NAVAL AIR STATION FORT WORTH JOINT RESERVE BASE, Texas --
Sir Isaac Newton once wrote, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Every generation has heroes who’ve changed the course of history by somehow laying a foundation people could build upon. In aviation, there was the Wright Brothers, who pioneered modern flight. They were soon followed by other giants, including the first U.S. women to pilot military aircraft in support of war.
Standing on the shoulders of these aviators are 699 women in the Air Force who currently pilot aircraft, but less than 100 operate fighter jets.
Women who pilot fighter jets are so rare, it wasn’t until 2015 that Capt. Michelle “Mace” Curran, an F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot, became the first woman assigned to fly in the 355th Fighter Squadron, an active associate unit of the 301st Fighter Wing.
“There are so many strong women who have paved the way for me to be able to do what I do today,” Curran said. “From the WASPs in WWII, to the first female fighter pilot in the Air Force, Jeannie Leavitt. They have broken barriers and done great things.”
In 1942, Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, recognized the potential for talent among women and initiated the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron and the Women’s Flying Training Detachment. A year later the two organizations merged and became the Women Airforce Service Pilots, also known as WASP.
Only 1,074 women graduated from the WASP training program before it disbanded in Dec. 1944. However, it’s estimated they ferried military aircraft 60 million miles across the U.S. in support of World War II.
In spite of the heights these ladies reached, women didn’t fly as pilots in the modern Air Force until 1976. Then, in 1993, the Air Force fighter pilot training program officially removed its gender barrier, allowing women to fly fighter jets for the first time.
Curran said she pursued a flying career because she was drawn by the thrill and excitement of piloting fighter aircraft.
“Flying was what appealed to me most when I thought ‘military’ and that is what drew me specifically to the Air Force,” she said. “I think you feel most alive when you are experiencing something new and exciting, or something that takes you outside your comfort zone and maybe scares you just a little.”
According to Curran, the competition was high in attaining a fighter pilot position, but the support and encouragement from her parents, leadership and fellow women in the fighter pilot community kept her trying for a coveted slot.
It’s never a competition with other women who are fighter pilots, but rather a sisterhood and support network, Curran stated. These are the Airmen she’s turned to the most for inspiration and mentorship.
Regardless, there are still challenges Curran must constantly overcome.
“The biggest challenge I face in this career field is probably the same one most of my male counterparts face,” she said. “That is staying up to date and proficient with the ever changing tactics and avionics in this aircraft. Most of us our pretty hard on ourselves and want to be the best.”
Curran, along with her sisterhood, continue to prove everyday that gender barriers can be broken and success can belong to both men and women.
Yet, in order to stand on the shoulders of giants, the giants must be known and recognized. In 1987, Congress declared March Women’s History Month to honor the extraordinary achievements of American women throughout history.
“Women’s History Month isn’t about highlighting the differences between men and women, but rather celebrating the heritage that has gotten us to where we are today,” Curran said. “It’s another opportunity for us to inspire the next generation.”
The heights of Curran’s capabilities and achievements are not just a reflection of herself, but also symbolize change within the 355th FS, the Air Force and the military.
Lt. Col. Matthew Chisam, 355th FS commander, said that she is living proof there isn’t a difference between men and women when it comes to being an excellent fighter pilot. He hopes she inspires other women who want to fly.
“It upsets me that there are women out there who don't know the military is one of the last great meritocracies,” Chisam said. “As long as you are good enough, you can be a fighter pilot, regardless of your race, creed or gender.”
According to Chisam, flying fighter jets is not an easy job because it is physically and mentally demanding, while requiring dedication and precision during wartime missions.
The F-16 Fighting Falcon, with a full load of fuel, can withstand up to nine times the force of gravity, known as G’s. The pilot must maintain flight control during these high G-force combat maneuvers, while tracking targets, weather conditions and any other aircraft around them.
“If a pilot doesn’t live up to the high standards we set, they would not fly with us,” Chisam said. “Curran has proven herself an extremely valuable asset to our squadron and the Air Force, because her performance demands respect.”
With the support of those around them and those who came before, modern American women like Curran show every day that gender barriers mean nothing when taking off from the shoulders of giants.