Fly Girls

Written by Amanda Kippert Category: People Issue: May 2015
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The world of fighter pilots isn’t exclusively a boys’ club – but with the retirement of one decorated airborne warrior, it might soon be at Luke Air Force Base.

The first time Lt. Col. Melissa May, call sign “Shock,” flew in combat was in 2003. The theater: Iraq. It was Night 1 of Operation Iraqi Freedom and it would be the first mission where American fighters would press northbound across the no-fly zone and face the readied Iraqi air defenses.

“I knew they were going to shoot at us,” May says. She had been flying F-16s for five years at that point. The single-seat, single-engine, multi-role fighter – so termed because it can perform both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions – is the undisputed workhorse of the Air Force’s fighter fleet, the most common fighter in the air. May was confident in her skill set, but there’s nothing like dodging bullets in the dark of night over a war zone to get your adrenaline pumping.

She and her wingman – temporarily renamed “Awe” as an ode to their mission at hand – were driven by van out to their jets, at which point, May says, it’s typical to give a sign-off along the lines of, “All right, see ya on the radio. Don’t suck.” But that night felt different. “We got out, talked at his jet and shook hands, which was weird, because you never shake hands. It was like we were saying, ‘OK, we’ve got each other’s backs. Let’s go do this.’”

Anti-aircraft rounds peppered the sky as May flew overhead, dropping bombs on carefully vetted targets – ammo dumps, weapons caches, surface-to-air missile sites. Her nerves were on overdrive, but mentally, she was on autopilot. “I knew I was a well-trained pilot and I did the mission."

Some 24 years ago, May, who was stationed at Luke Air Force Base until her retirement in March, wouldn’t have been allowed the privilege of getting shot at by anti-aircraft batteries. It wasn’t until 1991 that Congress lifted a ban, opening the cockpit for women to fly in combat. Col. Jeannie Leavitt secured her place in the history books as the first official female fighter pilot in 1993, while Lt. Col. Martha McSally – now an Arizona congresswoman based in Tucson – became the first female to fly in combat in 1995.

Lt. Col. Melissa May thumbs the weapon release switch on an F-16 control grip

Women currently make up 18 percent of the 300,000-member-strong U.S. Air Force but less than 5 percent of the pilots – 678 of the roughly 13,000 pilots in the Air Force are women. And their share of those coveted F-16 seats is even smaller. Out of roughly 3,500 fighter pilots in the force, an estimated 70 are women.

At Luke AFB, that number is now down to one. Since May’s retirement, Lt. Col. Trena Savageau, call sign “Hak,” has become the sole female fighter pilot stationed at Luke. This fact is not lost on Savageau, 39, a part-time reservist assigned to the 69th fighter squadron who flies with the 309th fighter squadron. She bemoans the loss of her friend May, who’s since traded 9G break turns for a slightly less stomach-dropping profession as a pilot for United Airlines. But Savageau, who’s been flying the F-16 for more than 15 years and now has an eye on retirement herself, says her role in history – among those in the first generation of female fighter pilots – only hits her when she encounters the next generation.

“When I meet a young girl who has that same spark in her eye that I did as a kid, and wants to do this [fly fighters] but has never been told she can do it, or thinks that it’s impossible – that’s when I step back and realize that we haven’t always been able to do this.”

Some research shows women are uniquely fit to be pilots, fighter pilots specifically – their low centers of gravity make them ideal to pull Gs, or “gravitational forces.” Fighter pilots can pull upwards of 9 Gs when in the air, which, to those of us in the non-fighter-pilot world, means moments when you effectively weigh nine times your actual body weight and blood drains from your head into less useful parts of your body. It’s like going on a roller coaster, except much, much more intense.

Addtionally, an anatomical study conducted at Clemson University in 2004 concluded that modern women and men have near-identical reaction times to visual and auditory stimuli – the male advantage having narrowed since the early 1900s.

Lt. Col. Melissa May

Savageau’s dream of flying started off much higher, altitude-wise, than fighters: She wanted to be an astronaut. Her dad, an aerospace engineer, worked for Rocketdyne when Savageau was a kid, building the main engines for all of NASA’s space shuttles. Savageau was transfixed by each launch. In her sophomore year of high school, she learned about the Air Force Academy, a standard precursor for most astronauts, and says it seemed to be a natural fit for her tomboy spirit and her self-described “weird” affinity for discipline. She would be the first member of her family to join the military. “My family was terrified but supportive,” she says.

“It didn’t even occur to me,” she says, when asked if her gender ever gave her pause about her career choice. “When I was at the academy, women had just started flying combat. They told me the stories of not always having the opportunity to do that, and when they did, they jumped at it.”

At the Academy, students compete for pilot slots. Class rank determines who will go on to pilot training – roughly 50 to 60 percent of the total student body. From that pool, some will go on to fly fighters and bombers, while others will be assigned to fly tanker or transport aircraft, also known as “heavies.” Those that get chosen to fly fighters – which boils down to just the top 10 to 20 percent of the class – will begin training in the Northrop T-38, a two-seat trainer.

This is where Savageau and May first connected. “We were the only two girls in the T-38,” May says. “We were the only two girls in flight suits and we both had blondish, curly hair.” May says her male pilot friends used to mistake Savageau for her. “She [Savageau] used to joke I had really mean friends.”

Even though the two women may have stood out physically, they say they never felt separate when it came to how they were treated. Nor were they spared the oftimes cheeky squadron nicknames pilots bestow on one another: May's “Shock” handle ultimately became an acronym for “Scarlet-Haired Ovulating Commie Killer.”

“The standards are the same – everyone has to work equally as hard,” Savageau says. She can’t recall a time when her gender made anyone question her abilities. If anything, she says there was a pleasant novelty factor. During flight training, “the instructors were excited. They’d say, ‘You were the first girl I’ve ever flown with!’”

Lt. Col. Melissa May peers through the F-16 heads-up display

May, now 42, says she can remember only one naysayer during her career. As a 24-year-old trainee, she mentioned to her instructor that she wanted to be a fighter pilot one day. “He said he disagreed with women flying fighters. Mainly because of family reasons, and what if a woman became a POW? I thought, ‘You can be a POW in any airplane,’ but I didn’t say that.”

She says some male pilots feel the need to clean up their act around her – “Maybe they watch the burping and cussing a little bit more” – but adds, “they certainly don’t have to.”

May and Savageau agree it takes a different type of courage to have “boots on the ground,” so to speak. “I could never be down there with a gun shooting someone,” says May, though she knows it takes fortitude to drop a bomb from above, too. “We try to minimize collateral damage, but otherwise, I have the attitude that it’s the mission.”

Beguiled by the F-16, Savageau let her astronaut dream go. After 9/11, she was deployed to Saudi Arabia for four months where she flew missions over Iraq for Operation Southern Watch. “It was a great time to deploy because the patriotic spirit in the country was busting at the seams. But it was emotional.” While she was there, in between defending America’s freedom and staving off enemy fire, she was also planning her “big traditional wedding” back home in California to a fellow fighter pilot, Ryan, aka “Beast.” They met in pilot training, graduated from the same pilot class, and both ended up at Cannon Air Force base for their first assignments.

“When I met him, I absolutely did not think I was going to marry a fighter pilot,” Savageau says. “He had to convince me over the course of many years.” Ironically, or maybe not so much, May also married a fellow pilot (Michael, aka “Mach”), whom she also met at the Academy. Having the same profession as one’s spouse may help the bond of some marriages, but when it comes to fighter pilots, Savageau fully admits she and her husband are competitive as all get out, to put it nicely.  “We’re too competitive to fly against each other [in training missions]. We’d have to fly the same mission or it wouldn’t be good for our marriage.”

Lt. Col. Trena Savageau in full flight gear

Both women wanted to start families, but faced unique challenges as Air Force pilots. “I tried to time my pregnancy with a nonflying assignment,” May says. However, things happened a little more quickly than expected. As soon as she found out she was pregnant, she was grounded from the jet, standard practice for fighter pilots due to safety concerns should they need to eject (pregnant pilots can still fly heavies for some time). But she wasn’t quite ready to reveal the news to the entire squadron. “People started having serious concerns when I stopped flying all of a sudden. They’d ask, ‘What’s wrong with Shock? Is she dying?’ Finally, I told them, ‘I’m not dying, I’m pregnant.’” The other pilots joked about how her baby-to-be had already pulled 9 Gs, since May had flown before she found out she was expecting. They joked she should have put a “Baby on Board” sign on her F-16.

Savageau says she kept plenty busy on the ground once she was expecting her own mini-pilot. “I taught academics, instructed simulator missions, led mission planning and spent a lot of time in the control tower as the wing’s supervisor of flying. But the most challenging thing I did was climb in and out of the F-16 simulator while eight months pregnant. And I actually wore a flight suit all through my pregnancy. It probably looked strange to new students to have a pregnant instructor pilot briefing their missions.”

Both May and Savageau would go on to have two children each. May says her toughest moment as a fighter pilot wasn’t the aforementioned story of being shot at while over Baghdad. Instead, it was the series of challenges that came after having children. Like many new moms, even those

who don’t drop laser-guided bombs for a living, she fretted about work-life balance issues. How would the kids feel when they were uprooted with almost no notice to transfer to a new base, as pilots tend to do roughly every three years? When the couple was transferred to Aviano, a NATO air base in Italy that provided air power for Operation Odyssey Dawn missions over Libya, they had almost no notice. Their daughter had just turned 1 and their son was 3. May says the stress compounded. “Every pilot on that base was flying combat missions, most at night. You don’t have the option of coming home at 6 p.m. to make dinner for your family.”

And then, of course, there’s the worry that the kids are worried. “My son was playing at the neighbor’s house one night and she told me that he said he was really scared about me flying in the dark. I don’t want them to be afraid.”

Lt. Col. May retired from the Air Force in March, leaving Luke with one active-duty female figher pilot.

May says she often remembers talking to Capt. Sharon “Betty” Preszler, one of the women in the initial cadre of female fighter pilots, who said having children made her a better pilot. “She said she had more to live for. She learned the systems better because she was making it home to her son.”

So, what do Savageau’s kids think of her not-exactly-standard career? “My 5-year-old son really wants to fly in an F-16. He’s already given himself a call sign: Goggles. Then he realized that wasn’t cool enough, so he renamed himself Ax.”

And if her daughter wanted to be a fighter pilot someday? “It’d be awesome,” Savageau says. “I’d support her. But right now, she wants to be a kindergarten teacher because she’s in kindergarten.”

The future of the Air Force may become more female-centric by the time Savageau’s and May’s daughters grow up, thanks to nine recent diversity initiatives which include an increased female officer applicant pool and a post-pregnancy deployment deferment. The 2015 memo, signed by three high-ups in the Air Force, including Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, states the Air Force has set an applicant goal of 30 percent women for officer positions, an increase from the current 25 percent. “This goal will encourage our accession sources to more aggressively compete for our nation’s top female talent,” reads the memo. The initiatives also extend the deferment for deploying a new mother to a year, up from six months post-partum.  

May thinks it’s misinformation that prevents more girls from going down the fighter pilot path. She says she’s encountered women who are intimidated by the solo aspect of a fighter (“They say they want a crew aircraft because they are more of a social person”) or think they can’t start a family after becoming a fighter pilot. “Hak and I have proved that is totally untrue,” May says. “I do wish more girls would choose fighters based off the right information, but we shouldn’t force anyone to do anything.”

One woman who flew into the history books recently was Maj. Mariam al-Mansouri, not only one of the first female pilots for the United Arab Emirates Air Force, but also the pilot who led the first air strikes against ISIS last October. “She is one tough cookie, to put it nicely,” Savageau says. “I’m proud that she had the courage to have her face out there. And for a group like ISIS, who tends to belittle women, it’s a nice public slap in the face for them to get bombed by a woman. Her picture ended up in our squadron for a while.”

Savageau admits that, at almost 40, she’s “old” in the Air Force world – most pilots consider retirement after 20 years of active duty, when they’re first eligible for retirement benefits, typically around age 42. She probably won’t get a chance to fly the incoming F-35 joint strike fighter (“They want to train people who are going to stick around for a while”) and is considering following in May’s footsteps – leaving Luke Air Force Base, potentially, with no females among its most elite warriors. “I want to keep flying. I would definitely miss it. But civilian flying won’t be the same.”

French aviator Thérèse Peltier

The Sky’s the Limit
Notable instances of female aviators flying through the barriers.

1908: French aviator Thérèse Peltier (left) becomes the first woman to fly an airplane solo.

Jan. 3, 1921: Amelia Earhart takes her first flying lesson. Six months later, she purchases her first airplane, a yellow Kinner Airster biplane. She names it “Canary.”

May 20-21, 1932: Earhart becomes the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, a feat that earns her the Distinguished Flying Cross. Three months later, she becomes the first woman to fly solo roundtrip across North America.

Amelia Earhart

1953: Lt. Col. Jacqueline Cochran of Florida sonic-booms her way into history books by becoming the first woman to break the sound barrier. (She also developed a line of cosmetics she named “Wings.”)

1973: Emily H. Warner becomes the first female pilot hired by a U.S. airline (Frontier).

1974: The Army salutes its first female helicopter pilot: Col. Sally D. Murphy.

Feb. 22, 1974: Lt. Cmdr. Barbara Allen Rainey earns her gold wings, becoming the Navy’s first female pilot.

1993: Col. Jeannie Leavitt (right) becomes the first female fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force and the first woman to command a combat fighter wing, while the Marine Corps adds its first female pilot: Maj. Sarah M. Deal.

1995: Air Force Lt. Col. Martha McSally becomes the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat, helping enforce the Iraqi no-fly zone during Operation Southern Watch from the cockpit of an A-10 Thunderbolt II. In 2014, she wins election to  the U.S. Congress representing Arizona's 2nd district.  

1999: Maj. Shawna Rochelle Kimbrell becomes the Air Force’s first female African-American fighter pilot.

Lt. Col. Jacqueline CochranCol. Jeannie Leavitt