All-mom flight of Air Force F-15 fighter pilots takes to the skies

It’s hard being a mom in the military let alone being a mom and a fighter pilot in the military. That’s why it was remarkable when four fighter pilots, who also happen to be mothers, took to the skies over Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, in their F-15E Strike Eagles earlier this month.

The special flight was in honor of Major Tiffany McElroy, an instructor weapons systems officer with the 333rd Fighter Squadron who has a 16-month-old daughter and is taking a break from flying the F-15E to teach undergraduate combat systems officers.

It wasn’t clear which of the other moms were front-seat pilots or back-seat “wizzos” like McElroy, but either way, having so many jet fighter pilots simultaneously be airborne moms is a major accomplishment.

“When I joined the Air Force, I didn’t know any fighter pilot moms,” McElroy said in a press release about the flight. “After almost three years of training to become qualified in the jet, I understand why. You put your whole heart into the upgrades and you easily work 12 hours a day. Once you’re qualified, you look forward to the travels and combat missions, and most of us spend more time in a hotel than in our own bed, which makes it harder to start a family.”

An airman assigned to the 4th Fighter Wing pilots an F-15E Strike Eagle into a hangar after participating in a final flight at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, Nov. 9, 2022. The final flight, including an all-mother aircrew, was held for Maj. Tiffany McElroy, 333rd Fighter Squadron instructor weapons systems officer. (Senior Aviator Kylie Barrow/US Air Force)

Military service in general and aviation in particular are often viewed as incompatible with motherhood. While the demanding demands of military life put a strain on both mothers and fathers, a 2017 government survey found that far more women than men separated from the military for parenting-related reasons.

“Gaps in childcare can disproportionately affect military mothers, who are less likely to have a stay-at-home spouse and feel more the strain of balancing family and military responsibilities,” the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services wrote in 2019.

Often the challenge comes down to childcare systems that are not suited to modern military life, especially when parents have to fly overnight and need childcare outside normal hours, or when parents have to pay by the minute for extra care when they are at work . a few minutes late after work.

“We made legacy systems built on a model where the husband was the military member and the wife stayed home with the kids,” Kyleanne Hunter, a former Marine Corps Super Cobra helicopter pilot, told Task & Purpose in 2020 . “You don’t have that choice anymore.”

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McElroy feared those challenges as an Air Force weapons systems officer.

“I was so excited at first, but my excitement turned into pure fear,” she recalls of getting pregnant for the first time. “I immediately started thinking about how this would affect the flight schedule, and how I just became the worst asset in the squadron, that I wouldn’t be able to fly or do the mission, and all my training just went to the toilet. ”

All-mom flight of Air Force F-15 fighter pilots takes to the skies
US Air Force Maj. Kelly Patterson, left, 494th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron F-15E pilot, gives a thumbs up from the front seat with Capt. Gianna-Rose Acosta, 494th EFS weapon systems officer, in the back seat prior to takeoff on Oct. 1. December 16, 2021, at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia. (Senior Airman Cameron Otte/U.S. Air Force)

McElroy isn’t the only woman in the armed forces who has those fears. In an army that is almost always stretched to its limits, any loss of manpower can be a major blow to a unit. Many pregnant maids say the stigma directed at them stems from taking time off or performing lighter duties, which increases the workload for their comrades.

Pregnant military personnel “are seen as dead weight,” a conscript told researchers in 2019. “It can be a problem because they try to make them feel [bad] because you are pregnant or cannot do certain things. That is my experience.”

“I think it can be perceived by the unit… [that] the female has chosen to be pregnant rather than working,” said a male officer.

Fortunately, McElroy said her squadron leadership was “nothing but happy for her,” according to the press release. In fact, her fellow fliers showed up with meals for her when she delivered. But after giving birth, more challenges followed.

“I had to request longer and more breaks to breastfeed between classes, briefs, flies and debriefs,” she said. “At first I was nervous to ask; but then realized it’s all a normal part of raising a human being, and coming to terms with that not only made me feel comfortable with it, but also felt like an advocate for moms-to-be.

All-mom flight of Air Force F-15 fighter pilots takes to the skies
Major Tiffany McElroy, 333rd Fighter Squadron weapons systems instructor, hugs her daughter after completing her last flight at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, November 9, 2022. McElroy completed her last flight as a 333rd Fighter Squadron weapons systems officer. (Senior Aviator Kylie Barrow/US Air Force)

It also helped that McElroy found a network of other fighter pilot moms to lean on for advice. Even the effect of G-forces is different after delivery, the press release said, so the other pilots’ advice was a “lifesaver,” McElroy said.

In the midst of a pilot shortage and a recruiting crisis, the Air Force and the Major Army cannot afford to lose highly trained pilots like McElroy. To try and get them flying, the services are working to make life easier for pilot moms. Recent changes include easing restrictions on pregnant women so they can continue flying without a medical exemption; issue free maternity uniforms; and adding new incentives to attract more childcare workers.

Hopefully that means more pilots and wizzos like McElroy don’t have to choose between having a family and the job of their dreams.

“There’s never a perfect time to become a mom, so embrace your journey and know you have a supportive community,” she said. “Just because you’re a mom doesn’t mean you can’t fly.”

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All-mom flight of Air Force F-15 fighter pilots takes to the skies

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