The US Coast Guard Air Station in North Bend, Oregon is the first with an all-female command structure. Captain Breanna Knutson, USCG heads up the primarily search-and-rescue base and talked to us about her career in Coast Guard aviation.

“I love to brag about the women who work for me,” says Capt. Breanna Knutson, Sector Commander for Coast Guard sector North Bend. As one of currently two female commanders of a Coast Guard aviation unit, Capt. Knutson is supported by her Executive Officer, Operations Officer and Command Senior Enlisted Advisor—all of them women, a first for a Coast Guard Air Station.

In Capt. Knutson’s profession, admittedly it has been rare to see women in top command positions. Now, thanks to Coast Guard policies targeting equal opportunity and inclusion, female officers are increasingly seen in the marine blue and gold of this branch of the US Armed Forces.


Captain Breanna Knutson with Executive Officer/Deputy, Cdr. Maegan Schwartz; Operations Officer, Cdr. Tamara Whalen; and Command Senior Enlisted Advisor, Senior Chief Nicole Steele (not pictured).

Taking the lead
“A big part of how I see my job is to inspire people who are junior to me throughout the Coast Guard,” Capt. Knutson says. “This is the first Coast Guard aviation unit with all women in command positions. I love it; I think it’s amazing.”

Inspiring is the operative word. Capt. Knutson oversees 450 people posted at the North Bend Air Station and six boat stations along 220 miles of the Oregon coast. Their primary mission is the search and rescue of commercial fishing and recreational vessels and passengers.

“My main responsibility is to make operational risk management decisions and make sure that we’re sending the right assets. If I receive a brief and I’m confident everything’s being done to go help someone, then I don’t say anything else,” Capt. Knutson says.

Becoming commander of the Coos Bay-based sector has been a journey 23 years in the making. Knutson began her commissioned career aboard a Coast Guard ship in 1999 before enrolling in flight school two years later. “I spoke to pilots and crew of the helicopter deployed on our ship and became interested in the missions they were doing,” she says of her decision.

After graduating from flight school, there followed three tours in North Bend, New Orleans and Jacksonville* as a pilot and aircraft commander. In New Orleans, she was involved in rebuilding the Coast Guard air station that had been damaged during Hurricane Katrina the year before. In Jacksonville, she was assigned to the Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron (HITRON), a counter-narcotics unit.

It was at this point in her career that she was encouraged to apply for a staff job, which led to becoming an executive assistant for the Joint Task Force East within the Department of Homeland Security. Another stint flying, this time in Detroit, Michigan, was followed by a staff job in Washington, D.C. as a congressional liaison. And then, promotion to Commander of Sector North Bend.


Hard work and luck
Despite the impressive resume of exciting jobs, “I don’t feel that my career path was any more challenging than my peers’ in terms of being a woman. You definitely have to request the more demanding ops and do a variety of missions. I’ve done Rotary Wing Air Intercept, which is a separate qualification; I’ve done Airborne Use of Force. You have to take those hard jobs,” she says.

Nevertheless, having advisors played a critical role for her. “Back when I made Aircraft Commander, I was never looking to be a Commanding Officer. People encouraged me to take staff jobs that I didn’t think I was qualified to do. I was lucky to have mentors in my career who supported me.”

As for her sector’s current juncture having an all-women command, the Coast Guard’s policies might well have played a part for Executive Officer/Deputy, Cdr. Maegan Schwartz; Operations Officer, Cdr. Tamara Whalen; and Command Senior Enlisted Advisor, Senior Chief Nicole Steele. Officers typically stand long hours of duty and move every three to four years—playing havoc on family and making retention of mid-grade female officers a challenge. To become a Commanding Officer, they must first be assigned to a pre-command position, like Capt. Knutson’s Deputy and her Operations Officer. “We’re starting to see more women in these pre-command positions, which is the right direction,” she says.


An aviator first
She is surprised that she has continued quite so long in Coast Guard aviation. After completing flight school, she owed the agency 13 years of required service. “I knew aviation was the only career path in the Coast Guard where I would have been willing to obligate those years of service. I love flying and I love the missions we do in Coast Guard aviation.”

The Coast Guard – which is charged with ensuring the maritime and environmental security of US ports, coastlines and waterways – numbers cutters, boats and aircraft among its assets. Its MH-65 helicopters operate in missions ranging from sling operations to airborne use of force. Even as a Commanding Officer, Capt. Knutson still flies once a week “to mix the fun time in with the rest of what I do.” In a recent mission, she did a medical evacuation from a ship 50 miles offshore. “It is not often anymore that I get to be directly involved in the rescue portion of a mission,” she says. “It always feels great to be able to help people who need it – that never gets old!”


* North Bend, Oregon; New Orleans, Louisiana; Jacksonville, Florida





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