal hopes viewers can see for themselves the inner toughness that enabled her to be a pioneer despite all the challenges.
"A U-2 may be a single-seat aircraft, but you need a team of people to get you to where you are to be able to do the mission," Tengesdal said. "I think in 'Tough as Nails,' especially for that team competition part, it's very important to bring that skill set to the table."
In one of the latest episodes, two teams -- "Dirty Hands" vs. "Savage Crew" -- face off to stack fishing crates onto separate boats and bag slimy eels before the clock runs out. Tengesdal, part of Savage Crew, was the team lead for the crate stacking challenge. Her group came in second. "That’s on me," Tengesdal says to her team during the episode. "I should have planned better, I should have done better."
"I think one thing about being a good leader, you have to know when to step forward, when to step back, when to help out, when to keep your mouth shut, when to speak up," Tengesdal said during the interview, reflecting on her time on the show.
"I'm hoping that I was able to bring a lot of that to the table, because at the end of the day, I wanted to see our team win."
Tengesdal said she'd also wanted to dispel the perception that officers "stand around and tell other people what to do" and demonstrate her individual abilities and skills.
Path to the Air Force
At first, Tengesdal wasn't drawn to serving in the Air Force. She saw herself as a bit more outgoing than her ROTC peers in college, but her dream was always to become a pilot and, later, an astronaut.
Tengesdal attended Officer Candidate School in the Navy and was commissioned as an ensign following her graduation from the University of New Haven in Connecticut in 1994. She flew the SH-60 B Seahawk and then became a T-6 Texan II instructor pilot at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, for the Joint Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training program at Moody Air Force Base, Georgia.
In 2004, she cross-commissioned into the Air Force, joining the elite community of fewer than 1,000 pilots in the U-2 program.
Tengesdal, who now lives in northern California with her family, spoke with Military.com on the barriers still affecting service members, her aviation experience and why she ended up ditching her astronaut aspirations. Her comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Military.com: The population of female pilots across the military community is small, with few Black female pilots. Do you think there is something the Defense Department should be doing to attract more Black aviators?
Tengesdal: I saw a few weeks ago that the Air Force Inspector General put out a report on racial disparities. So they've put on paper and acknowledged that there's some disparities. That's a great first step. [Tengesdal served as the director of inspections for the Air Force IG in her last assignment.] Other things like changing grooming standards, and making people feel like just the way they look is more acceptable, I think is a step in the right direction. The reason why I say that is because when I was in the Navy, I was flying T-6s, and as a Black woman, it was always a challenge of what to do with your hair.
Keeping it natural was, I don't wanna say frowned upon, but a lot of people didn't do that. And I was at Randolph [for] instructor training ... and I was just so tired of how my hair looked. And I said, 'You know what, I'm just gonna get some locks. I'm tired of this.' It wasn't in the regulations. But as a Navy person [at an Air Force base], I wasn't really questioned too much on this because they didn't know Navy rules. I was just so tired of putting chemicals in my hair. I think people were afraid to come up to me and question me.
When I applied for the U-2 program, I remember my commander at the time told me that [heading into the Air Force] I should have a more conservative hairstyle. He was aware of the environment. He wanted to see me do well in the interview. The military has come a long way since that because now, the way I wear my hair, there are people who wear their hair like that and it's not a big deal. It's just nice to be able to openly talk about that. It's not perfect, [but] hopefully it will continue to improve as we move on.
Military.com: During your career, you logged more than 3,400 flight hours and more than 330 combat hours across the various airframes you flew. What was the most memorable U-2 mission and one that seemed intimidating or unnerving?
Tengesdal: For me, there was no scary mission. There were times when I was uncomfortable. Turbulence affects that aircraft quite a bit. If you went into moderate turbulence, I did not really appreciate watching the wings flex the way they did. The wingspan is 104.8 feet; so when you're hitting turbulence, that aircraft works pretty hard. My most memorable experience was my first mission over Afghanistan [in 2005]. I had just come back from Korea. I had never been over the [Middle East area of operations] before. Some of the products that day resulted in some losses for insurgents, for the Taliban. So when I came back, my commander was pretty happy about it, and wanted to talk a lot about it. But I mean, at that point, that was 12 hours after and I just wanted to get some sleep. Overall, I felt pretty good about what had gone on.
Military.com: What drew you to it?
Tengesdal: It reminded me of the Navy helicopter community ... that wanted to work as a team and get the mission done. And, you know, the fact that you're flying above 70,000 feet. … If there [aren't] people on the International Space Station, you're the highest person flying that day, and I thought that was pretty cool.
We have a whole array of sensors that you could just plug and play in the aircraft similar to the H-60. One day you'd be doing a mission over the horizon targeting, the next you're hunting subs, the next you're doing a search-and-rescue mission, the next you may be doing comm[unications] relay for two ships. [In the U-2], it's the same versatility, in that everyday is not the same. That's probably why I don't sit [behind] an office desk, right? Every day is a new challenge.
Military.com: Last year, the Air Force flew an artificial intelligence system on the U-2 acting as a pilot's sidekick. What are your thoughts on this achievement?
Tengesdal: I think it's impressive that you have an aircraft that has been around for 60-something years, and it's still keeping up with the latest trends, if you will. It's a cool aircraft that is changing with the times. And it's always surprising me about what ... it could do. A couple of times, they've wanted to get rid of the U-2, but it does things that other aircraft just can't. I'm proud to be a part of that ever-changing evolution of the U-2.
Military.com: Your ultimate goal was to become an astronaut. What made you change your path?
Tengesdal: Following [my work with the IG], I knew I probably would not make NASA at this point. So to what end am I going to stay in the military? To gain rank? I love leadership challenges, I love being in leadership positions. But at this point, I had a four-year-old. I just wanted to do things that my mom wasn't able to do, and [be there] more for my kids. [Tengesdal's son is now eight, and she also has a six-year-old foster daughter whom she and her husband plan to adopt this summer.]