No girls allowed
Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas — Kimberly Olson had just graduated college in 1979 with an education degree and was trying to decide on a career.
With two options after college — to either become a teacher or join the Air Force — Olson chose to take her mother’s advice and took an opportunity very few people have.
“One day, I was walking on the beach with my mother and told her I was thinking about following in her footsteps and becoming a teacher,” Olson said, now a retired Air Force colonel. “She thumped me on the head and said, ‘That was my only option when I graduated college; you think again.’”
“Before I went to training, I was told I was going be an Air Weapons Controller,” she said. “My step-dad was stationed at Langley, and he invited me to go down and see what the job was. It was a trailer full of guys and smoke, talking to a radio. It was then I decided I didn’t want to do that — I wanted to be the person they were talking to. I wanted to be a pilot!”
Since she was already selected for a job, Olson had to wait until she was at Officer Training School to tell her leadership she wanted to change her Air Force Specialty Code to be a pilot.
“When I told them I wanted to be a pilot, they said, ‘Well you’ll have to take these tests, have a physical and do all these things,’” she said. “I was an athlete and scored pretty high on everything. When the results came out, all the men got the opportunity, and I didn’t.”
Upon questioning why she wasn’t selected for pilot training, Olson was told that women weren’t allowed to apply to undergraduate pilot training through OTS. Women had to go through the Air Force Academy to become pilots or apply after commissioning, but being denied the opportunity only made Olson want it more.
“You’re 21 years old, you’re naïve and think the world should be one way, but it’s not,” Olson laughed. “Now mind you, I’m not even commissioned yet, I’m just a sergeant or something, and I tell them, ‘it’s not fair.’ Eventually someone told me to go talk to Col. John Rush, so I marched down to his office and presented my case.”
I told him that if he wouldn’t help me, I would find someone else who would, she said.
“About a week later, I was called back to his office where he told me I would begin pilot training in February,” Olson said. “It wasn’t until a bit later I found out he was the Inspector General. My step-dad had been in for 25 years and never had a complaint. I had only been in training for six weeks and already made a complaint.”
Before walking out of his office, she asked the colonel if she would always have to fight?
“You, I’m afraid so,” Rush said.
I’m here for pilot training
After commissioning through OTS, Olson went to Hondo, Texas, for flight screening in a militarized version of the Cessna 172.
“Normally if you were a pilot, you would have gone to Hondo for the flight screening before OTS,” Olson said. “Since I was behind the power curve, I was sent after OTS. When I finally arrived at Air Force Base, Texas, I was the first and only female [student] pilot.”
Being the first female pilot at Laughlin presented its own unique challenges not only for Olson, but also for the base.
“I’ll never forget this,” Olson laughed. “I walked to the place where students sign in and said, ‘I’m here for pilot training,’ and their response was, ‘Are you sure?’ No one knew I was coming, and they didn’t have clothes or a place for me to live.”
At the time, women pilots were trained at Williams Air Force Base, Arizona, so Laughlin was unprepared for her arrival.
“Williams had about a dozen female pilots at the time, and they did a good job with getting everyone ready for them, but poor Laughlin was caught off guard, as was everybody, with my arrival,” said Olson. “Laughlin pilots had to fly to Williams to pick up my clothes and bring them back.”
The clothes and lodging were only small problems. Her biggest challenge would be earning the respect of her colleagues.
“The academy class of 1980 was the first class with females,” said Olson. “The class just ahead of us [in training at Laughlin] was the class of 1979, the last class with all men. Needless to say, boys can be mean when they want to be. That was just the era though. It’s completely different now.”
Even though she suffered through a time when the idea of women in the service wasn’t widely accepted, Olson remembers a discussion about the Air Force’s flexibility.
“The Air Force survived [and improved] with the influx of women, the influx of African-Americans, and it’s going to improve with the influx of other minorities,” said Olson. “It’s an institution that’s meant to flex, and it doesn’t just survive, it thrives when it has diversity. What you really want in the military is a diverse group because it makes for better leadership, better ideas and better decisions.”
Her graduation from pilot training at Laughlin was part of an era where women were breaking barriers and succeeding at many things they were previously barred from doing.
“I love to tell people, especially when I give speeches, that whether it was military or other walks of life, women from 1979 to 1983 didn’t just open doors, we took them off the hinges,” she said. “And, that made for a better society. Any general worth his salt will tell you that the Air Force is better because of women, not in spite of them.”
After her undergraduate pilot training graduation, Olson went to March AFB, California, to fly the KC-135 before heading to Williams AFB to be an instructor pilot. Despite being a trailblazer, it wasn’t until almost 15 years later when Olson received her assignment to Fairchild AFB, Washington, that she felt she was accepted by the Air Force.
‘One of us’
“The big moment for me came when I got the call for command,” Olson said. “To me it was the head nod from the Air Force, which institutionally discriminated against women for many years until 1994 when they opened up fighter aircraft to women, or recently when they opened all career fields. It was the Air Force saying ‘you’re one of us; we believe in you.’”
When the day came in 1998 to take command of the 96th Air Refueling Squadron, Olson became one of only eight women to command an operational flying squadron in the Air Force.
“When you take command, the commander hands the guidon to the first sergeant, and the first sergeant hands it to the gaining commander,” Olson said. “I was so excited I nearly jerked the guidon from his hands. It was a proud moment for me.”
As commander, Olson learned an important lesson she’s never forgetten.
“What happens as you progress and become a commander? You don’t really do the mission anymore, your people do,” Olson said. “Your job as commander is to take care of those people so they can focus on the mission.”
Olson’s next big move after command was to the Pentagon where she served on the Joint Staff, Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the Air Staff and deployed to several combat zones to include Iraq.
“While I was in the pentagon, retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner was chosen by President George W. Bush at the time to lead the rebuilding of Iraq,” Olson said. “He knew he needed to surround himself with people who didn’t look like him, think like him or even act like him, and he chose me.”
After helping in Iraq, Olson returned home in 2003, and in 2005, she retired.
Upon retiring, Olson moved to Texas where her husband is from and took a job in public education.
By 2007, Olson had become the Director of Human Resources for the Dallas Independent School District, the second largest school district in Texas. She served as president for Grace After Fire, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping women veterans. Olson also wrote a book, Iraq and Back: Inside the War to Win Peace, her firsthand account of rebuilding Iraq.
In 2014, Olson was inducted into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame.
Now, Olson speaks about aviation, leadership, service and women’s responsibilities at many events, but her most important words may be those she spoke while stationed at Fairchild AFB.
“When you’re the first at something, you need to learn that you’re always watched, and people will look for you to fail,” she said. “But, you have to hang tight, because if you quit, you’ll prove them right, and there won’t be hope for you or the women after you.”