First Female Fighter Pilot: 'Attention Wasn't What I Wanted'

In this week's Sunday Conversation, host Rachel Martin speaks with Col. Jeannie Leavitt, the Air Force's first female fighter pilot, about gender in the Air Force. Leavitt is also the first female fighter wing commander, and she has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

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COLONEL JEANNIE LEAVITT: I was fascinated with flying. I loved everything about flying from the time I was a child. The more I learned about the more I just loved aviation and flying, and that's what made me want to be a pilot.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

But not just any pilot. This is Colonel Jeannie Leavitt, and pretty much from the time she learned how to fly, she wanted to be a combat fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force. Problem was women couldn't do that until the early 1990s. That's when the Pentagon changed its policy. Women still couldn't be in ground combat but they could fly fighter jets. Jeannie Leavitt raised her hand.

Colonel Leavitt is this week's Sunday Conversation.

LEAVITT: I was very interested in flying fighters. I did not want to be the first one necessarily. I just wanted to fly fighters. And at one point, I was asked by a general officer, he said: Now, you realize if you were to go fly fighters, you would be the first female fighter pilot for the Air Force. And I said, well, sir, I don't want to be the first, but if that's the terms of the deal I'll take it.

MARTIN: When did you know you wanted to fly fighter jets?

LEAVITT: It probably dates back to college and there's a program where you can go shadow people in your career field. And I was selected to go to Moody Air Force Base, and I was able to get five F-16s backseat rides while I was there. And so, at that point, I knew I wanted to fly fighters.

MARTIN: So what was that first ride like in an F-16?

LEAVITT: Oh, it was absolutely amazing. I was very fortunate. I flew with some highly experienced instructor pilots who took time to sit down and explain everything to me. So, before we went out to the airplane, while we were flying and when we would come back and debrief, they took the time to explain it all to me. And it made it just absolutely fascinating.

MARTIN: What did physically feel like?

LEAVITT: Have you flown in a fighter?

MARTIN: I have not.

(LAUGHTER)

LEAVITT: It's a pretty incredible feeling. They are very powerful aircraft, as you can imagine, highly maneuverable and very lethal.

MARTIN: When I have seen footage, I mean it looks like you really do have to have a stomach of steel though.

LEAVITT: Not everyone is cut out for flying fighter aircrafts.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Were you the only woman in your training courses when you were learning how to do this?

LEAVITT: When I went to pilot training, there were other women in my class. When I started fighter training - due to my timing - I was the only woman in the training programs that I went through.

MARTIN: And what was that like?

LEAVITT: It was interesting. Being the first female fighter pilot, there was a lot of attention and the attention wasn't what I wanted. I just wanted to fly fighters. But it was a significant change in policy and it was something very new and different. And so, there was a lot of attention with it. So that probably made it a little bit more challenging. It was hard to blend in and be part of the squadron when there were media requests and interviews and such.

MARTIN: How did your fellow airmen treat you?

LEAVITT: What I found was, you know, in almost all cases people were professional. You know, some people thought it was a good thing. Some people were not the most supportive when it started. However, everyone was professional about it. And, to be honest, once the change took place and people realized that, you know, they were bringing competent aviators into the community, there was much less resistance.

MARTIN: One more women started to follow in your footsteps, did you feel compelled to go out of your way to help them, to kind of show them the ropes?

LEAVITT: I have never reached out to female aviators over male aviators, to be honest, because I have always kept a very gender-neutral mindset. I am always open-door policy, so anyone who wants to come talk to me - male, female, pilot, WSO, anyone who would like to - I am more than happy to sit down and talk with them. But I try to not highlight the gender differences. And so, that's why I don't specifically go out and try to seek out the women aviators.

MARTIN: As the services are trying to figure out how to incorporate women into combat units, the military, and in particular the Air Force, is dealing with increasing rates of sexual harassment, sexual assault. What is going on? Is this just more of reporting happening? Or is this something you think is actually getting worse?

LEAVITT: Well, I think that we definitely have a problem with sexual assault. The fact is that sexual assault is incompatible with Air Force core values. You know, it is a problem and it is something we are actively addressing. You know, at my base, I have spoken so many times in commanders calls, to my commanders to their airmen. We have this first-term airmen center so all the brand-new airmen, and I talk to them about it. I mean we are actively addressing the problem. But there is a problem.

MARTIN: If I could ask a personal question. I mean, this is a service you have devoted your life to. You are someone who has succeeded in all these leadership roles. Does it make you disappointed?

LEAVITT: There is nothing I want more than to exterminate sexual assault from our Air Force.

MARTIN: We are talking to you at a time when there's a lot of conversations about women in combat in the military. You are someone who carved your own path. You did not have a lot of help. You did not have a lot of mentors. You did it on your own. When you see what's happening now in the debates and the conversations, what's your take on all of this?

LEAVITT: I think it's, you know, kind of the next step. It's the next logical step because they're trying to eliminate restrictions that are based on gender. And so, I think one of the big important points will be what qualifications are required; and not having those the gender specific. You know, because for flying fighters there is a set of qualifications and requirements. And it's not based on you being male or female. So I think it's kind of the next logical step in the process.

MARTIN: Colonel Jeannie Leavitt, she was the first woman to become a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force. Today, she is the commander of the Fourth Fighter Wing out of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Tomorrow, another woman of note: Olympia Snowe. The moderate Republican from Maine retired from the U.S. Senate in January. And in a new book, she has a lot to say about how Congress works, and how it doesn't. That story and the day's top news tomorrow on MORNING EDITION.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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