Naval aviator creates a rumble during a trip home to Lexington

Navy Lt. Laura Combs, who grew up in  Lexington, flew home last  weekend in an EA-18 Growler, right. She was its navigator.
Navy Lt. Laura Combs, who grew up in Lexington, flew home last weekend in an EA-18 Growler, right. She was its navigator.

The rumble that rattled windows across Lexington on Friday and Sunday was not Santa doing a test run of some really souped-up reindeer.

It was Lt. Laura Combs, 25, a naval flight officer who grew up in Lexington and is one of an elite group of women in naval aviation. She was navigating an EA-18G Growler, a new plane that jams enemy radar.

Combs flew home with Lt. Cmdr. Robert Scott, a pilot from Virginia Beach, Va.

Flight crews are allotted a number of flight hours each month. She and Scott had some unused hours and were allowed to make the quick trip to Lexington from her base in Whidbey Island, Wash., Combs said. Combs attended Lexington Traditional Magnet School and Tates Creek High School before going to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., from which she graduated in 2008.

Women like Combs make up a small percentage of naval fliers. Her female colleagues are "really smart, really nice. ... We get the exact same training as the guys. No difference," Combs said, noting that one other woman is in her squadron.

Although women are increasingly a part of the Navy, only about 6.5 percent of the Navy's aviators are females, said Steve Fiebing, deputy public affairs officer.

"When you add all of the Navy's female aviators together, the total female population grows to over 800 that fly across all aviation platforms," Fiebing said.

Fiebing said Combs' squadron was the first to transition from the EA-6B Prowler to the newer EA-18G Growler, and Combs was one of the first women assigned to the Growler after flight school.

As of June, about 235 women are navigators like Combs. Even smaller is the number of women who fly in planes similar to Combs'. The EA-6B Prowler and the EA-18G Growler crews have 45 female aviators.

Currently, two women are pilots in either a Prowler or a Growler.

Combs' fascination with aviation began at home. Her father, Jim Combs, is a pilot. Combs' mother, Susan, said they used to fly together as a family.

Laura Combs said she "knew since early middle school" that she wanted to fly. Her mother recalled an experience at Lexington Traditional Magnet School that fed her daughter's drive to fly. While Laura Combs was an LTMS student, astronaut Story Musgrave, a Kentuckian, spoke at the school and lit "the fire underneath" her daughter.

"I could fly by myself before I could drive by myself," Laura Combs said.

Combs' early training began at the Georgetown airport with former Air Force pilot Joe Polsgrove, then continued with Jim Poe, also in Georgetown.

The plane she's flying now is part of the Navy's "electronic attack" fleet. The job of the plane, according to Combs, is to jam radar. The plane is armed, but the weapons are defensive. "We don't shoot first, but we are trained to do both," she said, referring to jamming radar and shooting.

Combs' primary responsibility is to tell the pilot, "'Fly this way, fly that way.' I'll talk on the radio full-time."

She expects to find out in January where she will be assigned next.

It is "definitely a male-dominated career," Combs said, but she has found her place in the Navy, flying planes that go really fast. The Growler's ground speed to Lexington was about 520 knots, roughly 598 mph.

Flight time was Santa-speed: 41/2 hours to Lexington, six hours back. Tail winds made the trip to Lexington faster than the return trip to Washington. Combs' arrival and departure coincided with loud noises some residents reported hearing.

Said Combs' mother, Susan: "She's very focused on where she is right now. ... We're very proud of her. As always, go Navy."

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