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 The 1948 law that forbade women from flying in combat had been repealed in the wake of the Gulf War, but Pentagon policy had still not changed.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