A tale of two generations of women in combat aviation

  • Published
  • By Maria Galvez
  • JBER Public Affairs

For U.S. Air Force Col. Jammie Jamieson, the pursuit of her dreams in the skies started long before she was accepted into the Air Force. From a young age, she found herself mesmerized by Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut and her involvement in the space program. Little did she know, her aspirations to take flight would bring her right into the shoes of one of her heroes.

On April 28, 1993, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Les Aspin issued a historic order that allowed women to fly in combat. This decision opened the doors for women to qualify as operational and combat mission ready military fighter and bomber pilots for the first time.

Throughout the years, Jamieson stayed curious about developing technologies and aerospace, often gathering news of the progress made in aviation and space flight. Through the discovery of the achievements of others, like Christa McAuliffe, a school teacher who was selected to become the first private citizen in space, her curiosity turned into determination and drove her ambition even higher.

From this determination and curiosity came Jamieson’s journey in military aviation and aerospace technology development. As a young woman, she applied to join the Air Force, determined to immerse in the world of military aerospace and engineering. But her journey wasn’t an easy one.

Throughout her aviation journey, she flew different kinds of aircraft and traveled around the world, making history by becoming the first female operational F-22 Raptor pilot. With her resilience and unwavering passion for aerospace, Jamieson has successfully established her place among a community of elite professionals and serves as an inspiration for future generations of aviators and aerospace experts, including one U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor pilot assigned to the 90th Fighter Squadron, Capt. Elizabeth Pennell.

“Seeing Ellie here means so much to me; I look back at everything we accomplished and remember why the work that we did was so vital for generations of female pilots to come,” said Jamieson. “The idea that women can truly and equally share the skies with the rest is the legacy
that will keep us flying higher.”

“For most of the ladies in this business, whether you were the first at something or not, you’re often going through the experience alone, because the numbers are so small,” Jamieson continued. “So, it’s important that we’re surrounding each other with support and sending more ladies into the world of aerospace and defense for our nation.”

This kind of female empowerment in the aviation world is what has motivated many to keep pursuing their flying careers. As the 30th anniversary of the rescindment of the Combat Exclusion Policy approaches this year, there are only 103 female fighter pilots across the U.S. Air Force 11F career field as of 2022.

“I am so proud of Ellie and so pleased to see her here,” said Jamieson. “It reminds me of that time in my life when my husband and I both worked at the Air Force Academy and our family began to grow.”

Having children at the beginning and end of this assignment while on aircrew status were the points in her career when she faced the most obstacles to continued aviation service, such as policy barriers that grounded women from flying while pregnant.

“It was then that I realized that having been a fighter pilot and continuing to progress in leadership roles was not enough,” Jamieson added. “I also needed to help make the path much
easier for those women and men that followed.”

Jamieson was part of a team that worked at the Pentagon from 2018-2020 and in an advisory role since then to reform this and other policy and technology barriers that disproportionately excluded females from selection and retention in long-term military aviation roles. This work included expanding the options for aviators to maintain aircrew proficiency while pregnant and excavating capability gaps in aircrew flight equipment, flight clothing, aircrew personnel policies, family leave policies, aircrew anthropometric standards, and aircraft cockpit and egress system design.

Last year, the results of that effort culminated in a new Air Force policy allowing aircrew members to voluntarily request to fly during pregnancy on any Air Force aircraft. No waiver is required to fly in the second trimester with an uncomplicated pregnancy in a non-ejection seat aircraft if all flight safety criteria are met. All pregnant aircrew members are also authorized to apply for a waiver regardless of trimester, aircraft or flight profile.

This is especially important because while technology has greatly improved, aviation skills are
still perishable skills. Providing expanded options for aircrew to maintain proficiency in as many of those skills as possible during pregnancy both reduces the retraining burden on their units and preserves the Air Force’s significant investment in these STEM professionals, especially in understaffed career fields like fighter and bomber aircrew.

The slow progress of female fighter pilots in the U.S. Air Force is a concerning issue that requires attention and action. By increasing representation, providing mentorship and support, and addressing physical demands, we can work towards creating a more diverse and inclusive Air Force that reflects the best of our nation.

There is a certain level of responsibility for senior female service members to expose and remove any barriers to inclusion that remain against women in military STEM professions. This includes a commitment to doing the work to reform these issues through evidence-based policy development and correct policy implementation, ensuring equity for women in the military like Pennell throughout their career lifecycle.

Pennell’s inspiration comes from historical figures like Harriet Tubman— the famous African-American abolitionist, activist, and a conductor of the Underground Railroad.

She encourages women starting out in the military, regardless of their career field to take this inspiration in moments of adversity and continue the path to achieving greatness. Being no stranger to self-doubt, Pennell encourages future female aviators and servicemembers to take that self-criticism and use it as a source of motivation.

“The biggest takeaway from Harriet Tubman’s story that I want to pass onto the next generations of pilots and to those still on their paths to becoming one, is to never give up in the face of self-doubt,” said Pennell. “Believe in yourself and your ability to do what you set your mind to. Having the courage and self-confidence that Harriet Tubman showed will serve you on your path and make it easier to reach the goals you have set.”

Having influential figures in the aviation world like Jamieson have made it possible for countless young women to experience freedoms and opportunities that previously seemed unobtainable. This courage in confronting existing obstacles and fearlessly recreating policies has created paths of possibilities for the women of the armed forces.

“I’d like to say thank you, for what you have done as a senior officer and how the obstacles you overcame have made it easier for me in my career field as a fellow aviator,” said Pennell. “I haven’t really faced any barriers and it’s because of women like you that made that possible.”