U.S. Coast Guard lieutenant becomes first black female aviator to receive Air Medal

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A U.S. Coast Guard lieutenant in South Florida is making history as the first African-American female aviator to be awarded the Air Medal.

Lt. Ronaqua Russell was honored for her actions during the Coast Guard's response to Hurricane Harvey.

Russell, a native of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, is the grand niece of 1st Lt. Henry E. Rohlsen, one of the original Tuskegee Airmen and the namesake for St. Croix's international airport.

She was honored with the Air Medal, which is awarded to an individual who distinguishes themselves by "heroic or meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight."

The Coast Guard said Russell's aircraft was the very first in the sky following behind Hurricane Harvey's destructive track. She, along with aircraft Commander Steve Pittman, piloted the plane through the outer bands of the Category 4 storm in order to deliver critical supplies and personell in support of the ongoing rescue and recovery efforts.

Russell flew in tropical storm force winds and zero visibility conditions, and navigated landings on partially flooded runways.

The ceremony, held last Thursday at Tuskegee's Moton Field, was the same location where the first African-American aviators known as the Tuskegee Airmen broke down racial barriers to earn their wings 77 years ago, according to the Coast Guard. They went on to fly several combat missions in World War II.

A second ceremony was held in Miami on Wednesday, where Russell is currently stationed, so her family could attend.

“It is an honor to be here, to see her get this recognition," said Aquannette Chinnery, Russell's mother. "I'm just very thankful that our family could come from near and far to be here, it's a historic moment."