Female Fighter Pilot Breaks Gender Barriers
Col. Jeannie Flynn Leavitt is not only a decorated fighter pilot; she has broken
through gender barriers few thought possible. She was recently named the Air Force’s
first female wing commander, commanding 5,000 airmen at Seymour Johnson Air Force
Base in North Carolina.
Twenty years ago, when she had completed part of her training, she was told that
if she wanted to be fighter pilot, she would be the first and would draw attention.
“I said, ‘Well, I don’t want the attention, but I want to fly fighters more than
anything,’” she responded.
She knew she was entering a world dominated by male swagger. Think “Top Gun” – “The
plaque for the alternates is down in the ladies room.”
And that attitude was not just in the movies. Even the Pentagon brass once argued
that male bonding was critical.
“If you want to make a combat unit ineffective, add some women to it,” retired Gen.
Robert Barrow, the former commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, had said at a 1991
hearing before Congress.
Like it or not, though, they were ordered to change by the Secretary of Defense.
And now, Leavitt and others have inspired a new generation. There are currently
700 female pilots in the Air Force and 60 female combat pilots.
“Regardless of your gender,” Capt. Patricia Nadeau said. “I think everyone’s goingto look up to her.”
Leavitt, 46, has logged more than 2,700 hours – 300 in combat over Iraq and Afghanistan
-andd dropped bombs on enemy targets and avoided enemy fire.
Along the way, she married a fellow fighter pilot – who’s now stationed “only” three
hours away – and had two children, Shannon and Michael.
She now trains others for combat, commanding a 5,000-member fighter wing. On one
particular day, she led a mock bombing raid in the skies over North Carolina.
“You know gender, race, religion, none of that matters, what matters is how you
perform,” Leavitt said. (Excerpt from a Curtis Lewis newsletter on 10/11/2012)
Some 45 years ago when I was in pursuit of the lofty status of a combat ready jet fighter pilot, the thought of the female fighter pilot was inconceivable. During that period of time (1967), there were no commercial female pilots and the possibility of a woman becoming a military fighter pilot was nihil. It was a very elite fraternity and the male macho persona wanted nothing to do with “a little lady,” clouding the waters by entering their cockpit— women were still supposed to be cheerleaders and had to sit on the sidelines and watch the machismo pilots strut around the base. Air Force pilots, particularly in the glory years of the Vietnam War era, soon learned that the flight suit was a magnet for women, and would not hesitate to wear it off base. With the sleeves rolled up, an unzipped flight suit showing a hairy chest, and an alpha male mustache, the fighter pilot of that era reeked of testosterone.
My best friend, Marylee Bickford, is a female pilot who worked with me at four different airlines. She started her aviation career as a line girl, pumping gas during the winter months in Maine. At age 23 she became a Boeing 727 flight engineer— a job that entailed getting down and dirty during the external pre-flight (walk-around) and sometimes returning to the cockpit, smelling of hydraulic fluid and jet fuel. Her total persona exuded femininity, yet she would not hesitate to perform those traditionally male tasks in order to achieve her goals. She eventually became a Boeing 737 Capt. at Carnival airlines. She was also a major impetus that led to my aviation memoir, The Rogue Aviator: in the back alleys of aviation (www.therogueaviator.com). She is the major female protagonist in this improbable aviation saga.
Most of us will agree; if the lady can do the job, forget about antiquated traditions and put her right over there in the captain’s chair. From fighter pilots to airline captains and aviation entrepreneurs such as Denise Wilson of Desert Jet (www.desertjet.com), allow the ladies to barge right through that glass ceiling. The amazing subchapter of the Col. Jeannie Flynn Leavitt story is that she also does function as the proverbial “little lady,” since she is also married to a fighter pilot. And furthermore, she is the mother of two sons. She has taken the expression, “the right stuff,” to a much higher level.
This blog is prepared by Allen Morris/a.k.a. Ace Abbott, the author of The Rogue Aviator; in the back alleys of aviation (www.therogueaviator.com) and Dead Tired; Pilot Fatigue- Aviation’s Insidious Killer (www.deadtiredpilots.com).