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Flying High: Jenna Dolan Set A Record As A Marine Corps Fighter Pilot, Then Brought Her Leadership To GE

As an eighth-grader in Minnesota, Jenna Dolan was dreaming big. She knew she wanted to be a pilot in the U.S. Marine Corps. Even her middle school classmates could see she was always up for a challenge: In their school yearbook, they voted her most likely to accomplish her goals.

Dolan didn’t have to look far for her career inspiration: Flying is in her family’s DNA. Her father served as a Marine Corps pilot during the Vietnam War era, flying the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk, a single-seat attack aircraft. After he retired from active duty, he became a commercial pilot for Northwest Airlines.

Dolan’s oldest brother, 10 years her senior, graduated from the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. “He was really my idol, my mentor,” she says. Her brother went on to become a Marine Corps pilot, flying the Northrop Grumman EA-6B Prowler— an electronic-warfare aircraft — during the first Gulf War.

When it was her turn to advance after high school, Dolan also chose the Naval Academy. “If I were going to describe how I want to define my life, it’s that I want to have an adventure,” she says.

“If I were going to describe how I want to define my life, it’s that I want to have an adventure,” says Jenna Dolan, a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves who works for GE Aviation. Top and above images credit: Jenna Dolan.

When she was appointed to the Naval Academy in 1992, women weren’t allowed to fly combat aircraft, but that changed the following year. Dolan, who says she always seeks a challenge, proved herself capable of the toughest assignments during her advanced training in the Navy’s flight school. She chose the McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier II jet  that can take off and land vertically, often launching from an aircraft carrier. Dolan describes operating the Harrier as unforgiving. “You need to be on your game every time,” she says. “If you make mistakes, it really can kill you.”

Dolan’s focus and precision helped to break boundaries for female Marine pilots. During the Iraq War, she became the first woman to fly the Harrier in combat, launching from the USS Bataan during the “shock and awe” phase that began the war on March 19, 2003. In two tours of duty, she flew more than 120 combat missions, mostly at night. Between those tours, she was chosen to attend the weapons and tactics instructor course, a prestigious seven-week program in Yuma, Arizona, that prepared her to train other pilots.

In the Iraq War, Dolan flew McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier II, a single-engine, fixed-wing aircraft that can take off and land vertically, often launching from an aircraft carrier. Image credit: Jenna Dolan.

After nearly 13 years in the Marines, Dolan was considering whether to accept a third tour of duty when her husband, Matt, whom she met in 1996 while skydiving, was diagnosed with cancer. (He is healthy today.) At the time, their children, Sean and Lara, were very young, and Dolan couldn’t imagine deploying overseas while her husband was ill. It was time to move into the next phase of her career.

Dolan initially thought about employment unrelated to the military but says she was impressed, when she attended a Service Academy Career Conference, by the opportunities at GE. The conference connects graduates of the five U.S. service academies with potential employers. In 2009, she joined GE’s Junior Officer Leadership Program, which gives officers transitioning into civilian life the opportunity to complete three eight-month rotations in different GE functions. “The leadership program is super-effective in helping people who are in transition figure out not only what you’re good at, but what you like and don’t like,” Dolan says.

She quickly learned that GE Aviation’s military engine programs in Lynn, Massachusetts, were a good fit. GE built the first U.S. jet engine at Lynn. In her first rotation at the historic place, Dolan worked on the GE38 development engine for the Sikorsky CH-53K King Stallion heavy-lift helicopter, America’s largest and most powerful helicopter. “I learned that I really like working with customers, and that I liked being in a place where I could be empowered to manage my own program,” she says.

During the Iraq War, she became the first woman to fly the Harrier in combat, launching from the USS Bataan during the “shock and awe” phase that began the war on March 19, 2003. In two tours of duty, she flew more than 120 combat missions, mostly at night. Image credit: Jenna Dolan.

After completing the leadership program, Dolan continued in military systems in two program manager roles, in different parts of the engine lifecycle. She later worked for two years at GE Energy Connections, supporting or selling control systems to other GE businesses. Recently, she began a role in Military Customer Support, working on the F414 Super Hornet turbofan engine.

Dolan is one of many veterans who have found a home at GE. In 2012, the company launched its “Hiring Our Heroes” initiative, with a commitment to hire 5,000 veterans in a five-year period. Currently, about one in every 13 U.S. employees at GE is a veteran.

Dolan stays connected to her military service as a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves. Throughout the year, she supports the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing in Cherry Point, North Carolina. She also continues to fly. As a civilian, she has earned qualifications to pilot two experimental jets, the Czech-made L-39 Albatros and the tiny BD-5 Microjet.

While her days of working at a desk or attending meetings are far different from the adrenaline rush of maneuvering her attack jet off a ship, Dolan applies what she learned in the Marines to her job. She says that her groundbreaking career gave her an “even-keeled, positive perspective” that she carries into every day at GE. “The ability to handle stressful situations and keep a good head on your shoulders,” she says, “is something that I really take from the challenging experiences that I had in the military.”

Dolan and er BD-5 microjet. “The ability to handle stressful situations and keep a good head on your shoulders is something that I really take from the challenging experiences that I had in the military,”  she says. Image credit: Jenna Dolan.

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