JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. --
A 10-year-old Texas native flew on her first commercial flight. That flight cemented her dream to become a pilot.
In Sequim, Washington, a family friend gave the gift of flight to a 13-year-old girl on her birthday and she was hooked.
Approximately 5,500 miles away, a father took his 14-year-old daughter to an air show in Russia. She saw the SU-27 Flanker. Staring in the sky at the aircraft performing low-level aerobatics, she knew she wanted to become a pilot.
And, a competitive swimmer at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, who hadn’t really thought of flying, was offered the opportunity to become a pilot – so, she took the chance.
The Texan excelled in both athletics and academics in high school. She became Maj. Leslie Kastrop, a pilot and operations officer assigned to the 446th Operations Support Squadron here.
“When I learned about the Air Force Academy and the probable path to pilot training, nothing was going to stop me,” she said.
The birthday girl turned that gift into a passion which gave way to joining the Air Force Reserve. And now Capt. Rachel Sallee, a pilot assigned to the 728th Airlift Squadron, has never looked back.
“For me, it’s simply the joy of aviating,” Sallee said. “There’s a calm certainty that comes with controlling a vehicle in three dimensions, and aviation is one of those fields that will continue to humble and challenge you daily.”
“The bigger the challenge, the higher my resolve has been to conquer it.”
The teenager, who was mesmerized by the maneuverability and beauty of a fighter aircraft, eventually came to the U.S., obtained her citizenship, graduated from college and completed pilot training.
Now Capt. Fidan Thornburg, a pilot assigned to the 728th AS, realizes that dream from when she was 14 years old every time she takes off in an aircraft.
“Just the idea that you can defend your country or move passengers around the world in a very sophisticated equipment makes it super exciting,” Thornburg said. “There is just nothing like this to me. I never wanted to do anything else in life.”
For Lt. Col. Rachel Metzgar, a pilot assigned to the 97th AS and the former competitive swimmer, took the flying opportunity with one thing in mind – no regrets.
“I was intimidated, but I remember thinking, if I don’t do this, I’ll regret it,” Metzgar said. “So I went, and here I am still flying 23 years later!”
Kastrop, Sallee, Thornburg and Metzgar all fly the C-17 Globemaster III. This aircraft is the most flexible cargo aircraft in the Air Force’s inventory. The flexibility allows this cargo aircraft to deliver troops and all types of cargo to forward bases around the world.
Thornburg flew the C-130 Hercules before transitioning to the C-17.
“C-130 was an older aircraft to operate, we all had to be airdrop qualified and it was a larger crew to manage,” she said. “C-130 is considered tactical because of all the low levels, dirt strips landings and airdrops they do. C-17 is now considered tactical and strategic as well. It does very similar work, but can stay in the air for a longer time and transport much more cargo.”
The missions of the C-17 involve rapidly delivering troops and cargo to meet potential armed contingencies, peacekeeping or humanitarian missions worldwide, like in 2010 when a 7.0 earthquake devastated Haiti where an estimated 250,000 people died and five million more were displaced.
“I was a pilot on the first C-17 alerted to provide humanitarian relief after the 2010 Haiti earthquake,” Kastrop said. “When we were on final approach into Haiti, it was as if the runway was the only surface not wrecked by the earthquake. Then, we taxied into parking following a child on a motorcycle. We waited for hours on the ramp while the scrambling ground personnel determined our load.”
“We transported personnel, food, and water into Haiti, and we returned 146 Americans. To date, that has been my most memorable and rewarding flying experience.”
Women first entered the U.S. military pilot training in 1976. A year later, women entered navigator training. Two decades later, women entered fighter pilot training.
To honor Women’s History Month, the squadrons put together two flights. Metzgar was the aircraft commander for the mission on March 15. Kastrop, Thornburg and Sallee flew with the 728th AS a few days earlier on March 11.
“It is good to remember how we got here and what it took for the previous generations to fight the battle of letting women serve in the military or fly for the airlines,” Thornburg said. “We came a long way and an annual reminder is a great way to celebrate this impeccable achievement.”
During the flight with fellow squadron member and instructor pilot Maj. Anthony Frazier alongside her encouraging and guiding, Sallee led the mission briefing in preparation for instructor pilot upgrade school.
“I am incredibly grateful to my squadron leadership and mentors who have come alongside me as I progress in my career,” Sallee said. “There’s an endless litany of things to learn and decisions to make, and I’ve never once felt less supported in that as a woman.”
“We’re a team always, and our diversity is just an intrinsic part of who we are. I’d like to think that is exactly what the trailblazing women of the past would have wanted.”
More than 800 pilots across the Air Force are women. Women make up 27 percent of the Air Force Reserve. And, it was the flexibility of the Air Force Reserve that attracted these pilots.
“I was active duty for over 13 years,” said Kastrop, a 17-year veteran. “I made the transition to the Air Force Reserve, so I could continue serving my country, establish roots in the Pacific Northwest, and spend more time at home with my wife and daughter.”
“The Reserve was a natural choice. We could still serve and fly, but wouldn’t have to keep moving every three years,” Metzgar said. “My husband and I both were hired into the same squadron 13 years ago, and it was the best thing that could’ve happened.”
For Sallee, it was something different. It was a chance to turn her hobby into service.
“The Reserve created an avenue for me to continue my work as an engineer, while combining my passion for flying and desire to serve,” she said. “I’ve been in for about 4 and a half years now and haven’t regretted the decision for a second.”
Regardless of how each of these four women came to fly or why they chose to join the Air Force Reserve, or the multiples decisions they have to make daily, Thornburg sums up why these women all fly.
“To this day I think that when we fly all the issues and problems stay on the ground, in the air we are free.”