TUCSON, Ariz. - Wearing a bright red flight suit, Royal Air Force Flight Lt. Kirsty Stewart, a member of the United Kingdom's aerial demonstration team, the Red Arrows, visited the 162nd Fighter Wing at Tucson International Airport Oct. 21.
In line with the team's mission to spread good will and appreciation for military aviation, Stewart came to share her story and fly in the back seat of an F-16D Fighting Falcon, and at a base where it's common to see an array of different military uniforms from student pilots from all over the globe, none stand out like a bright red flight suit.
But standing out has been a way of life for Stewart ever since she was first introduced as the first and only female member of the elite performance team in 2009 as she came under an intense public and media spotlight that, she said, has since relented.
"The Red Arrows is so much about the team that the fact that I'm a girl gets disregarded and I'm just part of the team," Stewart said, who is also known as call sign "Red 9" in this her third and final season with the team. "When we're flying you can't tell which one [I am], so it's all irrelevant really."
"What is really nice is that more little girls are coming to our events and asking for [team] signatures, and I get a lot of letters from them saying they want to join the military."
The Red Arrows perform 90 to 100 demonstrations per year, sometimes multiple shows per day. Their schedule focuses primarily on the UK, but they are known to perform all over Europe.
Each show is a dazzling display of aerobatics and various formations - similar in style to their U.S. Air Force counterparts, the Thunderbirds. F-16s, however, are not part of the RAF inventory. The Red Arrows employ nine Hawk T1A advanced trainers; agile jets that are efficient to support and maintain relative to RAF Tornados and Typhoons.
To earn a spot on the team, RAF "fast-jet" pilots with more than 1,500 flying hours, deployment experience, and excellent flying records may apply. After a series of flight tests, interviews, and assessments, a few are chosen from many.
"I'm so lucky. I never dreamed that I would fly with the Red Arrows when I was 13 and wanted to join the Air Force," Stewart said. "I tell kids everywhere that you just don't know what you can achieve so aim high and you just might reach it. You can really surprise yourself."
She grew up with the RAF and spent summers going to work with her father who served as a Tornado navigator.
"I really liked the atmosphere and the family banter, so I really wanted to join. In those days we didn't have female fast-jet pilots so I didn't know what to do. In 1991 the Air Force opened the gates to have female fast jet, so from then on I wanted to do it," she said.
During her career, Stewart flew Tornado GR4s operationally and deployed three times to support the coalition mission in Iraq. She also served as a Hawk instructor where she met Air Force Maj. John Smith, the 162nd Fighter Wing pilot who flew her during a training mission over the Arizona desert.
"I met Kirsty when I was on an exchange tour [in] the UK flying the Tornado. Our families have remained friends over the years so we were happy to hear that she had been picked up by the Red Arrows. It's a history-making position for her," Smith said.
"Our two countries have a great relationship and I think her visit to our base highlights that. More importantly, as a father of two little girls, I think she's an excellent role model as a woman in aviation."
During the flight, Stewart experienced an afterburner take off, low-level flight, Mach 1, and several high-G turns.
"It's amazing! The take off for example - we flew along low and then pulled up to vertical which is absolutely incredible. I can't do that in the GR4. The amount you can see from the cockpit is much more as well," she said.
"Arizona is a fantastic place to fly. I know that our Tornados come out here for exercises and I've just seen why. There's so much airspace, the countryside is beautiful with the flat lands and the mountains. From a tactical point of view, it's just perfect for exercises."
For that reason, the 162nd has trained with virtually every nation that flies the F-16. The wing currently trains with pilots from Singapore, Norway, Belgium, Chile, Morocco, Poland, Canada, the Netherlands and the Republic of Korea.
"It's vital to maintain positive relations with our coalition partners and no relationship and shared history is more unique than the one we have with the UK," Smith said.