ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Since early childhood, Air Force Staff Sgt. Kimberly Daugherty has admired service members, especially those who fly. The shiny wings displayed on their uniforms filled her with a sense of wonder, she said.
When asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, Daugherty said she always responded with the same answer: an astronaut or pilot.
Unfortunately, Daugherty’s dreams were dashed when her parents told her she would never fly due to poor eyesight. At an early age, she started wearing glasses to correct her vision.
"My dream was already squashed by the time I was 6 years old. I didn't know what avenues I had," said Daugherty, who’s now a C-17 Globemaster III loadmaster with the Alaska Air National Guard's 249th Airlift Squadron.
Disappointed that she couldn’t fly, Daugherty said her early adult years were spent without direction.
"After graduating high school, I was working in useless jobs that weren't going anywhere," Daugherty said. "It was just working to work."
Before long, she found herself working as a blood donor technician at a local mall. Little did she know, her life was about to change for the better.
Air National Guard Calls
One day, she found herself assisting a uniformed member, who happened to be a recruiter and flight officer.
Over several visits, Daugherty said he continually spoke to her.
"I didn't know what an officer was or enlisted was, but I knew I could be air crew, so I said 'Sign me up," Daugherty recalled. "As soon as I found that out, my entire perspective changed."
A self-described "late bloomer," Daugherty didn't imagine herself in the military. She changed her mind when she found out she could fly even if she didn't have perfect eyesight.
Before long, Daugherty enlisted in the Alaska Air National Guard as a C-17 loadmaster.
"I had a friend that had just completed the training who said, 'Is it impossible? No. Is it something you can do? Yes. And it's worth it when you finish,'" Daugherty said.
After basic training, she attended the loadmaster course, which was followed by water survival-parachute training and survival, evasion, resistance and escape training.
"SERE training was scary and intimidating," Daugherty said. "It's something I will never forget. And every time I think about a zombie apocalypse, I think SERE training."
After nine months of training, Daugherty became a qualified C-17 loadmaster. Upon completing her initial training, she returned home and served a short active-duty tour for follow-on flight training.
"[It] was stressful, rewarding, and definitely worth it," she said. "It's not easy, but it's worth it once you get through it. Earning my enlisted aircrew wings, I'll never forget that day."
Once while on a flight, some pilots asked Daugherty why she didn't get her real wings.
"I was insulted, but it made me realize that I wanted to get my pilot wings," Daugherty said.
Training to Become a Pilot
To further her personal and professional goals, Daugherty enrolled at the University of Alaska in Anchorage to pursue a commercial flying license, as well as taking lessons at the Elmendorf Aero club to get her private pilot license.
According to Wally Hansen, the club’s chief flight instructor, the club not only supports recreational pursuits, but also provides training and certification requirements for service members who are pursuing military flight careers.
All of her training and education is in pursuit of her goal of flying commercially or militarily, Daugherty said.
"They say having your private pilot license is highly recommended because it shows perseverance," she said.
Determined to succeed, Daugherty has remained focused and continues her education and flight training.
"I can watch the Guard pilots all-day-long, take what I learn from them and apply it to a different aircraft," she said. "The fundamentals are the same."
According to Daugherty, education and training make all the difference.
‘I’m Not Scared Anymore’
"I used to be scared and nervous to fly solo and land, but now that I completed my first solo, I'm not scared anymore," she said.
Overcoming fear and anxiety is an integral part of flying, said Daugherty, who noted that gaining real-word flight experience can't be replaced by a classroom or a book.
"Anyone can learn to fly a plane, but it's the ones that work the best under stress that the Air Force wants," Daugherty said.
Although flight training is known to be challenging in Alaska's weather environment, Daugherty's ambitions fuel her drive.
"Alaska's weather is a blessing and a curse [when learning to fly,]" Daugherty said. "It's taken me longer than I wanted to, but that's nobody's fault. It's just the nature of the beast."
Staying positive and focused is the only way forward, she said.
"They say if you do what you love, it's not work anymore," Daugherty said. "The aero club is a club, but it's also a family. It's cool because you surround yourself with people who have the same passion as you."