In her childhood town of Centralia, Missouri, Marcella Hayes Ng was a spirited tomboy, unafraid of climbing trees, engaging in tackle football with her cousins, and observing her grandfather’s skilled work on cars.
Growing up, Marcella held the belief that everyone was equal, while recognizing the supreme authority of God. “As a child, I wore rose-tinted glasses, always seeing limitless skies,” she told an interviewer.
However, despite her limitless perspective, the idea of learning to fly never entered her mind during her youth. Little did she anticipate that she would achieve both that and make history within the U.S. Armed Forces.
In November 1979, 2nd Lt. Marcella A. Hayes, then known as Marcella Ng, etched her name in history as the first African American woman in the U.S. military to earn her aviator wings. This groundbreaking achievement unfolded as she completed helicopter flight training at the U.S. Army Aviation Center in Fort Rucker, Alabama. She was 23 years old and had been serving in the Army for about a year. Recalling flight school, Marcella considered it “another fascinating challenge” on her journey.
Having graduated from high school in Columbia, Missouri, where she relocated as a young teenager, Marcella was an active member of the National Honor Society, the pep squad, and the marching band. She received acceptance letters from three universities but chose the University of Wisconsin in Madison, supported by an ROTC scholarship. Her leadership capabilities were recognized early on, leading to her appointment as Cadet Company Commander for the Parent’s Day parade. Following the Advanced Camp, she proceeded to U.S. Army Airborne training at Fort Benning, Georgia.
“Camp and Benning were both exhilarating. Rappelling and parachuting were thrilling experiences,” Marcella shared with excitement.
Women’s presence in Army aviation was relatively new. When Marcella arrived at Fort Rucker in 1979, only five years had passed since women began attending the school. Recalling a pivotal moment during her advanced Instrument flight examination, Marcella described her feelings as the weather forced her instructor, whom the class humorously nicknamed “Santa Claus,” to postpone the flight. Rescheduled with a tougher examiner the following Monday, she managed to excel in her exam, with a flawless takeoff under instrument conditions. Despite changing flight plans during the test, the flight went smoothly, resembling real-world scenarios. Marcella attributes her success to a higher power.
Flight school proved pivotal in both her professional and personal life. It was during the summer of 1979 that she met Dennis Ng, who would become her husband in January 1980. The subsequent summer saw Marcella stationed in Germany with the 394th Transportation Battalion, making her the first African American and woman in that role. Despite her aspirations to continue flying, she faced repeated assertions that she did not meet the required standards. This led to a loss of her flight status, which deeply affected her.
However, Marcella reassessed her situation and realigned her priorities. She directed her focus toward her family and other opportunities the Army presented. Upon her assignment at Fort Hood, Texas, she underwent evaluation by combat arms officers, leading to her selection for company command for a two-year term. This set the stage for further command roles in Korea and the U.S., including serving as the commander of the 49th Transportation Battalion at Fort Hood.
“God opened doors, enabling me to command a battalion,” Marcella affirmed.
On September 30, 2000, Marcella Ng retired with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, having served as the Corps Support Command Inspector General. “My ‘flying’ is now on my motorcycle. Listening to God has taught me to make the best of life’s challenges,” Marcella concluded with a smile.