OKLAHOMA CITY - Several members of the 552nd Air Control Wing and 513th Air Control Group made history recently by fielding an all-female flight crew. The crew, comprised every operational flying squadron within the wing, took to the air on Aug. 23, in what is believed to be the first sortie flown by an all-female crew from the wing.
Every crew position on the flight was filled by 19 female Airmen. Four men were added at the last minute because there was still room on the jet and an opportunity for valuable training.
The flight was an extension of an all-female crew the wing had hoped to fill back in March to coincide with Women's History Month. That flight wasn't able to be organized because there was not a female flight engineer within the wing. This time around, however, the wing was able to fill every crew position, according to the mission crew commander, Maj. Heather Fleishauer, a member of the 552nd Operations Support Squadron.
"This time, the stars just happened to align," said Major Fleishauer, a native of Kettering, Ohio. "This has been a concerted effort because we had to 'rainbow' the crew to fill all the positions. We had women representing all air crew specialties on the flight."
According to Master Sgt. Sarah Moore, acting first sergeant for the 960th Airborne Air Control Squadron, the purpose of this latest all-female flight was to recognize Women's Equality Day on Aug. 26.
"The observance of Women's Equality Day not only commemorates the passage of the 19th Amendment, but also calls attention to women's continuing efforts toward full equality," Sergeant Moore said. "Particularly, in the Armed Forces, women weren't granted equal opportunity for promotion and certain skill sets until 1976.
"Today, only 18.9 percent of the Air Force population is made up of women," Sergeant Moore continued.
Sergeant Moore went on to say the intent to observe Women's Equality Day was to fly a sortie flown by an all-female crew and launched by an all-female maintenance crew. "To my knowledge, this has never occurred before in the 552nd ACW's history," Sergeant Moore said.
From 1978 to 1983, E-3 "Sentry" Airborne Warning and Control System aircrews were all male. In response to a new Air Force policy, aircrew positions onboard the E-3 were opened to female Airmen.
After completing training, the female Aircrew members began filling positions onboard the E-3 in 1983.
Since having a larger pool of Airmen to draw from, the wing has been able to expand its role and support a larger number and more diverse missions including control and battle management for combat operations, support for ongoing counterdrug operations, homeland defense, presidential support and national disaster recovery.
"It's definitely unusual because rather than being the 'lone' female onboard (which is normally the case), we're now filling every role from the front of the aircraft to the back and that's very atypical," Major Fleishauer said.
"Having all females onboard a flight is like having everyone on the jet being from Ohio," added Major Fleishauer.
Lt. Col. Jennifer Cress, a member of the 970th Airborne Air Control Squadron, an Air Force Reserve squadron, led the flight as the aircraft commander and instructor pilot. "I thought it was a great idea," Colonel Cress said of the all-female sortie. "It shows we're all proficient in our jobs and that we can come together and execute the mission. It's a normal sortie for us. It doesn't matter the crew's composition."
"It's great to be part of something like this," added Colonel Cress, who hails from Oklahoma City. "This is probably the most blended crew I've ever seen. We had every AWACS squadron on base represented on this sortie to include the Reserves."
Capt. Jeri-Lynn Wayan, a member of the 965th AACS, served as the crew's co-pilot for the mission.
She said the idea for an all-female crew was "great," adding, "We're all about having the opportunity."
"We should all be held to the same standards," said Captain Wayan, a native of Brigham City, Utah. "(Being a pilot in the Air Force) is about finding something you love and being able to serve your country at the same time. I can't complain."
Perhaps one of the most unique positions on the sortie was filled by Staff Sgt. Raquel Esparza, one of only a handful of flight engineers in the entire Air Force and the only female flight engineer in the 552nd ACW.
In fact, in order to become a flight engineer, an Airman must have served previously as a maintainer and the position has to be requested and approved.
Colonel Cress said they have to cross-train from their primary Air Force Specialty Code and complete a "rigorous" training regimen. "Women have proven that we are just as capable (as males) of performing (the AWACS mission)," said Sergeant Esparza, who also resides in Oklahoma City. "Women work very well together."
One of the female maintainers, who helped prep the jet for the sortie, was Airman Lindsey Harvey, a crew chief with the 552nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. And, even though she's not a flyer, she still takes great pride in knowing she was a part of history.
"Our job as a maintainer is to launch the jet," Airman Harvey said. "Once we're put in charge of a jet, they become like our babies. I think it's pretty amazing that we have the woman power to be able to fly these sorties all on our own.
"People don't think much about launching an all-male sortie at all," Airman Harvey added. "So, it was pretty cool being a part of something as special as that."
During the sortie, a regular day at the office for the all-female crew included air-to-air refueling training with a KC-135 "Stratotanker," fighter control with some F-16s, electronic combat range threat detection, threat warning and time sensitive targeting training with some B-1s, as well as touch-and-go and flight pattern and landing training.
Prior to the end of the sortie, Colonel Cress made the flight even more memorable for one crewmember when she re-enlisted Staff Sgt. JoAnn Tubbs, an instructor communications technician with the 960th AACS.
As for the four males who joined the crew on the training mission, they all indicated they had a great time and enjoyed being part of such a unique sortie.