AL DHAFRA AIR BASE, United Arab Emirates --
Historically, Air Force fighter pilots and maintainers were male, but the future looks a lot different as more and more females join the ranks of these career fields and make history while they do it.
Recently, Capt. Emily "Banzai" Thompson, an F-35A Lightning II pilot, deployed from the 388th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, made history as she flew in combat, making her the first female to do so in that airframe.
“This is my first deployment … so for me it was a pretty big deal, the first combat sortie for me. … Of course being the first female, it’s a pretty big honor," she said. "There’s a lot of females who have come before me and there’s a lot of females already flying combat sorties in other platforms. So just to be the person who gets that honor, that first, it just meant a lot.”
Thompson’s childhood dream of what she would do was very different than her chosen career path.
“Standard childhood dreams were veterinarian and police officer,” she said. “From there, realistic dreams set in and I wanted to be an engineer. I went to college to be an aerospace engineer, which is what my degree is in. Then I sort of found out about the whole pilot thing, I could fly, instead of build the airplanes and it just kind of took off from there.”
It has taken Thompson time to get to this point in her career, which began as an F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot.
After graduating college, she spent about a year and a half in pilot training for the F-16, completed a tour in that airframe, then went on to training for the F-35A, according to Thompson.
On the day of her first combat sortie, she had an all-female maintenance crew launch her off for the historic flight. Airman First Class Ashlin Randolph, a weapons load crew member, was one of a four-person team on duty for the historic launch.
“It was very empowering, it was awesome!”
Randolph, also on her first deployment, is new to marshalling jets. It was only her third time marshalling on the day of the launch.
“I always get really nervous, so I had medics, my lieutenants, and intelligence [personnel] and they were all females," she said. “They were all there to support me.”
Randolph is new to the Lightning Technician Program, which allows F-35A maintainers to broaden their knowledge and experience on the airframe.
“The mission, as a whole, I think it’s really cool because the LTP program lets me load bombs and missiles and I also get to launch out the jet,” she said. “So it’s like we are getting all parts of the mission. I feel like that’s another thing that’s really inspiring because I got to load the bombs and missiles and I got to launch it out.”
After being involved with such a historic moment, Randolph gave advice to young girls.
“I would definitely say be confident and never let anyone tell you that you can’t do something because you can.”
Thompson, who is a part of a small number of F-35A female pilots, looks to what’s next.
“I think it’s a bright future," she said. "There is a number of us already in the F-35 and I think the number is just going to continue to grow. It’s a very supportive community, it’s very open, I think the opportunity for women to really excel in the F-35 is definitely there.”
Thompson encouraged young females coming up after her.
“Know there’s a lot of supportive people out there," she said. "Just stay positive, work hard, and you can achieve whatever you set your mind out to do, you can get it done.”