Courage And Continuity: Women Fighter Pilots
(April 21, 2011)
Maj. Jaime Nordin, 79th Fighter Squadron F-16 pilot, checks out the cockpit of an F-16 to ensure everything is in order, March 26,
Capt. Betsy Hand, 20th Operations Group standard evaluations liaison officer and 77th Fighter Squadron F-16 pilot, inspects an F-16, March 30,
Capt. Sarah Eccles, 682nd Air Support Operations air liaison officer, talks with an airman about the high-mobility multi-purpose vehicle at the 682nd ASOS, April 5,
2011. Captain Eccles is also an F-16 break who is currently not flying doing her alpha tour as an ALO.
SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. (4/15/2011) – Many
children have dreams of what they want to do or
become. Some dream of becoming professional
athletes, some doctors, teachers or
For three women at Shaw Air
Force Base, S.C., their dreams of becoming
fighter pilots came true. Today, they are three
out of the 58 female active duty fighter pilots
in the Air Force. Currently, there are 2,689 Air
Force active duty fighter pilots.
Jaime Nordin, 79th Fighter Squadron F-16 pilot,
recalled her first time seeing an air show as a
young child and her interest in flying was
sparked, “I was mesmerized by fighters, and the
idea of going fast and flying upside down.”
The role of Air Force fighter pilots is to
control and maintain superiority in the air and
Up until 1993, women were
excluded from flying combat aircraft. In 1991,
Congress lifted the combat ban on women in the
services. They gave the final call on the roles
of women to the Department of Defense. Then,
with the 1992 and 1993 Defense
acts, the combat aircraft exclusion laws were
Lt. Col. Ben Bradley, 79th Fighter Squadron commander, said
that he has worked with about 10 to 15 female fighter pilot
throughout his career, and there has always been at least
one at each of his squadrons.
“There has been no
difference between the male and female fighter pilots,” he
said. “They are just as capable. It's so normal nowadays
that no one even questions it.”
Even with that, some
people still don't realize they have been flying in combat
since the 90's.
“I still can't walk through the
commissary in my flight suit without getting double takes
from the older people who aren't used to seeing it,” added
Capt. Sarah Eccles, 682nd Air Support Operations Squadron
air liaison officer and F-16 pilot.
Outside of those
few instances, she has never had an issue being a female in
a stereotypical male job.
“I haven't ever had to
think about it,” said Eccles. “The job is performance based.
It's legitimate. I think the reason for that is because of
the women who pioneered this direction for us. Someone had
to be the first. Once people get over the awkwardness of the
first, it just becomes normal.”
Nordin said that
people she flies with are like her family.
guys are like my brothers,” the major remarked. “They would
do anything for me, and I would do anything for them.”
After Capt. Betsy Hand, 20th Operations Group
standardization and evaluations liaison officer and 77th
Fighter Squadron F-16 pilot, saw the Thunderbirds flying at
Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., when she was about 9, she
began working hard to pursue her dream.
preparing by getting involved in many different activities
in high school including sports, taking college prep classes
and junior reserve officer training corps.
parents were very supportive of me for everything I wanted
to do,” Hand said. “My dad was in the Army. When I told him
I wanted to go to the [Air Force] Academy he made me start
mowing the lawn in combat boots because that's what I would
be doing there.”
Eccles also had a lot of support to
become a pilot from her parents as well. When her dad saw
that she caught the flying bug after seeing a local air
show, he gave her a surprise gift on her 15th birthday.
Her dad took her out to an airfield at Wright Flyer
School near San Antonio, Texas, where she got to fly a
Cessna with a flying instructor and to take the controls.
Eccles described that was at the point she realized she not
only caught the bug, but found her love.
experience, she was signed up for flying lessons and on
March 20, 1999, she had her first solo flight at the age of
“It was a little intimidating going airborne,
being in charge of the machine,” Eccles recalled. “It's on
you to get it safely airborne and safely back down. It's a
huge responsibility. It's such a confidence builder. If I
can do this, what's next, I thought. It was awesome. No
other words but awesome.”
Eccles described her first
F-16 flight as being similar to the first Cessna flight,
only multiplied by 10.
“I was a little apprehensive
my first time in the F-16,” she said. “But, it was so
validating that first time knowing your instructors believe
you can do it. The three words to describe it: validating,
The process to get to that
first flight in your jet is not a short one.
graduating from the Air Force Academy they had to wait for
their pilot training slot. Once they received their slot,
they went through six months of training in a T-37, and six
months in a T-38, learning to fly formations. After that,
they had about four months of other classes, such as basic
fighter maneuvers. Then, they went to F-16 school at Luke
Air Force Base, Ariz.
“It took about two years after
obtaining the pilot slot before operationally flying in the
F-16,” said Hand.
The process takes awhile, but the
phased approached helps build confidence, agreed Eccles.
“The whole experience was very challenging,” commented
Eccles. “It's a long process and you fly a lot. You have to
really want it, not just because you think it's glamorous;
it's not. It's a lot of work that has to be taken
The first solo in the F-16 happened
pretty quick, recalled Nordin.
“The experience was
amazing, being in multi-million dollar machine, hearing the
afterburner, rushing down the runway and feeling those first
nine Gs,” described the major. “I will always remember that
first time tanking in the air, that first bomb drop and
shooting the gun. It doesn't really hit you till afterwards,
though. Once you strap into the plane, the job takes over.
You're going out to do a mission or skill set.”
actually got to fly in an F-16 while in college before
obtaining her pilot slot.
“My first time flying in an
F-16 was in an incentive ride at the Academy,” said Hand.
“It was awesome. I get motion sickness. I get more car sick
then air sick. I got really sick during the incentive
flight, but it was the coolest experience ever.”
Eccles remarked that even though the initial training is
over, she doesn't stop learning.
“You don't just get
your wings and go on your way and execute,” Eccles said.
“You have to look to see what's next.”
Eccles is on an “alpha” tour, which means she is not flying.
There are several different jobs a pilot can do for their
alpha tour which serves to broaden their career.
During this time she is serving as an air liaison officer
with the 682nd ASOS. The ALO serves as the link between the
Army and the Air Force for close air support in combat
“We bring our experience to the ASOS and are
trained doctrinally to help out in the linear fight for
whatever the mission is,” Eccles explained.
recently returned here last September from a deployment as
an ALO, said Eccles. Her job was to take calls from the Army
for air support. At times the missions and priorities would
have to change because people would get attacked. Her team
would take the equivalent of “911-calls” from troops on the
ground, and then have to organize and plan the CAS.
Eccles experience in CAS as an F-16 pilot came in very handy
During this time the ALO was working every
day for 180 days, Eccles said. On an average day they would
deal with between 20 to 30 troops in contact who needed
“Our proudest moment was being able to
help out those who were in the thick of it,” commented
For her excellent work during her deployment,
Eccles' team was named “Team of the Year” for 2010 by Air
“Being a fighter pilot here, in this
atmosphere, I'm still learning and learning to work with the
enlisted force,” remarked Eccles regarding her alpha tour.
“In a fighter squadron you just don't get to work as close
with the enlisted corps. Being an ALO has been the most
personally satisfying job I've had in my career. There have
been so many people to learn from.”
One reason she
chose the position of ALO with the 682nd ASOS is because her
husband, Capt. Johnathan Eccles, flies C-17s at Charleston
Air Force Base, S.C., so they live not too far from one
another's respective bases, Eccles said.
Being in a
family is a challenge for all pilots, and they have to find
ways to make it work, Eccles explained.
making informed and knowledgeable decisions about what's
right for your family,” Eccles commented. “There are
sacrifices to be made. We know it won't always be perfect or
planned. It's important to keep things in perspective. Being
an ALO has allowed me to rest, recharge and spend time with
Nordin serves both as a fighter pilot
married to another F-16 pilot, Maj. Cameron Nordin, 20th
Fighter Wing plans and inspections, and a mother of a
two-year old daughter, Caleigh.
“The first thing I do
every morning is wake up to the sound of her calling my name
and put on my flight suit,” said the major.
to work hard with their schedules as pilots to ensure their
daughter has everything she needs, said Maj. Jaime Nordin.
“Caleigh doesn't know anything different than this
lifestyle,” she continued. “Our biggest challenge is
managing our lifestyle to ensure she is taken care of, and
we have phenomenal friends who would help us at the drop of
She explained that her daughter understands
what it means for her to be pilot and is mesmerized by the
planes. Many times when she picks up her daughter from
school she will say to her, “I saw you fly over today and
waved at you.” Her daughter also loves to watch the planes
taxi down the runway.
Nordin said she is proudest of
being able to be a mom and a fighter pilot.
is married to a fighter pilot as well, Capt. Jerad Hand,
77th FS. They don't have children yet, but she said when she
is older and has grandchildren, she would love to tell them
about her time crossing the Pacific Ocean to Korea for a 12
hour flight and how they stayed awake.
her alertness by drinking energy drinks and playing trivia
games with the other pilots who were miles apart, said Hand.
“You can't sleep,” Hand pointed out. “A lot of the crew
chiefs thought we did. You have to keep yourself
entertained. We also had to constantly cross check
everything that was going on.”
The life of a fighter
pilot can be brutal work, commented Nordin. Some people can
have a rough edge and it's important not to be easily
“I don't think this is a job for all
women,” the major added. “But as long as you're capable of
doing the job at hand, that's all that matters.”
“I've been lucky in the time I've entered the Air Force and
entered pilot training,” added Hand. “A lot of the issues
that they had when women first became fighter pilots in 1993
were done and over with. I've had a good experience. I've
had some friends that didn't, but that was because they
weren't as good as they thought. It had nothing to do with
them being women.”
Since the female fighter pilot
world is such a small community, an informal organization
called the Chick Fighter Pilot Association was created, the
pilots said. It's a kind of sisterhood that brings them
“We're not really out to get recognition,”
commented Hand. “But it's nice to let other girls know that
these opportunities are out there for them.
Article and photos by Airman 1st Class Daniel Phelps
Fighter Wing Public Affairs
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