Female fighter pilots break barriers, take on challenges full throttle


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Female fighter pilots break barriers, take on challenges full throttle

By Staff Sgt. Elaine Aviles

39th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

SPANGDAHLEM, Germany (USAFENS) -- Female fighter pilots are a special breed. They’re willing to crack into a male-dominated field, take a $30 million aircraft, fly at mind-numbing speeds and head straight into the face of danger. All the while knowing they may not be coming back.

But most will say they are more than happy to do just that, because they get to fly.

“And we get paid for it,” said Capt. Jessica Rhyne, 23nd Fighter Squadron. “I feel incredibly lucky.”

Rhyne is an F-16CJ pilot. Her job is suppression of enemy air defenses, putting her life and her aircraft on the line to launch high-speed anti-radiation missiles on target. She travels to the hot spots of the world, where she relies partly on her state-of-the-art equipment and partly on her wits to survive.

Just 10 years ago, her job didn’t exist. Although women have been entering pilot training since 1976, before 1993, government officials didn’t believe women had the “right stuff” for combat.

Rhyne always believed she did. Her dream to become a fighter pilot, then an astronaut, crystallized after a trip to the Kennedy Space Center when she was 12. However, because of the “no women in combat” law her dream seemed destined for failure, but she remained determined.

“I entered the Air Force Academy and tried to convince my Congressman to give women a chance,” said Rhyne. “He told me that families were not ready to see their sisters and wives coming home in body bags.”

Rhyne wasn’t buying it. Fortunately, the Congressman’s opinion was only his own. In 1993, the secretary of defense permitted women to enter fighter pilot training.

Rhyne was accepted and ahs never looked back. She has been a pilot for more than nine years now, has accomplished more than 800 hours of flight time and two Operation Northern Watch combat missions under her belt.

But she is the exception rather than the rule. Out of more than 12,000 Air Force pilots, only about 460 are women. Female fighter pilots are even rarer, with 46 Air Force-wide, according to the Air Force Personnel Center. Spangdahlem Air Base currently has three female fighter pilots -- Rhyne, 1st Lt. Leigh Noel, 22nd Fighter Squadron, and Capt. Michelle Vestal, an A-10 pilot from the 81st Fighter Squadron.

“Thanks to women like Capt. Rhyne, I was able to become a fighter pilot without a second thought,” said Noel.

Noel the newest female pilot here. A former “sorority girl,” she joined the Air Force as an acquisition officer. Bored and looking for a challenge, the lieutenant found what she was looking for in pilot training.

She’s been combat mission ready for two weeks, having just wrapped up more than two years of training, which starts with a year of generalized pilot training, and culminates with training in an aircraft “specialty.” Other classes run the gamut from water survival to posing as a prisoner in a POW camp.

Male or female, fighter pilot training isn’t for the faint of heart.

“The training is tough,” said Noel. “If you’re ultra-sensitive, you’re in the wrong profession.”

“Women fighter pilots are tough,” she added. “You have to be. You have to be willing to kill people and be ready to die.”

With initial training complete, Noel gets as many flight hours as she can. She also spends a lot of time studying. Fighter pilots have to know about every piece of equipment on their aircraft, plus understand the nature of intelligence threats and study mission plans.

Eventually, pilots work their way up the ranks, progressing from flight lead to instructor-pilot, and then, for some, evaluator.

Right now, however, fighter pilots are focusing on current military operations. Many pilots from the 22nd and 23rd FS are already deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Aware they may be next, Rhyne and Noel train constantly. They recently flew a training mission together, along with 1st Lt. Corinne Gilliam, a 23rd FS female intelligence officer.

The officers were playing out an Operation Iraqi Freedom scenario. Gilliam rode along in the two-seater trainer to get a first-hand look at the threats she briefs pilots about.

“I never flew with other women before,” Rhyne added. “It’s definitely an indicator of the changing face of the Air Force.”

The captain said she hopes the trend continues.

“I think women should go for it,” she said. “Being a fighter pilot is a fantastic opportunity to make a difference.”

Although her girlhood dream of becoming an astronaut is limited by her eyesight, .Rhyne appears satisfied with her life’s path.

“Don’t give up on your dreams or let others tell you what you can or can’t do,” she said. “The only limits you have are the ones you impose.”