SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. – Many children have dreams of what they want to do or become. Some dream of becoming professional athletes, some doctors, teachers or firefighters.
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.
Maj. 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 ground fight.
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 Then, with the 1992 and 1993 Defense Authorization acts, the combat aircraft exclusion laws were repealed.
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.
“These 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.
Hand began preparing by getting involved in many different activities in high school including sports, taking college prep classes and junior reserve officer training corps.
“My 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.
After that experience, she was signed up for flying lessons and on March 20, 1999, she had her first solo flight at the age of 17.
“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, awesome, unbelievable.”
The process to get to that first flight in your jet is not a short one.
After 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 seriously.”
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.”
Hand 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.”
Currently, 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 zones.
“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.
She 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 for this.
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 immediate CAS
“Our proudest moment was being able to help out those who were in the thick of it,” commented Eccles.
For her excellent work during her deployment, Eccles' team was named “Team of the Year” for 2010 by Air Combat Command.
“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.
“It’s about 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 my husband.”
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.
They have 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 a hat.”
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.
Hand also 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.
She maintained 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 offended.
“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 together.
“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.”