WHEN the F-14A Tomcat flown by Navy pilot Lt. Kara Hultgreen slammed into the Pacific Ocean last fall, those who oppose putting women in traditionally male military roles said her death proved women couldn't cut it.
Anonymous faxes to radio talk-show hosts alleged that Lieutenant Hultgreen was pushed into her job as the first female Navy aviator before she was ready.
No matter that it wasn't immediately clear whether the accident was Hultgreen's fault. It also didn't make any difference that Hultgreen was only one of several pilots who had recently crashed while flying F-14s.
Radio talk shows, whose listeners and hosts are overwhelmingly white males, weren't the only forums used by those who felt women should stay out of the cockpits.
A letter in the Washington Times from C.H. Eley III from Annapolis, Md., said, ``Any old naval aviator will tell you that the `unsat' grade Lt. Hultgreen received (after failing night carrier landing qualifications) was a warning of possible future problems in landing aboard a carrier.'' Hultgreen was attempting to land her plane on a carrier when she crashed. Others seized on this letter to expand their opinions on the inherent incompetence of females.
But perhaps the most unsavory column was written by Fred Reed in the Army Times. Titled ``A true victim of affirmative action?'' it is a classic mixture of innuendo and gossip masquerading as journalism.
The column began by defining affirmative action as, ``the advancement of the unqualified for political reasons. No more, no less ... the effects of affirmative action, predictably enough, are: 1) to erode the belief in the competence of all favored groups; 2) to infuriate and demoralize the competent who are passed over; 3) in the military, to kill people.''
The author then went on to say he heard ``through the grapevine'' that Hultgreen did poorly on training but was given more chances to pass because she was female. Did the author know she was put into her slot merely because she was female? No, but ``an awful lot of people suspect she was advanced beyond her ability.''
This is the sort of character assassination that made Hultgreen's family feel obliged to release her personnel records.
The scores Hultgreen received showed that she was an average-to-above average pilot, not perfect, but surely not incompetent.
And investigations of Hultgreen's crash showed that - guess what? - the crash wasn't her fault. Her F-14 engine failed at a critical moment in the landing sequence. The engine loss was not indicated in the cockpit, and the situation was probably unrecoverable.
To their credit, many men in the military have come to Hultgreen's defense. The accident in which she died was gender-neutral; similar circumstances have occurred to many male pilots.
Affirmative action is being questioned more and more frequently, and with some justification. It is not a bad thing to wonder whether, in some circumstances, giving women and minorities an extra break is needed anymore.
But in Hultgreen's case, affirmative action has been used to claim that a pilot was responsible for losing a plane, killing herself, and nearly killing the man flying with her.
Quite the contrary. Hultgreen's accident was summed up by an officer who wrote to the Navy Times: ``Let Kara Hultgreen rest in peace. Instead, honor her as a hero. Her efforts to regain control of her aircraft may have saved the life of her radar intercept officer, buying precious moments for him to eject, possibly even knowingly sacrificing her own life.'' The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.