Air Force stages showcase for 1st female combat pilot

February 16, 1994|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,States News Service

WASHINGTON -- When most Air Force fighter pilots complete air combat training, they get a patch for their flight suits. When 1st Lt. Jeannie M. Flynn graduated, she got a news conference.

Lieutenant Flynn, the first woman to be trained as an Air Force combat pilot, was showcased by the Pentagon in a one-day media blitz yesterday. As Defense Department officials handed out Flynn memorabilia -- from videotapes to glossy head shots to media packets -- the lieutenant met the press.

Next to her stood the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, who in April had publicly questioned the decision of Les Aspin, then the defense secretary, to lift the ban on women in combat aviation.

Yesterday, General McPeak called Lieutenant Flynn, 27, a "lucky" find for the Air Force. But he stopped short of endorsing the policy that put her in the limelight.

"The secretary of defense made the decision to open combat cockpits to women," General McPeak said. "We saluted smartly, and we're doing this job in the traditional Air Force way. . . . On issues like this, I do what I'm told."

Such caution did not seem to fluster Lieutenant Flynn, who stood with her arms folded behind her back, eyes set dead ahead and feet anchored solidly apart. When she took the lectern, she spoke frankly.

"I realize not every person wanted this to happen," she said. "But I also realize that's also irrelevant."

More than a year ago, Lieutenant Flynn asked to train in the F-15, a high-performance fighter jet. Although she holds a master's degree in aerospace engineering from Stanford University and had graduated first in her pilot-training class at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, her request was turned down.

Still, she felt she at least had to ask for the combat job. "I didn't see the point in asking for something else knowing that this is what I wanted," she said.

The St. Louis native said she was a "novelty" at first as the only woman in a class of 16 in combat-fighter training at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. But she traded flying tips and went drinking with her fellow pilots at the officers' club on Friday nights. The other pilots nicknamed her "Two Beers" -- which, she laughingly insists, does not mean she is a lightweight compared with her male counterparts.

Next month, Lieutenant Flynn will be assigned to the 336th Fighter Squadron at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., also known as "The Rocketeers." Before she gets there, she will take an intensive survival training course in Washington state.

She is not daunted by the prospect of becoming a wartime pilot. "This has always been something I wanted to do," she said. "I've always been fascinated with the fact that I can fly."

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