Tracey Keefe: Anti-submarine warfare helicopter pilot in the Persian Gulf
May 22, 2021
This is the 14th article in a continuing series about local military veterans and their service to our great country.
Tracey Keefe (née Alexander) was born and grew up in Massachusetts. Her parents owned and operated a small school bus company.
"They were really awesome people," Tracey said. "Their doing that business, particularly in the winter, taught me a lot about determination and fortitude, about doing the right thing every day."
Tracey attended grade school and high school in a town situated just outside Boston. In high school, she ran track (50- and 100-yard hurdles) and was a member of the drama club, in which she had a couple of lead roles in plays.
"The drama club helped me learn to do public speaking, to talk to people. I had no idea how helpful that would be later in life," she said.
Tracey matriculated to Boston University, where she received her Bachelor of Arts in geology. About midway through college, she became interested in joining the US Navy. Like so many adventuresome youth before her, she wanted to join the Navy and see the world. As she explained it, "I applied for and was accepted at Navy ROTC. I went to college in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and I really wanted to have a good job after college, and ever since I was a young child I've loved to travel. So, Navy aviation seemed like a really good idea to me."
After graduating from Navy ROTC – and much to her delight – she received her commission as an ensign (a commissioned rank in the Navy or Coast Guard that is below lieutenant junior grade) next to the historic USS Constitution, one of the six original frigates authorized under the Naval Act of 1794, and a warship that played a vital role in the Barbary Wars, the War of 1812 and in defending sea lanes until 1855.
In the spring of 1991, the newly-minted ensign was assigned to a helicopter squadron at Norfolk Naval Air Station (NAS), Virginia. In March 1992, she began flight training at Pensacola NAS, Florida; however, the "flight training" at Pensacola – where she spent two months – wasn't what one might normally consider flight training at all, rather it was the tough physical conditioning that preceded actual hands-on flight training.
"It was really intense. We did the obstacle course, lots of running in the sand, lots of aquatic survival training, such as swimming long distances and swimming with our gear on. We also did simulated aircraft underwater egress training," she said.
Tracey performed her primary (basic) flight training course in Corpus Christi, Texas, from May to December 1992. She and the other pilot trainees in her class all flew the Beechcraft T-34, a single-engine, two-seat turboprop (propeller driven) basic trainer, which Tracey described as "really powerful for a trainer aircraft." After basic flight training, she returned to Florida – this time for advanced flight training at Whiting Field (close to Pensacola NAS). At Whiting she began to fly the Bell TH-57C helicopter. "I really fell in love with helicopters. I loved flying closer to the ground. The helicopter fit me like a glove (she is only 5' 2"), the cockpit was quite comfortable for me. And I really loved those I worked with in the helicopter community. I look back and I still think of the wonderful people with whom I served."
She received her flight "wings" in September 1993. "That was a great day. My family came out from Massachusetts to be present. And this was when it became interesting." It became interesting because the military had only recently lifted the combat exclusion for women. She had assumed that she was going to be flying non-combat missions only (such as transport missions); however, she soon found herself assigned to Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron 6 (HS-6) at NAS North Island in San Diego.
Arriving at North Island, her initial assignment was with Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron 10 (HS-10), whose mission was to train pilots and aircrew in carrier-based rotary wing anti-submarine warfare (ASW). Of course, in the early 1990s, very few women were serving as pilots of any kind in the US military, so her arrival at North Island raised more than a few eyebrows. "I'll never forget. I showed up at North Island with my orders, and the squadron training officer looked at me and said, 'Hmmm, I guess we'll have to notify the commander.' He (the training officer) was clearly surprised that I was a woman. Speaking to the commander he said, 'I have Lieutenant JG Alexander in my office, and she...." Yet, no matter, for Tracey was "thrilled" to be stationed on the West Coast. "I was thinking, 'this is great, I've won the lottery.'" Indeed, the West Coast was attractive to Tracey for several reasons, not least of which was that her Marine helicopter pilot boyfriend was about to be stationed on the West Coast, as well.
While serving with HS-10, Tracey trained on the Sikorsky SH-60 "Seahawk," a twin turboshaft engine, multi-mission Navy helicopter based on the Army's UH-60 Black Hawk. In January 1995, she joined HS-6, which at that time was operating as part of Carrier Air Wing 11 from the nuclear aircraft carrier the USS Abraham Lincoln. During her three-year stint with HS-6, Tracey experienced two major deployments to the Persian Gulf (the second aboard the carrier USS Kitty Hawk). All told, she spent 16 months at sea, flying missions to enforce the no-fly zone against Iraq, ASW missions and, most of all, search and rescue missions.
During her first deployment – which, it should be noted, was only the second time that women had been permanently assigned to a carrier air wing – night vision goggles were not yet in common use, so she had to perform a lot of instrument flying, often barely 200 feet off the gulf.
"Flying at night over water could be difficult, but I was blessed never to have been involved in any direct combat operations. I was never actually shot at. And, once again, I was treated wonderfully. I found a good deal of camaraderie in the helicopter community." Between deployments, in 1996, Tracey married her Marine helicopter fiancé, Ed Keefe, who has since flown combat missions on subsequent deployments to Iraq.
In January 1998, Tracey was selected to teach a leadership course at the Navy Leader Training Unit, Naval Amphibious Base, Coronado, California. As she recalled, teaching was a "great experience," which, among other things, enabled her to travel throughout the continental United States. She resigned from active duty in late 2000. Around the same time, Tracey gave birth to her first son; a second son was born to the Keefe family in 2002.
Yet, Tracey's commitment to the Navy did not end when she left active service. For more than a decade thereafter (2000-2011), she was in the Naval Reserve. While in the Reserve she supported aircraft and weapons acquisition, and various test programs. Throughout this period, she was primarily assigned to Naval Air Weapons Station, China Lake, California; she also saw stints at NAS Point Mugu, California, and NAS Patuxent River, Maryland. Working with a combination of aviators and engineers was experienced by Tracey as a somewhat daunting challenge. "Most of the time I was working with people who were a lot smarter than I am. It was a great experience. I was so in over my head, for the first few years I didn't want to open my mouth and say anything!"
Presently, she is employed in a human resources position in Tehachapi for World Wind & Solar, a company in the field of renewable energy.
As our interview neared its end, Tracey made it clear that she still had something she needed to convey, something that was very important to her. This is what she said, "Of all the interesting and challenging jobs I've had, I feel that being a good parent was really the most important and most difficult. You only have one chance to get it right. I didn't start out as a natural mother. I had to go from being a Navy pilot to being a mother – that was the biggest challenge of all. The two boys are young adults now, both in college and in Army ROTC. So the effort paid off."
Tracey, I know your two sons and can confirm, without doubt, that all your efforts as a mother paid off, and quite handsomely! We in Tehachapi honor you for shepherding two fine young men into adulthood and, just as importantly, we acknowledge and honor you for your fine service to the US Navy and our country.
The Loop newspaper is publishing a series of veterans interviews to honor our local heroes. If you are a veteran, or know of a veteran who would like to take part in this series, please call The Loop office at (661) 822-8188.