First female USAF fighter pilot continues to break stereotypes

by Randy Roughton, US Air Force News Service

After Col. Jeannie Leavitt finished pilot training at the top of her class in 1992, she was given her first choice of aircraft, with a few restrictions. Her first choice, the F-15 Strike Eagle, wasn’t yet an option for female pilots.

“I was told you finished No. 1, but you cannot pick a fighter,” Leavitt said. “You cannot pick a bomber. You cannot pick a special ops aircraft. There was a whole list of aircraft I couldn’t fly, and I was directed to choose among the other aircraft.”

Fortunately for Leavitt and all female Airmen with similar aspirations, the following year then-Defense Department Secretary Les Aspin ordered all service branches to drop restrictions on women flying combat missions. Leavitt became the Air Force’s first female fighter pilot and later the service’s first woman to graduate from the Air Force Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. Almost two decades later, she’s been the nation’s first female fighter wing commander since she assumed command of the 4th Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., in 2012.

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While she recognizes her place in Air Force history, Leavitt prefers emphasizing her role as an officer and commander. When she learned she would be flying the F-15 while she was in the middle of T-38 Talon pilot instructor training at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, Leavitt didn’t care about publicity or the chance to make history. She just wanted to fly in fighters.

“When we first discussed it, the individual from headquarters I was talking to mentioned there would be a lot of publicity since I would be the first (woman),” she said. “What I told him was I didn’t want the publicity, but I really want to fly fighters. 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.”

Not everyone was happy about the defense secretary’s decision, and Leavitt had to prove herself to those who questioned her abilities because of her gender.

“A lot of times people were resistant because it was change, and a lot of times people don’t like change,” she said. “Some people weren’t in favor of the change that happened and didn’t want women flying fighters. In many cases when I’d show up, once they saw I was competent, and I was a skilled pilot, and I wasn’t trying to change their whole world, they became much more accepting of me.”

Leavitt flew more than 2,500 hours in the F-15, including 300 combat hours, mostly in Afghanistan and Iraq. Maj. Gen. Lawrence L. Wells, 9th Air Force commander, flew the F-16 Fighting Falcon as an operations officer with Leavitt during Operation Southern Watch in 1996.

He recalls surprise when he first saw her at a mass pre-mission briefing because he didn’t know any women were deployed in the area of responsibility at that time. But the surprise soon turned into admiration as he observed Leavitt, especially during a mission supporting a Royal Air Force Tornado GR1 during a threat of an Iraqi Roland surface-to-air missile. He could sense her professionalism and skill as he listened to tapes of her radio calls during the de-briefing after the mission.

“I remember thinking how cool and calm she sounded during the entire time,” Wells said. “It was all just a very professional, well-run response to a potential threat, and I remember thinking at that time, ‘This female fighter pilot is going to go far in our Air Force.'”

He also described the young F-15 pilot as “a great wingman,” a trait he thinks will serve her well as a commander.

“We value in our young officers the ability to be in the right place at the right time,” Wells said. “That’s what a real wingman does. At the time, she was a great wingman, which in my view, makes her a better leader. Because you really have to know how to follow before you can lead. You have to understand what Airmen are thinking and how your Airmen are dealing with issues and what your young Airmen are focused on. Now having been a great wingman, she can be a great commander.”

When Wells introduced Leavitt at her change of command ceremony at Seymour Johnson AFB in June, he chose his words carefully. Despite the historical significance of her career, Leavitt prefers recognition as an Air Force officer and commander. Wells chose remarks that would strike the same tone.

“I had some very specific things I wanted to say about her, and how I had seen her, not only in combat during Southern Watch, but also from kind of following her career,” Wells said. “What I did not want to do in my speech was to highlight the fact that she was the first female commander. I was very sensitive to say the Air Force actually picked the right person to be in the right job at the right time, which I think speaks more for her as a professional Air Force officer, who, oh, by the way, just happens to be a female.”

Leavitt now commands one of only three Air Force units with the Strike Eagle, along with 5,000 active-duty members and 12,000 civilians. Looking back on the progress women have made in her 20 years in the Air Force, the biggest difference she’s seen is women in fighter squadrons are no longer unusual as she was in 1993.

“One thing that’s changed is women are no longer a novelty,” Leavitt said. “When I started flying fighters in 1993, there were no other women. So there were no female instructor pilots, no flight commanders and no squadron commanders. So it was quite a novelty to have a female in the fighter squadron. The good news is this opportunity opened up, and quite a few women followed in my path.”


Colonel Jeannie M. Leavitt is Commander of the 4th Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, Goldsboro, NC. She leads one of the largest fighter wings in the United States Air Force, consisting of nearly 5,700 Airmen and civilians and home to the multi-role, all-weather F-15E Strike Eagle aircraft which are assigned to two operational and two training fighter squadrons, flying over 15,000 sorties and 24,000 hours a year. SJAFB teams with and provides overall host support for an Air Force Reserve Command KC-135R wing with an active duty squadron. Wing assets total $5.1 billion with an annual operations and maintenance budget of $240 million.

Colonel Leavitt entered the Air Force in 1992 after earning her bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas and her master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics from Stanford University. She earned her commission as a distinguished graduate of the Air Force ROTC program. Colonel Leavitt earned her wings at Laughlin AFB, Texas, and has flown the F-15E Strike Eagle at Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina, at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, and at Nellis AFB, Nevada. She was the Chief of Special Technical Operations at United States Forces Korea and the Chief of Master Air Attack Plans at United States Central Command Air Forces. She was a student at the National War College and a Chief of Staff of the Air Force (CSAF) Fellow.

Colonel Leavitt is a command pilot with more than 2,500 hours in the F-15E. She is a graduate and former instructor of the United States Air Force Weapons School. Her operational experiences include Operations SOUTHERN WATCH, NORTHERN WATCH, IRAQI FREEDOM and ENDURING FREEDOM. Colonel Leavitt served as commander of the 333d Fighter Squadron at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and deputy commander of the 455th Operations Group at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan.

1990 Bachelor of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering, University of Texas, Austin, Texas
1991 Master’s of Science degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics, Stanford University, Stanford, Calif.
1997 Squadron Officer School, Maxwell AFB, Ala.
1998 Weapons Instructor Course, USAF Weapons School, Nellis AFB, Nev.
2002 Master’s of Business Administration, Auburn University, Auburn, Ala.
2004 Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell AFB, Ala.
2004 Master’s degree in Military Operational Art and Science, Maxwell AFB, Ala.
2007 Air War College, by correspondence
2010 National War College, Fort McNair, Washington D.C.
2010 Master’s degree in National Security Strategy, National War College, Fort McNair, Washington D.C.
2010 Leadership Development Program, Center for Creative Leadership, Greensboro, N.C.
2012 Air Force Enterprise Leadership Seminar, Darden School of Business, University of Virginia
2012 Seminar XXI, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1. January 1992 – March 1993, student, Undergraduate Pilot Training, Laughlin AFB, Texas
2. March 1993 – July 1993, T-38 instructor pilot upgrade trainee, Vance AFB, Oka.
3. July 1993 – April 1994, student, F-15E Formal Training Course, 555th Fighter Squadron, Luke AFB, Ariz.
4. April 1994 – January 1998, instructor pilot, training officer, later Assistant Chief of Weapons, then Assistant Chief of Standardization and Evaluation, 336th Fighter Squadron, Seymour Johnson AFB, N.C.
5. January 1998 – July 1998, student, USAF Weapons Instructor Course, F-15E Division, Nellis AFB, Nevada
6. July 1998 – June 2001, F-15E instructor pilot, Assistant Chief then Chief of Weapons and Tactics, later Flight Commander then Assistant Operations Officer, 391st Fighter Squadron, Mountain Home AFB, Idaho
7. June 2001 – August 2003, F-15E instructor pilot, Wing Standardization and Evaluation Examiner, 57th Operations Group, later Academics Flight Commander then Assistant Operations Officer for Academics, 17th Weapons Squadron, USAF Weapons School, Nellis AFB, Nev.
8. August 2003 – July 2004, student, Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell AFB, Ala.
9. July 2004 – September 2005, Chief of Special Technical Operations, United States Forces Korea, Yongsan Army Garrison, Seoul, South Korea
10. September 2005 – April 2007, Chief of Master Air Attack Plans, 609th Combat Plans Squadron, 9th Air Force and United States Central Command Air Forces, Shaw AFB, S.C.
11. April 2007 – July 2009, Assistant Director of Operations, 334th Fighter Squadron, later Commander, 333d Fighter Squadron, then Special Assistant to the 4th Operations Group Commander, Seymour Johnson AFB, N.C.
12. July 2009 – June 2010, student, National War College, National Defense University, Fort McNair, Washington, D.C.
13. July 2010 – May 2012, CSAF Fellow, Central Intelligence Agency, Washington, D.C.
14. June 2012 – present, Commander, 4th Fighter Wing, Seymour Johnson AFB, N.C.

1. July 2004 – September 2005, Chief of Special Technical Operations, United States Forces Korea, Yongsan Army Garrison, Seoul, South Korea, as a major
2. July 2010 – May 2012, CSAF Fellow, Central Intelligence Agency, Washington, D.C., as a colonel

Rating: Command pilot
Flight hours: More than 2,500, including over 300 combat hours
Aircraft flown: F-15E, T-38A, AT-38B, T-37

Bronze Star Medal
Defense Meritorious Service Medal with oak leaf cluster
Meritorious Service Medal with three oak leaf clusters
Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters
Aerial Achievement Medal
Joint Service Commendation Medal with oak leaf cluster
Air Force Commendation Medal
Air Force Achievement Medal

1997 Outstanding Young Texas Exes, The University of Texas at Austin
2009 Katherine and Marjorie Stinson Award, National Aeronautic Association

Second Lieutenant July 1, 1991
First Lieutenant July 1, 1993
Captain July 1, 1995
Major May 1, 2002
Lieutenant Colonel March 1, 2006
Colonel Oct. 1, 2009

(Current as of June 2012)