November 12, 2020

Erasing Artificial Barriers

When Capt. Charlene Sufficool first got to the U.S. Air Force Academy in 2012, she wanted to be an engineer or maybe work in intel. Although she grew up in a military family and her dad had once been a crew chief for the Thunderbirds Demonstration Team, flying wasn’t on her radar, she said. “I never really thought of it as a possibility for me.” 

But when Sufficool made the Academy’s Wings of Blue parachute team her sophomore year, her commander, an A-10 pilot, said she had what it takes to fly fighters. He urged her to give it a try. Sufficool had by then begun thinking of flying, but she’d only met one woman pilot, and she flew C-17s. “I was like, you know, I think I would like to fly C-17s because I’ve seen a girl, and she flies C-17s, so it seems like that’s what girls do,” Sufficool recalls. 

“But, he was like, ‘No, really, I think you could be a female fighter pilot.’” His insistence changed her trajectory. Today, Sufficool flies A-10s with the 354th Fighter Squadron at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz. “It took a commander that believed in me as a woman to help me see what I could be,” she said, and “for me to believe in myself.” 

Of the 10,964 pilots in the U.S. Air Force today, only 708—just 6.5 percent—are women. The majority fly mobility aircraft and fewer than 3 percent fly fighters.

“You tend to see more women in mobility because that’s … where we started,” said Air Mobility Command boss Gen. Jacqueline D. Van Ovost, a command pilot with more than 4,200 flight hours. Now the Defense Department’s only female four-star and a former test pilot, Van Ovost oversees 52 percent of the Air Force’s women pilots.

“It goes back to that thought … you can’t be what you can’t see,” she said. “That’s why we’re so focused on exposure for our aviators.”