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Women take flight at Holloman Air Force Base

ALAMOGORDO, New Mexico (KVIA) -- At times you hear them, and sometimes you can see them... F-16 combat fighter jets soaring high and fast over the southwestern skies.

Just to the north of El Paso, the Air Force's 54th Fighter Group at Holloman Air Force Base trains about 100 of those skilled F-16 pilots every year. Very few of them are women.

First Lieutenant Lili Ruland is one of two female student pilots at Holloman Air Force Base.

"I recently had a mentor tell me, you are a minority in this field, says 1LT Ruland. "A fighter pilot isn't a gender. It's who you are that's deeper than that."

Captain Ashley Thaxton is the second.

"This jet doesn't care if I'm a male or female. It just cares that I'm a good fighter pilot, says Capt. Thaxton."

Both came from families deeply rooted in military service, and say they were inspired to serve their country from an early age.

"My dad was a Viper pilot as well," says Capt. Thaxton. "So he was a Viper pilot for 30 years, and I watched him growing up, going out to go fly, talking about it. I knew that was something I always wanted to do."

According to the Department of Defense, women make up about twenty percent of the Air Force. However, they were not always allowed to fly in combat.

In 1993, the military allowed women to fly combat missions for the first time.

It was one of the first combat roles that opened up to women in the military.

"It really just shows how much effort they put into having a diverse Air force, because that's truly what makes us stronger," Capt. Thaxton says.

The Air Force established the Women's Initiative Team to identify any barriers that impacted women who serve. Military uniforms, equipment, flight gear, grooming standards were designed originally for men.

Airman Mia Butter says female pilots are in need of well fitting flight gear.

"As a woman, it's like we need different "G" suits, says Amn Butter. "It's either going to be a big waist and then it's, like tight legs or it's going to be like, big, let's say, smaller waist."

That is just one example of the challenges faced in training female pilots.

Holloman AFB officials say they train fifty percent of all f-16 Viper pilots in the Air Force. That's a quarter of fighter pilots overall, both men and women.

"No matter how hard it might be, no matter how exhausted you might be the day before," says 1LT Ruland. "At the end of the day, we're going to be up in the air above the fight, and someone's going to be counting on us the ground."

I suited up and trained with these student pilots, learning and seeing what it takes to become one of the twenty-five percent.

I served twelve years in the Air Force myself, but never flew in an F-16.

First, I had to be medically cleared. I then headed to equipment fitting and gear testing, which was no easy fit.

"G" suits had to properly fit to ensure blood circulated through my body to keep me from passing out during flight. Large amounts of oxygen had to flow through my mask to make sure there was a proper seal. Straps that connect to the parachute were inspected in case we needed to eject form the aircraft during an emergency. After many safety briefings, I was ready to fly.

Major Christopher Luke, who goes by the call sign "Limbo", is assigned to the Eighth Fighter Squadron.

Call signs, originating in WWII, is an acronym or nickname given to describe a pilot's attributes and used to communicate via the radio.

In twelve years of flying, I was the second civilian ever to fly with Maj. Luke.

We take off and fly up to seven hundred miles per hour. The clouds hovered below us.

That's when I understood what 1LT Ruland meant when she said, "It doesn't feel real... with the beautiful mountains in the background and the blue sky. And then, you know, you come back and land. And I always tell my family, takeoff and landing is what feels real when you're in the air. It's like you're in a different world."

We reach forty thousand feet in the air and vertically drop to three hundred feet off the ground.

The forces took a physical toll. The pressure immobilizing my body to the point that at times, I couldn't take a breath.

Capt. Thaxton says, "So thankfully, the Air Force is starting to realize how much of a toll flying has put on our body."

We reach super sonic speeds and I felt seven times the force of gravity on my body.

"We have a super, all encompassing training program here. So not only do we have the flight line training, but we also have nutritionists, says 1LT Ruland. "We've got, athletic trainers, we've got massage therapists."

We land after about two hours in the air. I was here that I was given my call sign RAGE, which stands for:

Reporter Gets Aggressively Extruded. I was sick the entire flight.

Whenever flying, Capt. Thaxton and 1LT. Ruland remember the women who blazed the trail before them.

"Knowing that there were women that came before us, that had to pave the way and had to deal with really tough situations. But they established a path, says 1LT Ruland. "Now for young fighter pilots like Ashley and I, we get to show up every day and not really worry about any of the tough biases or anything like that, and we get to prove ourselves to be great fighter pilots every day, not just great female fighter pilots."

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Crista V. Mack

Crista V. Mack is a U.S. Air Force veteran who transitioned to news as a multi-media journalist.


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