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First Female Air Force F-35 Test Pilot Marks Mission Milestone

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Maj. Rachael Winiecki, 461st Flight Test Squadron F-35 test pilot, and Airman 1st Class Heather Rice, 412th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron crew chief, pose for a photo after Winiecki’s first test mission flight in the fifth-generation fighter Dec. 14, 2018. (U.S. Air Force/Kenji Thuloweit)
Maj. Rachael Winiecki, 461st Flight Test Squadron F-35 test pilot, and Airman 1st Class Heather Rice, 412th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron crew chief, pose for a photo after Winiecki’s first test mission flight in the fifth-generation fighter Dec. 14, 2018. (U.S. Air Force/Kenji Thuloweit)

Another woman has completed a major milestone in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Maj. Rachael Winiecki, of the 461st Flight Test Squadron, recently became the first female test pilot to lead an F-35 mission at Edwards Air Force Base, California, according to the service.

Winiecki, who's flown the A-10C Thunderbolt II and F-16 Fighting Falcon on various missions, is part of a team overseeing developmental testing of all F-35 variants, which began last month at the base.

"I may be the first female developmental test pilot [in the F-35], but [test pilots] are just one small part of the test enterprise," she said in the release.

Winiecki's background in the A-10 is one of the reasons she was selected for the job, according to Lt. Col. Tucker Hamilton, 461st FLTS commander. Winiecki has previously flown A-10 missions in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and the Pacific, according to the release.

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"Major Winiecki was selected to become an F-35 test pilot based on her exceptional flying ability and the important voice she brings to the F-35 development as a prior A-10 pilot," Hamilton said.

Winiecki's close-air support experience allows her to apply lessons to the F-35, as well as critique them.

"I really do appreciate the perspective that I can bring coming from the A-10 and the F-16 to hopefully bring some influence from that perspective. As testers, the contacts we have back in the combat Air Force are valuable," she said.

Last July, close-air support tests between the F-35 and A-10 Warthog finished up at Edwards as part of a congressionally mandated requirement that the two aircraft go up against each other.

The stipulation was included as a provision in the fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act amid congressional concerns over plans to retire the A-10 and replace it with the F-35.

A Project on Government Oversight report slammed the "skewed" testing, saying at the time the flights overwhelmingly favored the F-35. But aviation enthusiasts and pilots have also said putting the two aircraft side-by-side remains an apples-to-oranges comparison.

It's why the Air Force consistently avoided calling the highly anticipated test a "fly-off."

After Winiecki's flight, the Air Force stressed that the stealth jet has air-to-ground capabilities, even if they don't exactly mirror the A-10.

Winiecki said keeping officials in the loop when comparing testing techniques is important.

"We can reach out to our networks to solicit feedback, solicit information on how we could and should accomplish our mission sets in the future," she said. "That's really where we can open doors. I can reach back to my friends and contacts in my previous community just like other test pilots here."

The service did not specify what type of flights Winiecki carried out at Edwards. She worked side-by-side with her crew chief, Airman 1st Class Heather Rice of the 412th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, for the flight.

More women are coming to the test field, Winiecki said.

"I am grateful for the women who have broken barriers previously; they built the path," she said. "I look forward to the day when sorties like this are a regular occurrence."

Winiecki follows other women who have accomplished similar feats in the fifth-generation jet.

Last year, Col. Gina "Torch" Sabric became the first female F-35 pilot in the Air Force Reserve.

In 2015, Lt. Col. Christine Mau became the first woman ever to fly the plane.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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