On the day of her first combat sortie, F-35A Lightning II pilot Capt. Emily “Banzai” Thompson had an all-female maintenance crew launch her off for the historic flight.
Recently, F-35A Lightning II pilot Capt. Emily “Banzai” Thompson made history as she flew in combat, making her the first female to do so in that airframe. Thompson, 421st Expeditionary Fighter Squadron pilot, is currently deployed to Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates from Hill Air Force Base, Utah.
“This is my first deployment … so for me it was a pretty big deal, the first combat sortie for me. … Of course being the first female, it’s a pretty big honor,” she told to Tech. Sgt. Melissa Harvey, 380th Air Expeditionary Wing, for her article Female Airmen team up for historic launch. “There’s a lot of females who have come before me and there’s a lot of females already flying combat sorties in other platforms. So just to be the person who gets that honor, that first, it just meant a lot.”
It has taken Thompson time to get to this point in her career, which began as an F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot.
After graduating college, she spent about a year and a half in pilot training for the F-16, completed a tour in that airframe, then went on to training for the F-35A, according to Thompson.
On the day of her first combat sortie, she had an all-female maintenance crew launch her off for the historic flight. Airman First Class Ashlin Randolph, a weapons load crew member, was one of a four-person team on duty for the historic launch.
“It was very empowering, it was awesome!”
Randolph, also on her first deployment, is new to marshalling jets. It was only her third time marshalling on the day of the launch.
“I always get really nervous, so I had medics, my lieutenants, and intelligence [personnel] and they were all females,” she said. “They were all there to support me.”
Randolph is new to the Lightning Technician Program, which allows F-35A maintainers to broaden their knowledge and experience on the airframe.
“The mission, as a whole, I think it’s really cool because the LTP program lets me load bombs and missiles and I also get to launch out the jet,” she said. “So it’s like we are getting all parts of the mission. I feel like that’s another thing that’s really inspiring because I got to load the bombs and missiles and I got to launch it out.”
Thompson, who is a part of a small number of F-35A female pilots, looks to what’s next.
“I think it’s a bright future,” she said. “There is a number of us already in the F-35 and I think the number is just going to continue to grow. It’s a very supportive community, it’s very open, I think the opportunity for women to really excel in the F-35 is definitely there.”
The F-35A is the US Air Force’s latest fifth-generation fighter. It will bring with it an enhanced capability to survive in the advanced threat environment in which it was designed to operate. With its aerodynamic performance and advanced integrated avionics, the F-35A will provide next-generation stealth, enhanced situational awareness, and reduced vulnerability for the United States and allied nations.
Photo credit: Tech. Sgt. Kat Justen / U.S. Air Force