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Woman to become Alabama ANG's first female fighter pilot

August 27, 2010 (by Jenn Rowell) - Woman to become Alabama Air National Guard's first female fighter pilot. Sara Ferrero is flying al­most every day and is nearing her destination -- becoming the Alabama Air National Guard's first female fighter pilot.

100th FS 'Tuskegee Airmen' logo

Taking to the skies is some­thing she always wanted to do, but it wasn't until she was 20 and attending the University of Central Florida in Orlando that she realized she really could.

Now she's about halfway through her undergraduate pi­lot training at Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi. She'll be 28 at the end of the month. She's got two more training courses to complete after that.

Next fall, she'll be back in Ala­bama flying one of the F-16 Fighting Falcons with the 100th Fighter Squadron of the 187th Fighter Wing at Dannelly Field.

"It's been something that I'd always wanted to do but just never really thought I could do it until I met somebody very en­couraging," she said by phone from Columbus.

Once she got her private pi­lot's license, she heard about the Air National Guard and decided to go that route instead of ROTC or the Air Force Academy.

She was commissioned through the Academy of Mili­tary Science, which commis­sions Air National Guard offi­cers. Ferrero attended the school at its former location in Tennessee, before it moved to Maxwell Air Force Base last fall.

Now she's in her basic pilot training with about 30 others. They typically start their day at 5 or 6 a.m. and go for 10 to 12 hours, Ferrero said.

"They constantly have you bouncing around from activity to activity. They keep it so that you have to be on your toes and be ready for everything," she said. "They'll schedule you for things and you only have 15 minutes to be ready. The night before you need to be prepared for anything that's coming at you."

She said that her approach to the training is to take things one step at a time.

"You want those wings, but you put that in the back­ground," Ferrero said. "You don't think about what's off in the future. You think about doing the best today and tomor­row will take of itself tomor­row."

Her path is set

Her fellow students are most­ly active duty airmen and they'll be competing amongst each oth­er for the type of airplane they want.

For the Guard, the process is different.

Ferrero was hired by the 187th to fly the F-16. So her train­ing track is already set.

"It's like I'm an asset of the Guard and they sent me to train­ing. It's not a guessing game for me," she said. "All the guys are all competing with each other, and they don't know how this process is going to end. It de­pends on what the Air Force has available and how they did in re­lation to each other."

She picked the F-16 because it only has room for one person -- the pilot -- and it requires all around excellence from that pi­lot.

The aircraft can be used as a fighter, as a bomber, for close air support and for other mis­sions, she said. It's also an air­craft that is constantly being up­dated with new technologies.

"You're never really going to settle into a complacency or a comfort zone. You're always going to be learning new things," she said.

Plus, it just looks good.

"It's the sexiest jet, I think, on the flight line," she said.

Despite their chosen, or as­signed, aircraft, Ferrero said all of the pilots in her class are tops.

"Everybody is somebody. You learn to realize you're not the smartest person anymore," she said. "Everybody next to you is really above average."

The pilots in training may not spend all their free time to­gether or become best friends, but there's a certain level of bonding, Ferrero said.

"People there get close, going through the process, the chal­lenges and the hurdles and the struggles together," she said. "We're going through a very de­manding, but extremely reward­ing, year together. You definite­ly build a respect and trust for one another."

The aviation community is like a club and when pilots run into each other they always have stories to swap, regardless of the type of aircraft they fly, or if they've even met before. Some of that comes from the training experience and some of it comes from the numbers.

Breaking new ground

The Air Force has 13,706 pi­lots, 4,091 navigators, 1,377 air battle managers and 29,903 non-rated line officers in the grades of lieutenant colonel and below, according to the Air Force Per­sonnel Center. That's the flying community in an Air Force of the total 331,486 airmen on ac­tive duty.

Women pilots make up 19.4 percent of that total. But as of March, only 4.4 percent of those women (643 of the 13,706) were pilots. Only 6.3 percent of the women (283 of the 4,091) were navigators.

Women have only been al­lowed into aircraft that are en­gaged in combat missions since a law keeping them out was re­pealed in 1991. Women first en­tered pilot training in 1976, nav­igator training in 1977 and fighter pilot training in 1993, ac­cording to the AFPC. In fact, they were only first allowed into the military in 1920, and that stipulated that it had to be only in times of war.

In 1948, the Women's Armed Services Integration Act of 1948 allowed women permanent sta­tus in the military. But the law capped the number at 2 percent of enlisted corps and the num­ber of women who could be com­missioned as officers or hold the ranks of warrant officer was capped at 10 percent of the num­ber of enlisted women.

That same year, Executive Order 9981 ended racial segrega­tion in the armed services. After the draft ended in 1973, the Department of Defense be­gan studying the role of women in the military, but still limited that role, according to a paper by Lt. Kristal Alfonso, which was published by the Air Uni­versity at Maxwell in 2009.

Alfonso wrote that at end of the draft, women still repre­sented about 2 percent of the military. By 1996, that figure was up to 13.1 percent. In 2007, that was 15.9 percent of officers and 14.4 percent of the enlisted corps.

Currently, there are 34,318 fe­male offices in the military, or 16.2 percent. There are 166,814 enlisted members, or 14.1 per­cent. The total number of wom­en in uniform is 202,718 or 14.3 percent, according to DOD fig­ures.

Flying, not gender, is focus

But Ferrero doesn't focus on being the first female fighter pi­lot for the 100th Fighter Squad­ron.

"They really didn't make an issue about it. It's just the na­ture of the job. They're hiring somebody based on the job that they think you can do," she said.

And that's exactly what the people who hired her had in mind.

Col. Scott Patten was com­mander of the 100th when Ferre­ro was hired. Now he's the vice commander of the 187th Fighter Wing.

He said fighter pilots that are hired go through a pilots board process and that there is a board every year or so.

The way it works, Patten said, is aspiring pilots put to­gether a package that includes college transcripts, the Air Force Qualifying Test scores, and several other required docu­ments and recruiters first go through those packages and screen them for the applicants that meet the requirements. About half of the 30 pilots in the squadron go through this pro­cess. The others come from pri­or military service or other units and that's a different pro­cess, Patten said.

They've received as many as 75 packages for just one or two pilot slots before, he said.

The unit narrows it down to the top 10 for interviews, based strictly on scores.

When they get to the unit, they come for a two-day process. The first day includes a visit to the doctor to make sure there aren't any medical issues that would hinder their flying abili­ties and they do a physical fit­ness test, which is similar to the Air Force's PT test. Those scores are added before the in­terview, which is usually 30 minutes to an hour so the five members of the hiring board can get to know the applicant and de­termine if he or she would be a good fit for the unit, Patten said.

"It's a very competitive board and at the end, we decide out of that who the top choices are to sent to pilot training," he said. "In this case, Sara was the top candidate. The fact that she's a female really had noth­ing to do with it."

But it will be a milestone for the fighter squadron that in 2007 changed its designation to hon­or the famed red-tailed Tuske­gee Airmen that fought in World War II. One of those combat units was the 100th Fighter Squadron.

Milestone aside, a fighter pi­lot is a fighter pilot.

"She's coming here as a pilot. She's going to be just like us," Patten said. "The fact that she's a female, it's not a big deal."

Ferrero said she looked at several F-16 units and wanted to join the 187th because of the peo­ple there.

She's from Florida and doesn't know yet if she'd be a full-time pilot here or on tradi­tional Guard status.
But the 187th has a high oper­ations tempo and she's likely be deployed in the near future if that keeps up.

"Deploying, that's the whole reason we're training to do this job. You're going to go out and fly with this group of individu­als and accomplish a certain mission with these planes," she said. "I haven't done it yet, but it's something that I look for­ward to doing. It's a really elite team of individuals that goes out to fly in combat and that's some­thing that I really want to be a part of."

The training is challenging Ferrero and changing her. Long hours, attention to detail and the constant stress transforms the future military pilots.

"Even if you're tired and worn out and you're ready for the day to be done you have to muster up your fortitude and just keep pressing because there's still a few more things for you to do and you're always being graded. Instructors have always got their eye on you and you have to be on your game and you just get used to it," Ferrero said.

"I used to be somebody that was always sliding into class a few minutes late and now I'm not late for anything. It's some­thing that you don't realize how much you've changed until you go home for a week or two and you realize you're just not the same person anymore."

Originally published on August 7th, 2010 in the Montgomery Advertiser.
Used with permission from Montgomery Advertiser.©