MIAMI (FOX 5 NY) - A U.S. Coast Guard pilot made aviation history by being honored for her actions during the response to Hurricane Harvey.
Lt. Ronaqua Russell, a relative of one of America's famed Tuskegee Airmen, is the first African-American female aviator to be awarded the Air Medal in the history of the Coast Guard.
Russell co-piloted a Coast Guard HC-144 Ocean Sentry aircraft in tropical storm force winds and zero-visibility conditions through the outer bands of Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
"Navigating landings on partially flooded runways, they delivered critical supplies and personnel in support of the ongoing rescue and port recovery efforts," the Coast Guard said. "Russell continued flying supply and damage assessments for the next several days, and then served at the Incident Command Post for the Corpus Christi area helping from the ground as well."
Not even two weeks later, Russell, a native the U.S. Virgin Islands, got news of another massive hurricane—this one bearing down on her home in St. Thomas. Hurricane Irma, a category-5 storm with winds hitting 225 mph, pummeled the island. Her family wasn't able to evacuate so they had to hunker down in their homes and ride out the storm.
Russell tried calling her mother several times and was not able to get through.
"I just knew I needed to do everything I could to get to them," Russell said.
She finally got word that her family was OK just as yet another storm, Hurricane Maria, approached the Caribbean. That storm devastated Puerto Rico.
"Russell took to the sky again, assisting with evacuations and large supply movements and doing all she could to help," the Coast Guard said.
The Coast Guard awarded Russell the Air Medal for her actions in the wake of those devastating storms. The medal ceremony took place on Feb. 21, 2019, at Tuskegee's Moton Field in Alabama, where the first African-American aviators in the U.S. Armed Services earned their wings and became heroes in World War II. Among those Tuskegee Airmen was 1st Lt. Henry E. Rohlsen, Russell's Great Uncle. The international airport in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, is named in his honor.
The Coast Guard held a second ceremony for Russell in Miami on Feb. 27 that her family was able to attend.
"We have all been the first at something," Russell said. "And they have all mentored me and helped me get to where I am today."
FOX 5 NY reported this story from New York City.