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Women in the Air Force – displays in Cold War Gallery

Building the Future

The Transition from Traditional Roles to Non-Traditional Jobs

During the 1970s, the US Air Force opened all but combat and combat support fields to women. Jobs in civil engineering and other demanding fields saw a steady increase of women. The transition from “traditional” administrative roles to “non-traditional” jobs was the beginning of accepting more women throughout the Air Force.

Paving the Way

In 1971, Susanne M. Ocobock-Waylett became the first woman in the civil engineer career field. As the first woman, her arrival into a “non-traditional” job for women received much attention. However, she encountered little harassment or barriers to career advancement. 
Each assignment brought new challenges, but Waylett adjusted to the male-dominated environment. She never hesitated to get directly involved in a project or repair. During her career she managed the refugee camp at Eglin AFB after the Mariel Boatlift, prepared her RED HORSE unit for a rapid deployment during Operation JOINT ENDEAVOR, and oversaw the building of a bare base at Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia. Because of Waylett’s effective leadership, she was assigned as the first female RED HORSE squadron commander and was the first female civil engineer promoted to colonel. 


Forging Ahead

After Col Susanne Ocobock-Waylett paved the way for female civil engineers, more women joined the field and excelled. Theresa C. Carter joined the Air Force in 1985 as an industrial engineer. During her career she commanded at the squadron, group, and wing levels. She was most noted for becoming the first woman to hold the top Air Force Civil Engineer position in June 2013. As the career field’s highest ranking officer, she was responsible for providing policy and oversight for the planning, development, construction, maintenance, utilities, and environmental quality of Air Force bases worldwide. 
In response to Air Force leadership’s direction to reduce inefficiencies across the force, General Carter was assigned as the first commander of the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center (AFIMSC) in August 2014.

Connecting to Our Roots

During the 2018 Royal Air Force Museum American Foundation’s annual banquet, aviators gathered to celebrate the achievements of pioneering female pilots of World War II. At the event, modern-era pilots Lieutenant Colonel Christine Mau, the first USAF female F-35 pilot, and honorary Group Captain Joanna Salter, the UK’s first female combat-ready pilot, joined together to honor women like Nell Stevenson Bright, a World War II WASP.

Female Ambassadors in Blue

Women have served in a variety of roles with the US Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron, the Thunderbirds. Although women have performed administrative tasks, maintenance, and public affairs duties, very few have performed as pilots. Due to the combat exclusion policy of 1948 women were denied the opportunity to fly with the team since high performance fighter aircraft were used. In 1993, the Department of Defense revised the policy and expanded opportunities for female pilots.

First Female Thunderbird Pilot

In November 2005 Captain Nichole Malachowski joined the Thunderbirds. With nine years of experience as an F-15E Strike Eagle fighter pilot, she became the first female pilot on any US military high performance jet team. In two seasons with the Thunderbirds, she flew an F-16 Fighting Falcon in the number three right wing position of the diamond formation. Malachowski appeared in about 140 performances around the world in 2006-2007.

Malachowski’s interest in fighter planes started as a young child when she first watched an F-4 Phantom II soar across the sky at an airshow. At 16 years old, she took her first solo flight, earning her pilot’s license before her driver’s license. In addition to earning a position on the Thunderbirds, Malachowski’s Air Force career was marked with a variety of highlights. In January 2005, while deployed, she led the first fighter formation to provide security for Iraq’s democratic elections.

First Female Solo

Captain Samantha Weeks became the second female pilot to join the Thunderbirds in October 2006. Weeks was the first female pilot selected for the number six “opposing solo” position. Opposing solo pilots fly opposite passes head-on to one another. During her second year on the team, she moved into the lead solo position. 

Weeks’ passion for aviation started at the age of six as she watched her father work as a USAF aircraft maintainer. However, she was told “girls don’t do that” when she explained her plans to become an Air Force pilot. This negativity motivated her to push herself to be the best person for the job, not the best woman, for the job. During her career, Weeks participated in several combat missions, but found her role as a Thunderbirds pilot her way of giving back to the USAF.

Moving Toward Equality

Women’s Policy Change 

Since women’s acceptance into permanent military service in 1948 women have forced policy changes to allow equal opportunities. These policy adjustments have provided women total assimilation into the military, moved women into new career fields and higher up the rank structure, and given women the option to start families while serving. Significant policy changes include: 
•    November 8, 1967: Legislation equalized promotion and retirement rights and removed the ceiling on the number of women authorized for active duty.
•    May 14, 1973: The Supreme Court ruled the unconstitutionality of the inequalities in benefits for the dependents of military women.
•    May 15, 1975: Department of Defense policy allowed women with children to remain in the military.
•    October 7, 1975: Legislation established the admission of women into the service academies.
•    June 1975: End of Women in the Air Force (WAF) program, women were accepted into the USAF on the same basis as men.
•    August 1, 1991: Amendment to the Combat Exclusion Policy permitted women to fly combat missions, but the services were not required to comply.
•    April 28, 1993: Combat Exclusion Policy lifted from most aviation positions.
•    January 24, 2013: Combat Exclusion Policy terminated. Women were eligible to serve in combat operations.
•    January 2016: All military occupations opened to women, without exception. 

Struggle for Acceptance

For nearly thirty years women serving in the US Air Force were managed under a separate program called Women in the Air Force (WAF). Recruitment for the WAF often focused more on a woman’s appearance and femininity and less on their ability to serve during wartime. Instead of participating in training to prepare them for combat, the emphasis of initial WAF military training was on subjects like makeup, undergarments, and hairdos. 

In addition to having a male unit commander directing their daily assignments, all women were assigned to a female commander and first sergeant. The women’s female leadership was responsible for their housing, counseling, off-duty supervision, morale, and welfare. In June 1975, the Air Force inactivated the WAF program and all WAF specific units were disbanded. With the end of the women’s separate status women were accepted into the military on the same basis as men.

Maternity in the Air Force

By law service members can be involuntarily discharged for moral or professional dereliction, or if retention is not consistent with the interests of national security. Until 1971 women were also automatically discharged for pregnancy or having custody of minor children. Women’s maternal responsibilities were expected to exceed their patriotic duties, however, a male parent never faced the same form of discrimination. 

Allowed to Remain

In 1971, Captain Susan R. Struck, represented by Ruth Bader Ginsberg of the American Civil Liberties Union, appealed her case of involuntary discharge due to pregnancy to the Supreme Court. The Air Force conceded before oral arguments began. 

Capt Struck was allowed to remain in the military and for the next four years the Air Force reviewed waivers submitted by pregnant women wanting to remain in service. By May 15, 1975, all services instituted the Department of Defense’s policy that separation of women for pregnancy and parenthood would be voluntary.

Women in Combat

The 1948 combat exclusion policy limited women’s role in the US Air Force. Combat exclusion policies, based on civil law, intended to protect women in the workplace from jobs considered dangerous or unsuitable for women. Over the next several decades the Department of Defense reevaluated women’s roles and abilities many times. Resulting changes included additional career fields opening to women. Women gained opportunities and also faced the same risks men did while performing dangerous tasks. 

By January 2016, the military services had eliminated the combat exclusion policy, opening all military positions to women.  As long as a person can meet job qualifications, they are eligible regardless of creed, color, gender, or sexual orientation.

On April 28, 1993, General Merrill McPeak, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, announced the first three women to train as fighter pilots. In 1993 the Department of Defense lifted the aviation portion of the combat exclusion policy allowing women to serve in almost any aviation capacity in the Air Force.

Captain Sharon Preszler
Captain Martha McSally
Second Lieutenant Jeannie Flynn Leavitt

First Female Fighter Pilot

First Lieutenant (later major general) Jeannie Flynn Leavitt graduated as the number one student in her pilot training class in 1993. This allowed her first pick of aircraft, as long as it was not aircraft off-limits to women. Shortly after Leavitt graduated, the Secretary of Defense modified the combat exclusion policy allowing women to fly all Air Force aircraft. This change allowed Leavitt to fly her aircraft of choice, the F-15E Strike Eagle. During her military career, Leavitt achieved many firsts for Air Force women including first female fighter pilot in April 1994, first female graduate of the Air Force Weapons School, and first woman to command an Air Force combat fighter wing. During her career Leavitt flew over 3,000 hours, with 300 hours in combat, broke the sound barrier, and deployed in support of Operations SOUTHERN WATCH, NORTHERN WATCH, IRAQI FREEDOM, and ENDURING FREEDOM. 

First Woman to Fly in Combat 

In 1993 when the Defense Department modified the combat exclusion policy to allow female pilots to fly combat aircraft, Captain (later colonel) Martha McSally was one of the first seven women to complete fighter pilot training. In January 1995 McSally became the first woman to fly a fighter aircraft in combat when she deployed with the A-10 Thunderbolt II in support of Operation SOUTHERN WATCH to enforce the no-fly zone in Iraq. In 2004 McSally became the first woman to command a combat aviation squadron the next year she deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM. During the deployment McSally had her first opportunity to employ weapons in combat. After 22 years, of service McSally retired with 1,500 hours in the A-10.

First Female Aerial Gunner 

In 2002 Airman First Class Vanessa Dobos became the first female aerial gunner after graduating from the basic aerial gunner course. As a gunner and member of a search and rescue crew on an HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter, she was responsible for operating a machine gun, caring for the guns and defensive systems, briefing passengers, and assisting crewmembers. During Dobos’s second deployment her helicopter crashed while attempting to evacuate a wounded Afghan elections monitor.

First Female F-35 Pilot

With a family history of pilots, Lieutenant Colonel Christine Mau had a desire to fly from an early age. For most of her 20-year career Mau piloted the F-15E Strike Eagle logging more than 500 combat hours in Operations SOUTHERN WATCH, NORTHERN WATCH, IRAQI FREEDOM, and ENDURING FREEDOM. During her 2011 deployment Mau participated in Dudette 07, the first all-female combat mission. In 2015 Mau was selected as the first woman to fly the F-35, a single-seat aircraft designed to defeat the most modern competitors. 

First Black Female Fighter Pilot 

The daughter of Guyanese immigrants, Lieutenant Colonel Shawna Rochelle Kimbrell was captivated by the freedom of flight at a young age. Her educational achievements opened doors for her to realize her goals. In 2000 Kimbrell graduated from initial F-16 training becoming the first US Air Force Black female fighter pilot. As an F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot she deployed for Operation NORTHERN WATCH and SOUTHERN WATCH to enforce the no-fly zone in Iraq. During her deployment she became the first Black female fighter pilot to employ weapons in combat. 

Willing to Give All

Military members take an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, in order to protect national security. Due to this allegiance Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Coast Guardsmen, and Airmen voluntarily enter into danger. Unfortunately not all return home, but these brave men and women are willing to give all in support of their country.

Armed with Courage

On September 11, 2001, American lives changed suddenly when hijackers took control of four civilian aircraft, targeting major American locations, including the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. With a fourth hijacked plane still in the air, First Lieutenant (later major) Heather Penney of the 121st Fighter Squadron of the Air National Guard and her commanding officer, Colonel Marc Sasseville (later Lieutenant General), took to the sky in their F-16s. The duo received one-way orders to stop United Airlines Flight 93 as it headed towards Washington, DC. Armed with shoot to kill orders, but no weapons, they were on a suicide mission with full intention of ramming the Boeing 757 in order to protect national security. After sweeping the DC airspace for over an hour, the pilots learned the passengers had forced the aircraft down in a Pennsylvania field.

Freedom has a Price

On September 28, 2005, Airman First Class Elizabeth Jacobson was killed when the convoy she was traveling in was struck by an improvised explosive device. At the time of the event, Airman Jacobson, a two-year Air Force veteran, was deployed to the 586th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron at Camp Bucca, Iraq. The twenty-one year old Security Forces defender was the first female US Airman killed in the line of duty in support of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM and the first Air Force Security Forces member killed in conflict since the Vietnam War. 

Women in Flight

Women have supported the Air Force since World War II; however, these women performed aviation duties as civilians. In 1975, the Air Force announced a two-part test program for female pilots and navigators. Due to Department of Defense (DoD) policy these women were limited to noncombat flying. The test program’s success allowed up to 50 women to enroll in flight training annually during the first several years before the number restriction was eliminated. While women were initially limited on which aircraft and missions they could support, DoD policy evolved in the 1990s to allow women to pilot all aircraft in the Air Force and fly combat missions.

Captain Susan Rogers – Evacuated victims in her C-141 Starlifter after suicide bombers attacked the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, on October 23, 1983. 

First Lieutenant Victoria Crawford – Upon graduation, served as a T-43 aircraft commander, instructor pilot, and supervisor of flying.

Captain Christine Schott - First woman to qualify as a C-9 Nightingale aircraft commander and served as a co-pilot in the first all-female C-9 aircrew in 1980.

Captain Kathy LaSauce - Served as one of the leaders for Class 77-08. First female pilot to command a C-141 Starlifter. Later became the first woman assigned to the Presidential Squadron flying Congressional delegates and first woman to command an aerial port squadron.

Captain Connie Engel – Served as one of the leaders for Class 
77-08. First female T-38 Talon instructor and flew T-38 safety chase for test aircraft.

Second Lieutenant Carol Scherer –Served as a WC-130 pilot chasing typhoons during weather reconnaissance missions.

First Lieutenant Sandra Scott – First female pilot in Strategic Air Command and first female tanker (KC-135) commander to perform alert duty in 1978. 

Second Lieutenant Mary Livingston - Pilot instructor for the T-37 Tweet and later served as an Air Force Academy economics instructor, detachment commander, and recruiting squadron commander.

Second Lieutenant Kathleen Rambo - First US Air Force woman to pilot the C-141 Starlifter and first female Air Force Reserve pilot.

Captain Mary Donahue - First female pilot assigned to the Air Force Academy. At the Academy, she served as a T-41 Mescalero instructor for senior cadets and a professor in the Department of Mathematical Science.

First 10

In 1975, the US Air Force established a test program that allowed women to become pilots and navigators. The test program for pilots began with ten women on August 26, 1976, at Hondo Municipal Airport in San Antonio, Texas. During the first month, the women underwent physicals, pilot navigation tests, and participated in T-41 flight screenings before transferring to Williams Air Force Base, Arizona, in September for USAF Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT). The ten women joined 39 male colleagues for the 48-week training course. Over the next year, the UPT students accumulated 210 hours in the T-37 and T-38. 

On September 2, 1977, the first class with women earned their wings. The female pilots of Class 
77-08 were limited to assignments in Mobility Airlift Command, Strategic Air Command, and Air Training Command as flight instructors or tanker and cargo transport pilots. Department of Defense policy barred women from flying in combat. However, women did fly in support of many combat missions, including Grenada, Panama, Desert Storm, Desert Shield, and conflicts in Africa. 

A second class, with eight women, graduated on February 1, 1978, as part of Class 78-03. The women in the test program pushed the door open for increased opportunities for all women to gain higher rank and command positions, enroll in test pilot programs, and pilot the entire inventory of Air Force aircraft.


We were considered a “test program” because there were political and military leaders who did not want us to succeed. I knew my success as a pilot and career progression was extremely important to future generations of women who wanted to serve their country. I didn’t think I was special, but I was proud to be a part of the “test program.”
Lieutenant Colonel Kathy LaSauce

It seemed like a threat that if we didn’t do well they would cancel the program. I didn’t feel like they wanted to learn how to best train women pilots as much as have an excuse to terminate the test program.
Major Carol Scherer

As surprising as it is to me, young women everywhere see our class as “pioneers” for women everywhere – opening doors and paving the way for those behind us.  And, here we were, just normal everyday women wanting to fly jets. 
Lieutenant Colonel Connie Engel

Women Leading the Way

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Public Law 90-130 into law on November 8, 1967. This law removed the two percent limit on the number of women permitted to serve and allowed for the advancement of women in the armed forces to higher ranks and in larger numbers.

A Push for Equality

Major General Jeanne M. Holm was essential in making military women a valuable part of the mainstream all-volunteer force. She first joined the military in 1942 when the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps began recruiting. Commanding training units gave her valuable experience that would benefit her career with the US Air Force. Holm returned to military service after the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act allowed women to join permanently.

From 1965 to 1973, Holm served as the Director of Women in the Air Force (WAF). As WAF director, Holm advised Air Force leadership on matters concerning USAF women. During her tenure, she revised discriminatory policies, doubled WAF strength, increased job and assignment opportunities, and modernized uniforms. 

A Pioneering Force

On April 1, 1971, Leslie Kenne became one of the first women to receive an Air Force commission through the Women in the Air Force (WAF) Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program. Kenne had participated in a test WAF ROTC program at Auburn University that proved successful and led to additional WAF ROTC openings at other universities.

Kenne was a pioneer throughout her Air Force career. Her initial assignments included a “non-traditional” role in flightline maintenance followed by her attendance in the flight test engineering course at the USAF Test Pilot School. On July 1, 1999, Kenne made history when she became the first woman in the USAF to earn the rank of lieutenant general.

Leading in Science and Technology

During General Ellen Pawlikowski’s nearly 40 years of Air Force service, she became a leader in the science and technology community. With a PhD in chemical engineering, her experiences ranged from development of directed energy to acquisition of highly specialized equipment for the Air Force. In February 2010, she became the first female commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). For the remainder of her career, she continued to lead in procuring innovative science and technology to support the warfighter as the commander of Air Force Materiel Command. 

Developing the Future

Janet Wolfenbarger began her USAF career on June 28, 1976, as one of the first female cadets admitted to the US Air Force Academy. For most of her career she was responsible for shaping USAF acquisition processes; this continued when she assumed command of Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC) on June 5, 2012. In addition to becoming the first female AFMC commander she was the first woman in the USAF promoted to four-star general. 

After her retirement in 2015, General Wolfenbarger continued to support military women when she chaired the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS). In this position she advised the military on recruitment, retention, employment, integration, wellbeing, and treatment of women in the armed forces.

Overcoming Roadblocks

Marcelite J. Harris’s USAF career was marked with many firsts for Air Force women. As part of the military’s push for women to explore “non-traditional” career fields, Harris became the first female aircraft maintenance officer. During her career she held a variety of notable positions including personnel staff officer and White House social aide. She was also one of the first female air officers to command a USAF Academy cadet squadron.

On May 1, 1991, Harris made history when she became the first Black female general officer in the USAF. For the next four years she remained determined to overcome roadblocks, and in May 1995 Harris earned her second star becoming the first Black woman to earn the rank of major general in the US military. At the time of her retirement in 1997, she was the highest-ranking Black woman in the US military and the Air Force’s first female Director of Maintenance.

Defeating Biases

On August 19, 2016, Stayce D. Harris became the first Black woman promoted to the rank of lieutenant general in the USAF. Her promotion was also the first time an Air Force reservist was promoted to the rank, other than the chief of the Air Force Reserve Command.
Inspired by her father, a retired USAF technical sergeant, she overcame gender and race biases to achieve many firsts for women. During her career she was the first Black woman to command a flying squadron, an air expeditionary group, and a flying wing. In November 2017, Lieutenant General Harris became the first Black woman appointed Inspector General of the Air Force.

Always a Mentor

On April 1, 1960, Grace A. Peterson became one of the first chief master sergeants in the USAF, and the first female senior non-commissioned officer (SCNO) to earn the rank. 

Peterson joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) shortly after the US entered World War II. It was while she was with the Army that she discovered she was best suited for guiding and training other women. In June 1948, she transferred to the Air Force and continued to mentor other women in her role as a First Sergeant for the WAF squadron section. After 20 years of military service, Chief Peterson retired on July 31, 1963, as the highest ranking enlisted woman in the USAF.

Spiritual Leadership

On December 18, 2019, Second Lieutenant Saleha Jabeen was commissioned as the first female Muslim chaplain candidate in the Department of Defense. Having a female chaplain was especially important to provide gender-specific counsel for all servicewomen, and she offered the necessary cultural sensitivities needed of a spiritual leader. This opportunity was made possible when Lorraine K. Potter was commissioned as the first female chaplain in September 1973. 

A Humble Leader

On September 7, 2018, General Maryanne Miller became the first US Air Force reservist to lead an active duty major command when she assumed the leadership role at Air Mobility Command. That same day she pinned on her fourth star becoming the first reservist to earn the rank of general while on active duty. In her previous position she became the first female Chief of Air Force Reserve and commander of the Air Force Reserve Command. When the country experienced tragedy from terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 she remained a steadfast example to others.

Elected to Lead

In February 1997, Lieutenant Colonel (later major general) Martha T. Rainville won the Vermont General Assembly’s election for Adjutant General of the State of Vermont. She was the first woman to serve as the adjutant general (TAG) for any state or US territory in the 360-year history of the National Guard. As TAG she was responsible for managing five divisions of the state military department which included commanding the state’s Army and Air National Guard. While TAG, she oversaw the mobilization of the Guard for state emergencies and in support of overseas contingency operations.
Major General Rainville’s goal as TAG was to make improvements and take care of people, and as a result she was reelected three times. After nine years as TAG, Gen Rainville retired in April 2006.

Black and white photo of Jacqueline CochranFollow the Story of Jacqueline Cochran 

Going Faster 

On May 11, 1964, Jacqueline Cochran held on to her title as the fastest woman alive when she became the first woman to fly at twice the speed of sound (1,400 miles per hour) in a Lockheed F-104G Starfighter. As a result of this achievement and numerous other awards she amassed throughout her lifetime, she became the second woman inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame (1971). Cochran continued her fast-flying activities until she was diagnosed with heart problems at the age of 70.