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1st Air Force female pilot in combat reflects on career

Lt. Col. Martha McSally stands with her A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft. The colonel is the first female pilot in the Air Force to fly in combat and to serve as a squadron commander of a combat aviation squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Lt. Col. Martha McSally stands with her A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft. The colonel is the first female pilot in the Air Force to fly in combat and to serve as a squadron commander of a combat aviation squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo)

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. (AFPN) -- As she attends Air War College here, the first female pilot in the Department of Defense to fly in combat reflected on some of her career experiences so far.

An A-10 Thunderbolt II pilot, Lt. Col. Martha McSally is also the first female in the Air Force to serve as the commander of any combat aviation squadron, to include fighters and bombers.

"The first role of women as military flyers was during World War II as Women Airforce Service Pilots, an organization disbanded after the war," Colonel McSally said. "When women resumed flying in the Air Force, a law prohibited them from flying in combat," she said. "In 1984, I was attending the U.S. Air Force Academy and told my first flight instructor that I was going to be a fighter pilot. He just laughed, but after Congress repealed the prohibition law in 1991, and I was named as one of seven women who would be put through fighter training, he looked me up and said he was amazed I had accomplished my goal."

Colonel McSally was selected for fighter pilot school in 1993, but it was another year before she actually arrived. After completion of her training, she was deployed to Kuwait in January 1995.

"I was a young and new fighter pilot and here I was in Kuwait," she said. "On my first flight over Iraq, we were enforcing the no-fly zone, and as I crossed the Kuwait/Iraq border, I'll never forget the feeling I had that I had asked for this and now I was here."

In July 2004, she took command of the 354th Fighter Squadron at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz. -- becoming the first woman to command a fighter squadron.

One of her most memorable missions was also the first time she deployed weapons in combat. Her squadron was called in to take out insurgents in very rugged terrain in Afghanistan, but the bad guys were surrounded by good guys.

"We needed to identify all the many friendly positions working with a controller on the ground. We got eyes on the area, and needed to then ensure we had the right target area, given the friendlies were so close and in multiple directions in a winding steep canyon," Colonel McSally said. "Friendlies were now climbing up the canyon to get away from the enemy and get outside the safe distance of our gun. I shot some rockets to confirm the enemy location, and we honed the target."

Then, things got even more complicated.

"On my last rocket pass, my heads up display failed with all of our computerized weapons sights. I had to rely on the very archaic backup called 'standby pipper,' which was a hard sight. I needed to quickly get ready to shoot the gun manually, where I had to be at an exact dive angle, airspeed, and altitude when opening fire in order to be accurate. We destroyed the enemy on several passes. We train for this type of malfunction, but I never would have imagined shooting the gun in standby pipper in combat like this."

Colonel McSally said the squadron won the 2005 Air Force Association's David C. Shilling award that is given for the best aerospace contribution to national defense.

"During the squadron's time in Afghanistan, we flew just short of 2,000 sorties, accumulated more than 7,000 combat flight hours, and expended more than 23,000 rounds of 30 mm ammunition," she said. "It was an amazing environment there. A friendly country but plenty of insurgents trying to thwart the country's progress, and it was our job to support those friendly to us."

Colonel McSally said a good example of that support involved the elections in Afghanistan. The 354th FS had to provide coverage for voters and also protect convoys bringing votes back to the capital to be counted.

Colonel McSally, who has been in the Air Force 18 years and pins on full colonel in December, said she has made the group commanders list and is waiting to see where that leads. She said she is grateful to all the women who served before her and made it possible for her to become an Air Force pilot.

"But, I hope I'm a role model to both men and women because we are a fighting force and should not be concerned with differences between us," Colonel McSally said.

Air War College educates selected senior officers to lead at the strategic level in the employment of air and space forces. The curriculum focuses on coalition warfighting and national security issues, with emphasis on the effective employment of aerospace forces in joint and combined combat operations.

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