Aviation history was made this week when St. Thomas native Lt. Ronaqua Russell, became the first African-American female aviator in the Coast Guard to receive the Air Medal.
According to the Coast Guard, the Air Medal is awarded to its service members who distinguish themselves by heroic or meritorious achievement in flight. The Coast Guard awarded the medal to Russell for flying in relief supplies after Hurricane Harvey, in tropical force winds and zero visibility.
Russell is daughter of Assistant Attorney General Aquannette Chinnery and former Sen. Ronald Russell.
The first of two ceremonies to honor her achievement took place Feb. 21 at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Alabama. This is the same location where, 77 years ago, the first African-American aviators in the U.S. armed services broke down racial barriers to earn their wings, and later go on to fly heroic and critical combat missions in World War II.
One of these Tuskegee Airmen was 1st Lt. Henry E. Rohlsen, Russell’s great uncle, for whom the St. Croix airport is named.
Russell’s Coast Guard HC-144 Ocean Sentry aircraft was the first in the sky following behind the Category 4 storm’s destructive track, according to the Coast Guard. Russell, along with Cmdr. Steve Pittman, the aircraft commander, piloted the plane through the outer bands of Harvey, hitting tropical storm force winds, and zero visibility conditions. Navigating landings on partially flooded runways, they delivered critical supplies and personnel in support of the ongoing rescue and port recovery efforts.
“Leaving Corpus there was not a single aircraft in the sky,” Russell said in a statement issued by the U.S. Coast Guard. “And on our approach into the Houston area there were only a few helicopters. It was eerily quiet.”
Russell continued flying supply and damage assessments for the next several days, then served on the ground at the incident command post for the Corpus Christi area. helping from the ground as well.
Almost two weeks into the response she couldn’t help but take notice of news reports of a storm brewing in the Atlantic. The eye wall of another hurricane was taking shape and looking to be much stronger and bigger than Harvey. A few days later, her home in the Virgin Islands would take a huge hit from the Category 5 Irma with winds topping off at 225 miles per hour.
Unable to evacuate, her family took shelter in their homes. Throughout the storm Russell tried to call her mom with little success, until one point a call finally started to ring. Then it picked up, for just a brief second she heard her mom’s voice., then the call dropped.
“This was a really tough moment, because I wasn’t sure if that was a cry for help, or excitement, or what,” Russell said. “I just knew I needed to do everything I could to get to them.”
After more than 36 hours of desperate attempts, Russell was finally able to reconnect with her family and verify they were OK. That moment of relief was interrupted by another storm that started to build in the Atlantic, Hurricane Maria.
Russell took to the sky again, assisting with evacuations and large supply movements and doing all she could to help. Between performing these missions she arranged for her mother and grandmother to get to Puerto Rico by boat, and fly commercially to Texas. They lived there with her for several months while homes were repaired and the islands recovered. Her grandmother accompanied her when she transferred to her new duty station in Miami.
“She keeps me on my toes,” Russell said about her grandmother, Annette Chinnery. “I’m really a miniature version of her.”
Because her family could not attend the ceremony in Tuskegee they came to a separate one Wednesday in Miami.
“It is an honor to be here, to see her get this recognition,” Chinnery, Russell’s mother, said. “I’m just very thankful that our family could come from near and far to be here, it’s a historic moment.”
While Russell attributes much of her drive and recent success to her family, there is another group, affectionately called “The Fab 5,” that has had a huge influence on her as well. This is the group of the five African-American women pilots in the Coast Guard. They were all present at the Tuskegee ceremony.
“We have all been the first at something. … And they have all mentored me and helped me get to where I am today,” Russell said.
Russell is stationed at Air Station Miami as commander of an HC-144 Ocean Sentry aircraft. She is a 2012 graduate of the Coast Guard Academy and a 2006 graduate of Ivanna Eudora Kean High School in St. Thomas.
According to a 2017 hurricane season summary published by FEMA, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria are estimated to have caused more than $265 billion in damage to the United States.