Women Warriors at the Intrepid

Women fighter pilots at AFCON (left to right): Brigadier General Jeannie Leavitt, Lieutenant Colonal Kristin Hubbard, Captain Kristin Wolfe, Captain Laney Schol. Photo: Lou Sepersky
Female fighter pilots — and other U.S. Air Force personnel — talk about their roles and challenges

By Leida Snow

We may have heard about women warriors, but it’s still a jolt to meet the nation’s first female fighter pilot, Brigadier General Jeannie Leavitt. With her blond, loosely upswept hair and bangs, and her warm smile, Leavitt is disarming. But her no-nonsense, take-control voice assures that you would comfortably put your life in her hands. The central character in the film “Captain Marvel” is loosely based on her. Leavitt said she sees the film as “an opportunity to inspire.”

I met Leavitt at AFCON, the first media outreach by the U.S. Air Force (AF) not held at the Pentagon. The all-day event was held on the former aircraft carrier USS Intrepid, now a floating museum berthed on the Hudson River.

Leavitt said she finished first in her training class but was refused fighter pilot status because of her gender. When the policy changed in 1993 she was ready. Times have changed. Now, she said: “The AF wants diversity. We don’t have it. There are still too few women and minorities.”

Among other things, Leavitt explained, it’s taken time for the AF to make accommodations to the female form. Uniforms had to be redesigned, as did vests and helmets. Adjustments had to be made for female-related medical issues and for pregnancies.

The AF wants women to know that they can have families and still have rewarding careers. Lieutenant Colonel Kristin Hubbard is Commander, 310th Fighter Squadron. She is married and has two children. What does it take to be a fighter pilot? An aptitude for flying, of course, plus some technical degree you might have and the ability to ace the qualification test. Beyond all that, Hubbard pointed to grit and determination, a willingness to fail and a recognition of the importance of teamwork.

Hubbard has a “call sign” on her name tag. She’s known as Kristin “Mother” Hubbard. Captain Kristin Wolfe’s call sign is “Beo,” and Captain Laney Schol’s is “Rogue.” The women laughed trying to explain about the call signs. “They’re given when you do something dumb in training,” the fighter pilot known as Rogue said. Maybe. But they’re worn with pride.

Most important, according to “Mother” Hubbard, “the airplane doesn’t know the gender of the pilot.”

Nationwide Concerns

The timing of the U.S. Air Force visit to New York wasn’t ideal. It was held on the same day that news reports shouted a 50 percent increase in assaults on women in uniform. Asked about the Pentagon report, Leavitt said the AF is working to ensure “a culture of dignity and respect.” We clearly weren’t going to hear shared stories from her or the other women at AFCON about any issues.

Leavitt said she agreed with the policy that leaves reports of sexual abuse within the chain of command. Critics of that policy, including some in Congress, are pushing for legislation that would create an independent prosecutor within the AF. Brigadier General Edward Thomas acknowledged that the military has a problem. However, he pointed to the #MeToo movement as revealing a nationwide concern that exists from Hollywood to our universities.

At every stage of AFCOM, we were presented with dedicated personnel. To a man and woman, they were committed to sharing their positive experiences. Their enthusiasm was contagious.

The AF made a point of showing how the service cares for its own. Captain Joseph Siler’s story was particularly poignant. Siler “handled” the constant stress of intelligence work for several years. Then, after volunteering, he “handled” his deployment to Afghanistan as the Distributed Ground Operations Liaison to a reconnaissance squadron. It was after he came home that the nightmares began. He confided in stark terms about the dark place he went to and how close he’d come to suicide.

Years ago, AF personnel like Siler would have been a medical-out, discharged from the service for medical reasons. Now the AF has “resilience, recovery and redemption” plans for men and women like Siler, so they can return to work. Captain Siler currently serves as Chief of Intelligence Training, 492nd Special Operations Support Squadron.

One of the AFCON panels featured computer-based printing called additive manufacturing (AM). Replacement parts that would cost thousands of dollars can be produced at vastly lower cost. AM uses high-grade powdered metals and creates solid objects from the metal dust particles. There is little waste, and excess powder can be reused.

Bradley Rothenberg is founder of a startup in downtown Manhattan that engineers software for AM. He joined a General Electric executive and a Dayton University researcher, to discuss the possibilities. They said that Holland is building a bridge with AM technology.

While the AF is proud of its role supporting forces on the ground, its mission is larger than that. The day of panels and interactions with Air Force personnel more than proved the point.