Capt. Elizabeth Somerville, USN (M.S. Aeronautical Engineering, 2006), commanding officer of Air Test & Evaluation Squadron (VX) 23, says there is nothing quite like the excitement of a deployment, the camaraderie of a ready room or the flight test environment. (U.S. Navy photo by Adam Skoczylas)
In an article posted on The Southern Maryland News page, AFIT alum Capt. Elizabeth Somerville, USN (M.S. Aeronautical Engineering, 2006) talks about her passion for flying that led her to become the first female aviator in Electronic Attack Squadron 141 while it was on the maiden deployment of both the Navy’s EA-18G Growler and USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77); first female commanding officer of a naval developmental test squadron at VX-31; and now as the first female commanding officer of VX-23.
Somerville takes passion of flight to command VX-23
By Kaitlin Wicker and Rob Perry Reprinted from Naval Aviation News Sep 28, 2021
In a world where engineering, aviation and military defense collide, Capt. Elizabeth Somerville brings a great deal of experience to the table. With bachelor’s and master’s degrees in aeronautical engineering, two decades of experience between fleet aviation and developmental test, and a love of aviation that began when she was a small girl, she relishes her time in naval aviation.
Somerville was most recently the chief test pilot for Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 23 and took the helm as the squadron’s commanding officer in July at Naval Air Station Patuxent River.
“My primary job as the [chief test pilot] is to work with our chief test engineer to make certain that all of our flight tests are executed safely and effectively,” Somerville said. “We have some big changes and big capabilities coming to the squadron. I always keep my eye on the horizon and I am fortunate to be taking command of such a fantastic squadron.”
Suiting up to take to the skies is not new for Somerville. Before she received her wings of gold as a naval flight officer, cloud surfing was her favorite escape. As a young girl, Somerville’s grandfather owned a small plane and would take her flying above the New England landscape.
“I was fascinated with all things aviation or space-related,” she said. “I was incredibly fortunate that my parents fully supported my passion, driving me to the airport to get in a plane and fly.”
Before graduating from high school, she earned her private pilot’s license and with a Navy scholarship in-hand, Somerville graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a bachelor of science degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering and went to Pensacola, Florida, for flight training, where she initially thought she might hit a roadblock to her dream of flying.
“In those days there was no Lasik surgery, or corrective action for poor vision,” she said. “I had, and to this day, have terrible vision. I didn’t even have the choice to be a pilot.”
Concerned her vision may even preclude her from being a naval flight officer, Somerville said she was ecstatic when she passed the physical. She thinks she’s been a good flight officer and made some positive contributions to the community.
“Every time I think the excitement of a deployment, the camaraderie of a ready room, or flight test environment will wear off and get old, I realize, there’s nothing quite like it,” Somerville said.
Through deployments in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, Somerville knew she was in this for the long-haul. As she finished her first fleet tour, she wanted her next assignment to pair her engineering background with her experience and skills in the plane, turning her attention to the pursuit of becoming a test pilot.
“My skipper knew there were a couple of us interested in test pilot school,” she said. “So, he called a friend, who called a friend, and next thing you know we had a tour of the schoolhouse and a look at what it’s all about. I knew then it was something I really wanted to pursue.”
Somerville was accepted to the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School Class 130. As part of a cooperative program, she attended the Air Force Institute of Technology and when she graduated with USNTPS, she also graduated with a master of science degree in aeronautical engineering.
In her 22 years of service, Somerville has seen her share of firsts, including becoming the first female aviator in Electronic Attack Squadron 141 while it was on the maiden deployment of both the Navy’s EA-18G Growler and USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77); first female commanding officer of a naval developmental test squadron at VX-31, which is where she went upon graduating USNTPS; and now as the first female commanding officer of VX-23. Having spent time out in the fleet, Somerville said she felt a calling to come back home and continue her aviation career in flight test and acquisitions, but also be able to balance her home life.
“After deploying with the Bush in support of several operations, mostly Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, I knew I wanted to come back. I had a young daughter, and I wanted to explore career opportunities that would allow me to contribute to and focus in areas where I was the best at, where I could leverage my strengths to further naval aviation that didn’t take me away from home 75% of the time,” Somerville said, which lead her back to VX-23 at Pax River.
Somerville said she is looking forward to leading VX-23 to meet those challenges, including the test squadron’s increasing involvement in unmanned aviation as well as emerging technologies to existing aircraft.
“We have some upgrades coming to the Growler, the [MQ-25] Stingray, the F-18s and some other really unique things that are being developed and then delivered to the fleet,” she said.
But while those new advances continue to develop, Somerville said her main focus will be to continue finding ways to allow the test squadron to do its day-to-day job of evaluation to ensure safety and effectiveness of the fleet by “breaking down any roadblocks that they may see to accomplishing that job.”
“I can’t speak to anyone else’s experiences, but I can say for mine, I have always worked with phenomenal professionals,” she said. “I knew, walking into every squadron, that I had to earn my qualifications and I was given the opportunity to earn them, but neither of those things was unique to me.
“What I hope anyone takes away from my experiences is this: find whatever makes you tick, find what you’re really passionate about and make a career of it.”
Kaitlin Wicker is a public relations specialist with Naval Test Wing Atlantic, and Rob Perry is staff writer and editor with Naval Aviation News.