First black female fighter pilot follows childhood dream

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  • By Tech. Sgt. Benjamin Rojek
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By the time she was in fourth grade, young Shawna Rochelle Kimbrell knew she wanted to be a fighter pilot.

What the now-Air Force major didn't know, however, was that she would knock down a racial barrier by becoming the first black female in the career field.

Kimbrell was born in Lafayette, Ind., on April 20, 1976, to Guyanese parents. Her mother and father, who were naturalized U.S. citizens by the time she was born, moved to the U.S. for education and opportunities. Their hard work and dedication paid off in her father earning a degree from Howard University and a doctorate from Purdue University, which in turn earned him a job offer in Parker, Colo.

That focus on education was a big part of life for Kimbrell and her three older siblings as they spent their school years in Parker.

"(Education) was the thing that opened doors," Kimbrell said. "If you got your education, you could do whatever you wanted to do. That was how our house was run."

On top of that family modus operandi, Kimbrell had a goal-driven personality from an early age. While in kindergarten, for example, she decided she wanted to be an astronaut, so she wrote a letter to NASA asking how she could join the program. But as she got older and did more research into joining the astronaut corps, she realized the career wasn't as exciting as she wanted it to be.

"I decided to focus on something I could do every day versus maybe going to the moon one time ... which would be awesome, but it's just one time," the major said. "So I started to look at the jets and flying fighters."

While Kimbrell remained fascinated with space, the freedom of flight is what she really wanted: aerial acrobatics, rolling inverted and more. With that goal in mind, she found every opportunity get closer to the flying world and the military.

She joined the Civil Air Patrol, worked at air shows and earned her private pilot's license. Eventually, she was accepted into the Air Force Academy. She did all of this despite people telling her as a child that there were no female fighter pilots, people asking her about all the what-ifs that would derail her plans.

"I think what kept me on the straight and narrow is that I didn't give myself any other options," Kimbrell said. "I didn't think about a back-up plan, I didn't think about a 'what if it doesn't work out plan.'

"I think sometimes you lull yourself into thinking, 'OK, I have that plan, and if it gets hard I'll go to the back-up plan,'" she added. "If you don't have it, you push through."

And push through she did. Kimbrell graduated from the Academy in 1998 and was accepted into pilot training. She earned her pilot wings in August 1999.

"I was in constant competition with myself, trying to do better, to make the grade," the F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot said. "There were times when I didn't think that I was going to make it through. It was in those times I learned to be humble and realize there is a point in everyone's struggle -- no matter how strong they are -- when they need help, and the key is to seek it out before it is too late."

Using her own advice has allowed the major a successful career: She has earned an Air Medal with one device, an Aerial Achievement Medal and an Army Commendation Medal, among others. She has been stationed at Misawa Air Base, Japan; Kunsan Air Base, South Korea; Aviano Air Base, Italy; Fort Stewart, Ga.; and now Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. She also flew combat sorties in Operation Northern Watch.

"The sorties (in Operation Northern Watch) were actually anticlimactic until I recognized that people were actually shooting at us," Kimbrell said.

Currently the course manager for the Air Liaison Officer Course at Nellis AFB, she teaches pilots how to work with the Army in air-to-ground integration. While off duty, though, she manages to find time to speak to children about dreaming big. She said she finds that a lot of children aren't told that they can achieve their dreams and don't realize that a lot of barriers have been knocked down.

"I literally see the lights turn on in kids' eyes when I talk to them when they realize that someone like me can go do something as cool as (being a fighter pilot)," Kimbrell said. "It's really awesome to be able to go out and talk to them and have them light up and say, 'I've heard people say that you can do whatever you want, but now I can put a face to the story and I can see that it can be done, which means I can go out and do whatever I want to do.' That is what I focus on and what I think is really important."

Of course part of her speeches focus on education, as that is what her parents instilled in her. But she also tries to show the children and even the adults that reaching those big dreams, no matter what age you are or what you look like, starts with setting a goal. She uses an analogy of building a road.

"It's really hard to build a road if you don't know where you're going," Kimbrell said. "A lot of people have goals, but don't really put them into context. If a goal is really your end state, you have to look at the terrain you have to go through to get there, how you're going to build that road and what you're going to do.

"Nothing's easy," she added. "Expect road blocks, expect that there are going to be people out there who don't want you to succeed, expect people are going to tell you no. But the desire that comes from within -- if it's something that you really want -- will carry you through."