Defense Department News

Face of Defense: First Female F-35 Pilot Begins Training

Air Force Lt. Col. Christine Mau, 33rd Fighter Wing Operations Group deputy commander, completed her first training flight in the single-seat F-35A Lightning II joint strike fighter here May 5.

Previously, Mau completed 14 virtual training missions in the F-35 Academic Training Center’s full-mission simulator.

“It wasn’t until I was taxiing to the runway that it really struck me that I was on my own in the jet,” said Mau, formerly an F-15E Strike Eagle pilot. “I had a chase aircraft, but there was no weapons system officer or instructor pilot sitting behind me, and no one in my ear, like in simulators.”

And with that, like the other 87 F-35A pilots trained here over the last four years, Mau thundered down the runway and was airborne as the first woman in the Air Force’s premier fighter.

An Easy Adjustment

“It felt great to get airborne,” she said. “The jet flies like a dream, and seeing the systems interact is impressive. Flying with the helmet-mounted display takes some adjusting, but it’s an easy adjustment. The training missions in the simulator prepare you very well, so you’re ready for that flight.”

The initial flight in the F-35 training syllabus is designed to orient pilots with the physical aspects of flying the F-35 as compared to other fighters they’ve flown previously, such as the F-15E Strike Eagle, F-15C Eagle, F-16 Falcon, A-10 Thunderbolt II or F-22 Raptor.

Women have served in combat aviation roles in those and other aircraft for more than 20 years.

Mau acknowledged that although she may be the first woman pilot in the F-35 program, her gender has no bearing on her performance. She joked that the only difference between her and her fellow F-35 pilots is the size of her G-suit and facemask -- both extra-small.

A Great Equalizer

“Flying is a great equalizer,” Mau said. “The plane doesn’t know or care about your gender as a pilot, nor do the ground troops who need your support,” she explained. “You just have to perform. That’s all anyone cares about when you’re up there -- that you can do your job, and that you do it exceptionally well.”

Mau’s combat experience and technical prowess in the cockpit were the primary draws for her selection to her position with the 33rd Operations Group.

“Lieutenant Colonel Mau brings a valuable level of combat and operational knowledge to our team,” said Air Force Col. Todd Canterbury, 33rd Fighter Wing commander. “We’re nearly a year out from declaring initial operational capability with the F-35. We need battle-tested pilots to help us put the F-35A through its paces and ensure we have a trained and ready force of F-35 pilots to feed into our combat air forces.”

Canterbury witnessed Mau’s leadership and combat effectiveness first-hand when they were both deployed to Afghanistan in 2011, where she was part of another important milestone for women in the combat aviation community.

Made History in Afghanistan

While with the 389th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, Mau was part of the first all-female combat sortie. The combat mission provided air support to coalition and Afghan forces in Afghanistan’s Kunar Valley. From the pilots and weapons system officers of the two F-15E jets to the mission planners and maintainers, the entire mission was carried out entirely by women.

“As a service, we need to attract the most innovative and skillful airmen possible for one reason: it makes us more effective,” Canterbury said. “The broader the net that we cast into the talent pool, coupled with a laser focus on performance, ensures we have the best airmen in place to carry out the mission. Performance is key, and it’s the standard we hold all of our airmen to in the Air Force.”