Sports

Becky Dowling Calder ’94: First-Ever Female Pilot to Graduate from TOPGUN

Courtesy of Becky Dowling Calder
Courtesy of Becky Dowling Calder

A part of the Class of 1994, Becky Dowling Calder was most respected for her athletic contributions at Andover. As a twelve-season varsity letter winner, Calder captained in all three seasons of her senior year and led the Andover Girls Basketball to four consecutive New England titles. Her efforts earned her a spot in the Andover Athletic Hall of Honor alongside George H.W. Bush ’42 and Fred Harrison ’38. 

Following Andover, Calder continued her successful basketball career at the rigorous Naval Academy, where she then became the first female pilot to graduate from the US Navy’s Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor Program, more commonly known as TOPGUN. 

According to Calder, her participation in high school sports developed a work ethic that allowed for a smooth transition to a Division I collegiate basketball program at the Naval Academy. At the Academy, Calder was named Patriot League Rookie of the Year, two-time captain, and two-time MVP. She was inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Honor in 2014, and became the first female Navy basketball player to have a jersey retired. 

“Everything that I learned here at Andover—both on the soccer field, on the basketball court—it directly translated into what I did at the [Naval] Academy, and even what I did after. I think that the idea of teamwork, the idea of dedication, the idea of working hard for something that isn’t just for yourself, that is what you need, really to succeed anywhere, but especially when you go to a service academy or follow on serving in the military,” said Calder.

Initially, Calder enrolled in the Naval Academy solely to play basketball at the collegiate level. However, in her freshman year at the Academy, the rule banning women from flying in combat had just been rescinded. Without any prior intention to pursue a piloting career, Calder took full advantage of the opportunity with help from an encouraging mentor. 

“I didn’t know I wanted to become a pilot when I started. Women weren’t allowed to fly in combat when I started at the Academy, so that was not something that sort of on my radar at the time. I had a mentor who loved women’s basketball, and he was a pilot, and he was also an astronaut, and I remember the day that he told me that I would be a great…pilot. And I think that speaks to the importance of mentorship and finding opportunities to encourage people to go after their dreams because I didn’t even know that was an option for me,” said Calder. 

Breaking barriers in both the athletic and the military worlds, Calder hopes to inspire girls and young women to chase after their dreams, even if it means being the first to do so. As of now, her work has paved the way for 21 more women to graduate from TOPGUN.

“There weren’t people who looked like me that went through TOPGUN. But I knew what I wanted to do, and I knew what that meant, and I knew what I had to go through to get there, and that meant going to TOPGUN. I just happened to be the first…but I say, when you find what you’re passionate about, you just have to go for it, and if that means being the first, that’s what that means. For me, that wasn’t part of the equation, but it’s part of my story, and I’m really proud, and I just hope I can inspire people to do the same,” said Calder. 

Since her graduation, Calder has devoted her entire life to the military. In 14 years of active duty piloting, Calder amassed 2,500 flight hours and made 421 arrested landings, 185 of which occurred at night. She has served in the reserves for the last 23 years.

“When you set your heart on something or you start doing something, you give it your all, and that’s hard. It’s hard because as we all know, life is hard, and when you find what you love, it makes all the hard work worth it. And I feel really lucky that I found what I love and was able to make that a career,” said Calder.