From NWF Daily News: http://www.nwfdailynews.com/military/top-story/from-women-in-the-squadron-to-team-players-gallery-1.235489
HURLBURT FIELD — Two decades ago, a young woman walked into an Air Force hangar braced for battle.
In April 1993, the Air
Force removed its restrictions on allowing women to join air crews
flying combat missions. The door of an AC-130 gunship was opened to
women and Airman Kristen Kelley walked through.
The Defense Department wouldn’t lift its ban on women serving in combat until earlier this year.
As the first woman to join
a special operations combat flight crew, Kelley was training to become a
loadmaster when she arrived at Hurlburt Field that fall.
At the time, that job — and all combat flying — was reserved for men.
Today, more than 930 women
in the Air Force have combat flying hours on all types of aircraft,
from gunships to bombers to fighter jets, according to the Air Force
Of the 300 people in the AC-130’s 4th Special Operations Squadron at
Hurlburt where Kelley was the sole woman 20 years ago, the number of
women now fluctuates between 15 and 30, said Lt. Col. Meghan Ripple, the
squadron’s operations director. In two decades, women have gone from
zero to about 10 percent of the squadron.
AC-130 gunships provide
close air support to troops on the ground during combat. Women have
taken on every role in the 13-person gunship crew, including loading
55-pound munitions into guns for attack and firing the weapons.
Most notably, though,
women are no longer looked at as the “women in the squadron,” but simply
as other team players, said the 37-year-old Ripple, who became the
first gunship pilot in the United States when she arrived at the
squadron in 2000.
At that time, there were
only two women, a fact of which everyone was keenly aware. In contrast,
for this story, Ripple said they had to stop and actually count the
number of women.
“I kind of forget what a
minority we are,” said Capt. Krista Miller, a 26-year-old AC-130 pilot
who arrived at Hurlburt almost two years ago.
“People can normally
recognize our voice on the radio if we’re all talking at once, but
besides that nothing really makes us stand out,” she said.
Regardless of their
gender, the crew members have one goal — to serve the mission, said
Capt. Sarah Eaghon, a 29-year-old navigator.
“Our sole job is getting guys home. We’re making sure they are going
to be able to see their families again,” Eaghon said. “We’re just as
good as any of the guys here. We’re capable of doing that job well.”
Miller and Eaghon said
their friends and family weren’t surprised when they wanted to fly in
combat. Eaghon’s grandmother got her pilot’s license before her driver’s
license, and had always encouraged her granddaughter to push boundaries
to accomplish anything she wanted.
The rest of the military
seems to be catching up with the Air Force, but the first women on
gunship crews were the real pioneers, Eaghon said.
“They left us big shoes to fill.”
Unfortunately, Kelley passed away last year, Ripple said.
“She certainly left us a great legacy,” she said.