SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany -- Capt. Jessica Rhyne makes the "big guns" gesture as she and 1st Lt. Corinne Gilliam prepare for flight. The captain, an F-16 pilot with the 23rd Fighter Squadron, and Gilliam, an intelligence officer with the squadron, were part of a mission that included Spangdahlem's only other female F-16 pilot, 1st Lt. Leigh Noel of the 22nd Fighter Squadron.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Karen Z. Silcott)

Female fighter pilots take on challenges full throttle.

by Staff Sgt. Elaine Aviles, 52nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs

SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany (AFPN) -- Female fighter pilots are a special breed. They are 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 happy to do just that, because they get to fly.

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

Rhyne is an F-16CJ Fighting Falcon pilot. Her job is suppression of enemy air defenses. Each time she flies a SEAD mission, she puts 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 was not open to women. Although women have been entering pilot training since 1976, before 1993, government officials did not 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 unattainable. 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 was not buying it. Then, in 1993, the secretary of defense permitted women to enter fighter pilot training.

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

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, Randolph Air Force Base, Texas. Spangdahlem AB currently has three female fighter pilots, Rhyne; 1st Lt. Leigh Noel, 22nd Fighter Squadron; and Capt. Michelle Vestal, an A-10 Thunderbolt II pilot from the 81st Fighter Squadron.

"Thanks to women like Captain Rhyne, I was able to become a fighter pilot without a second thought," said Noel.

Noel is the newest female pilot here. After joining the Air Force as an acquisition officer, she decided to tackle the challenge of pilot training.

She has been combat mission ready for two weeks, having just wrapped up more than two years of training, which started with a year of generalized pilot training, and culminated with training in an aircraft "specialty." Other classes she took ran the gamut from water survival to posing as a prisoner in a POW camp.

Male or female, fighter pilot training is not 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 said. "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 supporting 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 said. "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."

(Courtesy of U.S. Air Forces in Europe News Service)

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