Historic All-Female formation flight

  • Published
  • By U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.
  • 51st Fighter Wing Public Affairs

On a clear and sunny afternoon, eight A-10 Thunderbolt II’s and two F-16 Fighting Falcons were cleared for takeoff to conduct close air support (CAS) training. During the training sortie, the team deciphered the tactical difficulty of having multiple formations in the Area of Operation (AO) by integrating multiple airframes to strike targets passed by a Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC).

This kind of training isn’t unique to the 25th or 36th Fighter Squadron but today each of these aircraft was piloted by a woman.

It’s rare for a squadron to launch a formation of pilots who all happen to be female. Not only were there women flying the A-10s and F-16s, but an all-female weather team briefed the pilots prior to stepping to the aircraft. Female Airmen planned and executed the entire process from radio communication inside the air traffic control tower to the crew chief marshaling the aircraft on the ground. The team effort showcased the ability that women have to lead in every facet from planning to mission execution.

On April 28, 1993, when former U.S. Secretary of Defense Les Aspin ordered military services to allow women to fly in combat, there was no timetable of how soon the world would see the percentages of female fighter pilots increase.

Today, almost 30 years later, there are only 103 female fighter pilots across the U.S. Air Force 11F career field. Ten percent of those fighter pilots flew jointly in a momentous all-female formation sortie at the 51st Fighter Wing.

“In my 15 years of flying the F-16, I’ve been a part of 10 different fighter squadrons, and I’ve had a total of six other women pilots in all those squadrons,” said Lt. Col. Katie “Taboo” Gaetke, 7th Air Force, Chief of Plans and Policy. “I have never been in a squadron with more than one other woman pilot. To have eight women in one fighter squadron is unreal!” 

Gaetke continued, “When you are the only woman (or any minority), or one of just two or three, there is an implicit burden you carry – to represent all women. Whether you realize it or not, people remember your actions and tend to generalize what you do or say as representative of all people who look like you. When there are eight women in a single fighter squadron, there are suddenly too many to have just one represent the group. Each person is freer to be themselves, to contribute their unique perspective, to take risks and innovate and make mistakes without worrying that they are fulfilling other people’s negative stereotypes about them. This is when we as an Air Force can truly gain from diverse perspectives: when diversity isn’t just an anomaly, but instead there is a critical mass.”

History tells us that female aviators have been capable pilots since the days of WWII and the WASPs, however within the last decade the numbers have swelled to a now noticeable contingent. Someday there will be no novelty in a larger aircrew of female pilots. This sortie is another step in achieving that eventuality.

“When I was in grade school I met a female F-22 Raptor pilot who was stationed in my home town of Anchorage, Alaska,” said 1st Lt. Aspen Sulte, A-10 Thunderbolt II pilot. “She told me she went to the Air Force Academy where she flew gliders and was eventually picked up to be a USAF pilot. At that exact moment I realized that being a fighter pilot was entirely possible for a girl, and I was going to be a fighter pilot. I know this interaction was probably something that seemed so small for Elizabeth, but it was absolutely life changing for me.”

The aircrew included a wide range of experiences from a Lieutenant on her first sortie in the Operations Squadron to Lieutenant Colonels with years of invaluable operational experiences. The launch showcased how much women operating in aviation have increased in the past few years.

With just 10 women, the team spanned qualifications from one of the most qualified pilots in the A-10 Thunderbolt II and F-16 Fighting Falcon squadrons to one of the newest.

Upon landing, leaders from 7th Air Force, 51st Fighter Wing, family, teammates and Girl Scouts troops joined a final flight celebration for Capt. Erin Fullam, F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot. Her devotion to aviation and excellence has been instrumental in the development of mission success at Team Osan.

The Girls Scout troops in attendance scanned the flight line full of aircrew in amazement as the pilots hugged their families and recapped the memorable details of the mission. The moment, both significant in U.S. Air Force aviation history was noticeably striking to the young girls.

“The significance of today’s flight is not for us, the pilots,” said Capt. Grace “Slap” Herman. “It is for the young girl who has never seen a female fighter pilot, let alone 10 of them. We fly for her so she knows nothing is out of her reach and she need only believe to one day be a future fighter pilot.”