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THEN & NOW: How America’s First Female Fighter Pilot Became an Air Force General

30 years ago, Jeannie Flynn was selected to be a fighter pilot in the U.S. military. The sky was not her limit

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Sean McCabe (Sources: Alamy; Handout/Staff Sgt. Darin Moulton/U.S. Air Force/REUTERS; Daniel Knighton/Getty Images)

As the top student in her pilot training class at Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas, 2nd Lt. Jeannie Flynn had earned the right to fly her first choice of aircraft.

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A few days before graduation, the 26-year-old daughter of an Air Force veteran gathered with other new pilots for a conference call to make their aircraft preferences known. The first to choose, Flynn announced: “I’ll take the F-15E.”

It was January 1993. The F-15E Strike Eagle had been in service for three years and been used to take out Scud missile installations in Iraq at the start of the Gulf War two years earlier.

A male voice on the other end of the line said, “Current policy does not allow women to fly combat aircraft. Would you please make another choice?”

It was the response Flynn expected. The 1948 law that forbade women from flying in combat had been repealed in the wake of the Gulf War, but Pentagon policy had still not changed.

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She then offered an acceptable choice. “I’ll take the KC-10 to March [Air Force Base].”

Flynn knew the incoming Clinton administration was likely to change the policy, and she wanted it on the record that she really wanted the F-15 fighter she was qualified to fly, rather than the KC-10 Extender aerial refueling tanker.

She explained at the time: “I am not doing it to cause problems and I don’t think I am causing problems by just asking for my first choice.”

Some of her superiors, she said, had counseled her against fighting the policy because it might damage her career, but she was willing to take that risk. “I might win it, but I might also give myself a miserable career.”

Flynn never trained on the KC-10. Air Force officials, who also knew the policy was likely to change soon, instead sent her to become an instructor in the T-38 Talon, the Air Force’s supersonic trainer. The T-38 would keep her high-performance jet skills sharp so she would be ready to transition into fighter training at a moment’s notice.

Flynn didn’t have to wait long. In April 1993, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin announced that combat aircraft and ships would be opened to women, effective immediately.

A few minutes later, Gen. Merrill McPeak, the Air Force chief of staff, who had been a vocal opponent of opening combat aircraft to women, told reporters: “I’m proud to announce that Lt. Flynn will now be our first woman combat pilot.”

In February 1994, Flynn graduated from her F-15E training class at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, commenting: “I realize that not every person wanted this to happen. … But I also know that at this time, that’s irrelevant.” She added: “What really matters is just that you’re qualified and you’re competent in your job.”

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She ended up flying more than 2,500 hours in the F-15, including 300 combat hours, mostly in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Far from having a “miserable career,” Flynn progressed swiftly as a fighter pilot and was promoted to the rank of colonel in 2009. In 2012, she became the first woman to command an Air Force fighter wing.

Three years later, she reflected on how she had never sought the limelight: “The thing was, I wanted to be a fighter pilot. It was part of who I was and what I wanted to do. The notoriety and publicity wasn’t what I wanted, but it came due to the timing.”

In 2016, Flynn, now Jeannie Leavitt — she is married to retired Air Force Col. Craig Leavitt, with whom she has two children — was promoted to brigadier general. She pinned on her second star in 2019 and is now, at age 56, the Air Force chief of safety and based at the Pentagon.

At a recent event at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas, Maj. Gen. Leavitt told graduating jet pilots, many of them female: “Believe in yourself. Don’t let the past define you. It’s all part of our story, but we define our present and our future.”

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