News: Representing women - and nearly 700,000 airmen
NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. - Aviation has come a long way since the days of the Wright Brothers and Amelia Earhart. In today’s Air Force, women are a common presence in the cockpits of the service’s premier aircraft, serving alongside their male counterparts in combat and at home station.
And there's another key role where women are making their mark by flying and maintaining jets: performing demonstrations for the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds.
As one of the new pilots on the team - officially known as the U.S. Air Force Air Demonstration Squadron -- Maj. Caroline Jensen is fully aware that, everywhere she goes, she is not only representing women past and present, but also the pride, precision and professionalism of nearly 700,000 Airmen around the world.
“The Thunderbirds motivated me to set the goal of becoming an Air Force officer and pilot when I saw them as a young girl in Wisconsin,” Jensen recalls. “Later, when I graduated from the Air Force Academy, they flew over as I threw my hat in the air.
"The Thunderbirds were always an inspiration to me and I am honored to be part of a team which inspires the next generation of Air Force airmen,” she said.
Jensen, an active reservist, is currently serving as the team's right wing pilot - more commonly known as "Thunderbird 3." For the next two years, her job will be to fly inches off the right wing of the flight leader in the famed Diamond and Delta formations.
It sounds supremely challenging, and it's designed to appear that way for the hundreds of thousands of spectators who attend Thunderbirds air shows each year. But Jensen, like all the pilots on the team, is extremely experienced. She has flown in the T-37, T-38 and F-16, accumulating more than 2,500 flying hours during her 14-year career.
That level of experience isn't unusual for a pilot of Jensen's rank and tenure, but she is just the third female demonstration pilot. The team has had a total of four female pilots since its inception in 1953.
The last time a female aviator flew in the right wing position - during the 2006-2007 show seasons - was when then-Maj. Nichole Malachowski became the team’s first female demonstration pilot. Jensen is the first female reservist demonstration pilot in team history.
“Most people will never realize that I am a reservist,” Jensen says. “Reserve airmen are seamlessly executing the mission alongside their active-duty Air Force counterparts every day.
And as Jensen is working alongside her active-duty counterparts, there's one airman in particular she gets to see every time she steps out to fly: Staff Sgt. Tacota LeMuel, the dedicated crew chief of the Thunderbirds No. 3 jet.
LeMuel is one of only two female crew chiefs assigned to the Thunderbirds and the only one selected to perform on this year’s "show line," the maintainers who are trained to perform choreographed launch and recovery routines in front of air show crowds.
"I have known a few other female crew chiefs, but Sgt. LeMuel is the first one to be my dedicated crew chief,” Jensen says. "I look up to her as an experienced show-line crew chief, and she has taught me a lot about Thunderbirds procedures in my first few months on the team."
A six-year Air Force veteran with deployment experience, LeMuel is in the middle of a career she imagined as a young girl.
“Aircraft have always been intriguing to me,” she says. “I looked at venturing into aircraft maintenance as an opportunity to satisfy my curiosity and give myself a challenge.”
She knew, however, that the maintenance community - much like the fighter pilot world - has been male-centric for years. But now, women are becoming an everyday sight on the flight line, enforcing technical orders and turning wrenches alongside their male counterparts.
“Often times, the maintenance environment is perceived to be unfit for women," LeMuel says. "And one of the most common misconceptions is that we have to work twice as hard as men do (to be successful). I have not personally witnessed or experienced that, but I’ve found the maintenance environment to be very tight-knit and fun.”
That teamwork and camaraderie also extends to the professional bond forged between a pilot and crew chief. A demonstration of airmanship at its finest, both Jensen and LeMuel rely on one another to accomplish the Thunderbirds mission.
“The relationship between a fighter pilot and a crew chief is a strong one, regardless of gender,” LeMuel says. “Being in a male-dominant career field, it is very exciting and empowering to have a female pilot and I’m extremely proud to work with her.”
Jensen feels the same way about the pilot-crew chief connection, noting that it's even stronger in unique job circumstances.
"The bond between crew chiefs and pilots within the Thunderbirds organization is similar to what I experienced during my combat deployment," Jensen says. "We spend a lot of time together and get to work with the same crew chief for launch and recovery. There is a strong bond and a lot of trust when you work this close.”
For at least the next year as Thunderbirds, Jensen and LeMuel will have the opportunity to use that bond to inspire people of all ages, genders and professional interests. Both women agree that being female doesn't define them - it's just a part of their life story. But when the chance arises, they will use that life story to remind young people to ignore false obstacles.
“I am very proud of my heritage as a female pilot, but women have been involved in aviation for a long time," says Jensen. "I hope that I can show both young men and women that there are no limits to what you can do if you dream big and work hard to achieve your dreams.”
LeMuel also likes to emphasize that success has a lot more to do with determination than other people's perceptions.
"Anyone who has a desire and an opportunity to purse what they love wholeheartedly, do it and set high standards for yourself," she says. "Don’t be afraid to dream!”