High flier who brought the USAF down to earth

Flinn heard she was under investigation and says she made a pact with Zigo to deny the affair. But when questioned Zigo told the truth, in long and sordid detail
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``I feel a great injustice has been done to Kelly Flinn. She's outstanding." These were the words of a loyal mother about her daughter, the words of a groundling about a flier, the words of one generation of women about another. And they chipped away a little bit of lustre from the sheen of the most powerful flying machine in the world, the US Air Force.

Mrs Mary Flinn was speaking less than an hour after her 26-year-old daughter, a distinguished graduate of the US Air Force academy and the first woman to qualify to fly B-52 bombers, had been granted a general discharge after being charged with adultery, lying and disobeying an order.

How, you may ask, could things have got so out of hand that a young woman who was a brilliant student, an acknowledged star of the air force policy of equal opportunities for women, a success story in a military that is painfully starting to grasp the problems of mixed-sex training and combat units - how could she have fallen so far, so fast, without a parachute appearing from somewhere?

The story is not just about her, but about the US military and the conflicts spawned by its admission of women on equal terms with men. Racial desegregation is often cited as a comparable upheaval in the US military, which none the less passed off rapidly and smoothly. Why has mixing the sexes proved so contentious?

Ms Flinn's experience offers part of the explanation. A girl whose ambition was to fly in the US Air Force, she had directed her school and college studies to that end. She headed her class in the air force academy. She suffered the slights and taunts of her male colleagues mostly in silence, having learnt the unpopularity that stemmed from one early complaint of bullying. She left a sexual assault unreported for fear that the consequences would be worse than the act. In short, she coped.

Her reward was to be accepted for training to fly the B-52, and to be admitted to the elite company of top bomber pilots. She was 24.

She knew the rules on what the military discreetly calls "fraternisation" as well as any of the men. She knew that she could not associate with men of a lower or higher rank than herself; she felt it was unprofessional to take up with a male colleague with whom she might fly in the course of her duties.

She had a short relationship with a man in another company - that is, outside her line of command - the legality of which, according to air force (but not army) rules, was contested. She then fell in love with Marc Zigo, the civilian football coach at the base. Zigo, by all accounts but his own and that of his ex-wife, was a "rat" and a "bounder". Flinn says he lied about his marital status. Zigo (and his ex-wife) say he didn't. In any event, the affair progressed - off the premises of the base. A colleague of Flinn's who was facing disciplinary procedure at the base decided, while being questioned about his own offences, to "tell all" about Flinn.

Flinn heard that she was under investigation and says she made a pact with Zigo to deny the affair. That might have been the end of it, had Zigo not then decided to tell the truth, in long and sordid detail, when the questions were asked of him.

Her first offence was to take up with a married man (though she says she understood that he was legally separated). Her second offence was to lie about the existence of the relationship. Her third offence was to disobey an order not to see Zigo again. This, as air force officials readily acknowledge, was difficult as she was living with him. She threw him out; he attempted suicide. She let him back, they quarrelled, he beat her. Whereas in the civilian world that might have been the end of a regrettable, but doubtless educative story, at the Minot air force base in the wastes of North Dakota this was another beginning.

Although Flinn's superior officer was subsequently transferred, according to her brother, for his handling of the case, the disciplinary wheels of the air force sped into motion. They were well oiled by not a few superior officers who had always been dead set against women in the air force, let alone flying bombers, but who had never been able to make a case against Flinn herself.

They were oiled, too, it appears, by jealousy on the part of lower-ranked men and (especially) women on the base - who included Zigo's by now ex- wife, Gayla. Ms Flinn was charged - the nature of the charges, and her name, being made public before she was even informed that she was to be court-martialled. She heard from television news while on holiday. Already in a no-win situation, her reputation was immediately ruined and she was publicly humiliated.

As attempts to reach some behind-the-scenes settlement failed, Flinn set out to do what she had been trained to do in quite different circumstances: fight. According to her brother, Don, in no case did any official step forward to explain the official position. It was all done anonymously, off the record, and by officers "far-removed" from the case. "These", he said with scornful reference to the official air force defence of court martial proceedings against Ms Flinn, "are higher standards?"

As the public outcry grew, swelled not only by the ranks of America's professional women but by women calling local phone-in programmes, pillars of local business communities calling their local congressmen, and war veterans writing and sending flowers to "tell Kelly to hang on in there", the air force was pushed into a corner.

It was too late to settle this embarrassing case quietly. So the air force upped the ante: disobeying a specific order was Ms Flinn's most heinous crime - how could she be let loose with a B-52 if she might flout an order for love? Small matter that, as any man or woman on the street would be able to argue, the two are rather different categories.

Marc Zigo gave broadcast interviews damning his former lover (who, it had already emerged, was one of very many). Gayla Zigo publicised a high- flown letter she had written to the air force secretary citing air force rules, the "stealing" of her husband, and the importance of discipline.

With the air force emphasising the disobedience charge, the air force secretary, Sheila Widnall, had no choice but to reject Ms Flinn's request for an "honourable discharge". It would have been politically untenable; and could have been interpreted, as some senior officers had said, as an open invitation to rule-breaking. It would also have discredited the air force disciplinary system, and however justifiable that might have been, it would have shattered relations between the Administration and the military.

The agreed outcome has left no one entirely satisfied. Ms Flinn is said to be "emotionally and physically exhausted, but comfortable with her decision". Her family are disillusioned with a military establishment that they, and people like them, would formerly have supported to the hilt. The air force has lost credibility, and has pointed instructions from Ms Widnall to ensure "justice and fairness" in its disciplinary system in future.

Nor is the outcome quite as clear-cut as Ms Flinn's detractors might have liked. While her air force service may be over, her career as a pilot is not necessarily blighted. That has emerged as perhaps an unspoken part of the deal. She can apply for a "waiver" that would allow her to resume flying, perhaps in the air force reserve. She can also apply, in time, when air force heads are a little less sore, to have her discharge upgraded to an "honourable" one.

This would help to restore her reputation - and, eventually, that of the air force. But the name Kelly Flinn will long evoke pained expressions in the military establishment in recognition of a sequence of misjudgments that must on no account be repeated. As Flinn's lawyer, Frank Spinner, put it: "The United States has lost a pioneer - and at what a price."