McSally logs ‘Firsts’ in career: 1st AF female pilot in combat, 1st to command fighter squadron

In 2006, as Martha McSally attended Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, she reflected on being the first – the first female pilot in the Defense Department to fly in combat and the first female in the Air Force to serve as the commander of any combat aviation squadron, to include fighters and bombers.

An A-10 Thunderbolt II pilot, then- Lt. Col. Martha McSally commented on women in aviation history.

“The first role of women as military flyers was during World War II as Women Airforce Service Pilots, an organization disbanded after the war,” she said. “When women resumed flying in the Air Force, a law prohibited them from flying in combat. In 1984, I was attending the U.S. Air Force Academy and told my first flight instructor that I was going to be a fighter pilot. He just laughed, but after Congress repealed the prohibition law in 1991, and I was named as one of seven women who would be put through fighter training, he looked me up and said he was amazed I had accomplished my goal.”

McSally was selected for fighter pilot school in 1993, but it was another year before she actually arrived. After completion of her training, she was deployed to Kuwait in January 1995.

“I was a young and new fighter pilot and here I was in Kuwait,” she said. “On my first flight over Iraq, we were enforcing the no-fly zone, and as I crossed the Kuwait/Iraq border, I’ll never forget the feeling I had that I had asked for this and now I was here.”

In July 2004, she took command of the 354th Fighter Squadron at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base — becoming the first woman to command a fighter squadron.

One of her most memorable missions was also the first time she deployed weapons in combat. Her squadron was called in to take out insurgents in very rugged terrain in Afghanistan, but the bad guys were surrounded by good guys.

“We needed to identify all the many friendly positions working with a controller on the ground,” she said. “We got eyes on the area, and needed to then ensure we had the right target area, given the friendlies were so close and in multiple directions in a winding steep canyon. Friendlies were now climbing up the canyon to get away from the enemy and get outside the safe distance of our gun. I shot some rockets to confirm the enemy location, and we honed the target.”

Then, things got even more complicated.

“On my last rocket pass, my heads-up display failed with all of our computerized weapons sights. I had to rely on the very archaic backup called ‘standby pipper,’ which was a hard sight. I needed to quickly get ready to shoot the gun manually, where I had to be at an exact dive angle, airspeed, and altitude when opening fire in order to be accurate.”

Despite the equipment failure, the enemy was destroyed after several passes.

“We train for this type of malfunction, but I never would have imagined shooting the gun in standby pipper in combat like this.”

McSally said the squadron won the 2005 Air Force Association’s David C. Shilling award that is given for the best aerospace contribution to national defense.

“During the squadron’s time in Afghanistan, we flew just short of 2,000 sorties, accumulated more than 7,000 combat flight hours, and expended more than 23,000 rounds of 30 mm ammunition,” she said. “It was an amazing environment there. A friendly country but plenty of insurgents trying to thwart the country’s progress, and it was our job to support those friendly to us.”

McSally said a good example of that support involved the elections in Afghanistan. The 354th FS had to provide coverage for voters and also protect convoys bringing votes back to the capital to be counted.

McSally pinned on full colonel that December and said she is grateful to all the women who served before her and made it possible for her to become an Air Force pilot.

“But, I hope I’m a role model to both men and women because we are a fighting force and should not be concerned with differences between us,” McSally said.

Editor’s note: Portions of this article were taken from an article written by Carl Bergquist, Air University
Public Affairs.

More Stories