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U.S. Navy selects first woman directly for F-35C

In a first for the U.S. Navy, the service has selected its first woman to go directly from earning designation as a naval aviator to postgraduate flight training in the F-35C Lightning II.

Lt. j.g. Suzelle Thomas, assigned to the “Eagles” of Training Squadron (VT) 7, received her Wings of Gold alongside seven fellow naval aviators and one Italian Navy aviator during a ceremony at the chapel onboard Naval Air Station Meridian, Miss., Oct. 29, 2021.

Lt j.g. Suzelle Thomas’ parents pin on her naval aviator Wings of Gold during a ceremony onboard Naval Air Station Meridian, Oct. 29, 2021. Thomas is the U.S. Navy’s first woman to directly select F-35C Lightning II postgraduate training after earning her Wings of Gold. U.S. Navy photo by Penny Randall.

Chief of Naval Air Training Rear Adm. Robert D. Westendorff, who oversees all undergraduate flight training for the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, said the ceremony was the culmination of a year of advanced training and a lifetime of study and preparation.

“Getting through primary flight training and being selected for the advanced strike training pipeline is not an easy task,” Westendorff said. “It requires a lot of hard work and dedication and the men and women here today have proven they have what it takes. I’m so proud of each of you and know you will continue to meet the challenges ahead.”

Thomas was named to the Commodore’s List during primary flight training, during which she flew the T-6B Texan II turboprop aircraft. She was also named VT-7 Student of the Quarter for spring 2021. She carrier qualified in the T-45C Goshawk jet trainer aircraft onboard aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77).

“I feel blessed and it was an honor to finish with my fellow aviators,” Thomas said. “We studied together, flew together, and did everything together. I felt supported by everyone at VT-7. The instructors are very helpful and the squadron works as a team.”

Thomas’s drive to succeed and help others achieve didn’t go unnoticed by leadership at her squadron.

“We are extremely proud of Lt. j.g. Suzelle Thomas and her performance while she was here at VT-7,” Eagles Commanding Officer Cmdr. Dylan Porter said. “She displayed the maturity and above-average aptitude in the aircraft to be selected for the F-35C platform. She stood out not only with her performance during her training here but also as a leader amongst her peers. Lt. j.g. Thomas will be a great asset to the fleet and I’m excited to see all that she accomplishes in the future.”

Thomas will report to Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 125 in Lemoore, California. VFA-125 is the fleet replacement squadron for the F-35C Lightning II. The F-35C is a powerful combination of fourth- and fifth-generation fighter aircraft with advanced electronic attack, and command and control capability.

“I have realized I will never fly with another person again since the F-35 is a one seater,” Thomas said. “I am looking forward to controlling the flight in a very advanced and tactical way.”

Capt. Robert Lanane II, left, commodore of Training Air Wing 1, and Rear Adm. Robert D. Westendorff, Chief of Naval Air Training (CNATRA), join Lt. j.g. Suzelle Thomas and Cmdr. Dylan Porter, commanding officer of Training Squadron 7, after Thomas’ naval aviator winging ceremony at Naval Air Station Meridian, Oct. 29, 2021. Thomas is the U.S. Navy’s first woman to directly select F-35C Lightning II postgraduate training after earning her Wings of Gold. U.S. Navy photo by Penny Randall.

Thomas, a native of Birmingham, Alabama, is a 2018 graduate of the United States Naval Academy where she received a Bachelor of Science in political science. Thomas also received a master’s degree in security studies from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

Thomas’ parents pinned on her naval aviator Wings of Gold — wings passed down from her mentor, Capt. Beth Regoli.

“I’m so proud of Suzelle, she has done so many great things,” Regoli said. “I have watched her develop and now earn her Wings of Gold. When she worked for me she was an outstanding midshipman.”

Regoli gave her wings to Thomas when she worked for her at the Naval Academy.

“Sometimes you never really realize the impact of the little things, when I heard she was going to use them today and that she thinks of me as her mentor I was so happy,” said Regoli, who will leave the Naval Academy soon to become the commanding officer of NAS Key West, Florida. “I can’t wait to see all the fantastic things Suzelle is going to accomplish in her future.”

There are currently three women in the Navy who transitioned from other aircraft to the F-35C. In addition, Marine 1st Lt. Catherine Stark became the first woman in the Marine Corps to directly select F-35C after earning her Wings of Gold at Training Air Wing 1 in August 2019.

CNATRA, located in Corpus Christi, Texas, trains the world’s finest combat quality aviation professionals, delivering them at the right time, in the right numbers, and at the right cost to a Naval Force that is where it matters, when it matters.

Capt. Robert Lanane II, left, commodore of Training Air Wing 1, and Rear Adm. Robert D. Westendorff, Chief of Naval Air Training (CNATRA), join Lt. j.g. Suzelle Thomas and Cmdr. Dylan Porter, commanding officer of Training Squadron 7, after Thomas’ naval aviator winging ceremony at Naval Air Station Meridian, Oct. 29, 2021. Thomas is the U.S. Navy’s first woman to directly select F-35C Lightning II postgraduate training after earning her Wings of Gold. U.S. Navy photo by Penny Randall.
Lt. j.g. Suzelle Thomas moments after she received her Wings of Gold during a pinning ceremony onboard Naval Air Station Meridian, Oct. 29, 2021. Thomas is the U.S. Navy’s first woman to directly select F-35C Lightning II postgraduate training after earning her Wings of Gold. U.S. Navy photo by Penny Randall.

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