Excellence Through Adversity with Merryl Tengesdal
Merryl Tengesdal is no stranger to adversity. Despite the deck being stacked against her, Merryl rose through the ranks of the U.S. military, eventually becoming the first and only African American woman to fly the United States Air Force’s U-2 “Dragon Lady” high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft. Now retired, she reflects on her experiences in the military and inspires students, business leaders, and organization to defeat the odds and excel in their endeavors.
Speaker Spotlight: Merryl Tengesdal
As the first and only African American woman USAF U-2 Pilot and a retired Colonel with over 23 years of aviation and leadership experience in both the Navy and the Air Force, MERRYL TENGESDAL inspires audiences with her tales of breaking barriers and overcoming adversity. A true storyteller, Tengesdal holds audiences at rapt attention as she shares her career and experiences with audiences as an example of how to reach their own goals. Tengesdal details how to use strategic planning to achieve a successful life by overcoming self-doubt, working through adversity, and looking at problems through a creative lens. She’s frequently in the spotlight, from being a competitor on season 2 of CBS’ Tough as Nails, appearing on Preston Ewell’s Mettle Mentality Podcast to speak about pride, perseverance, and her experiences, the Ready For Takeoff podcast where she discussed her life and career, being featured in an interview at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, appearing in PBS’s Unladylike, a story of Bessie Coleman, and more. Audiences leave Tengesdal’s events motivated, inspired, and ready to reach new heights.
Colonel Merryl Tengesdal (ret.) is the first and only African American woman to fly the United States Air Force’s U-2 “Dragon Lady” high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft. As a former Naval Aviator and Air Force Combat Pilot, Merryl has flown over 3,400 flight hours including 330 combat hours in six different rotary and fixed wing aircraft. She has been deployed worldwide supporting combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and military operations in South America, the Caribbean, and the Horn of Africa.
Tengesdal has extensive command and senior leadership experience including Deputy Operations Group Commander and Inspector General for the 9th Reconnaissance Wing, Director of Operations and Commander for the 9th Physiological Support Squadron. As the first female selected to be Commander of Warner Robins Air Logistics Center, Detachment 2 at Palmdale, CA, she led the oversight of a multi-billion-dollar depot-level maintenance, repair, and developmental testing program for the U-2. She retired in 2017 from the Pentagon in her last assignment as the Director of Inspections for the Air Force Inspector General, where she oversaw USAF’s conventional, nuclear and special access inspections program for 860,000 Airmen.
Since her retirement, Tengesdal has become a highly sought-after motivational speaker for industry, non-profit organizations and educational institutions on a wide range of topics including diversity and leadership, applying military leadership lessons to business enterprises and women in leadership. Tengesdal has a keen interest in promoting efforts to increase women and children of color in STEM.
Tengesdal is a Reality Television Star and cast member on season 2 of CBS’s uplifting, reality competition show Tough As Nails and promotes increased minority involvement in the Trades. She has also appeared as a commentator on PBS’s UNLADYLIKE2020: The Bessie Coleman Story (2020) and as a technical consultant to Steven Spielberg on Bridge of Spies (2015).
Tengesdal holds a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from the University of Newhaven, a Masters in Aeronautical Science from Embry-Riddle University, and is a graduate of the non-resident programs at the Air Command and Staff College and Air War College. She was inducted into the 2019 Gathering of Eagles Foundation as an aviation pioneer.