BOISE, Idaho – Twenty-nine years ago, Defense Secretary Les Aspin made an announcement that would change the future of women in the military.
Lt. Col. Jennifer Ovanek, an A-10 Thunderbolt II pilot with the Idaho Air National Guard’s 190th Fighter Squadron, was 16 that April and one of the many young girls watching history unfold.
“It was really big news,” Ovanek said. “Women were allowed to fly in combat, finally. I remember watching it on TV. It changed my life.”
Ovanek started her love of aviation when she was very young. Her father was an A-7 Corsair II and F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot in the U.S. Air Force and New Mexico Air National Guard. He took Ovanek on her first flight when she was just 2 days old, and he eventually taught her how to fly.
“I always wanted to fly the A-10; it was my dream aircraft in my dream location,” Ovanek said.
At first, women were not welcomed into the fighter pilot community, she recalled.
“I had to be 25% better than the men in order to get the same recognition to the same level as the men,” said Ovanek. “I wasn’t really accepted until after I dropped bombs in combat, and after that, it changed. Then it started incrementally changing for the rest of my career.”
There were 3,655 Air Force Active Duty and Air National Guard officers, lieutenant colonel and below, with a fighter pilot aeronautical rating as of March 31, according to Air Force data. Of those, 119, or 3.26%, were women. There were 17,038 with a pilot aeronautical rating, 7.34% women.
“Nowadays, it’s much more accepted,” said Ovanek. “If you can see her, you can be her.”
When Ovanek speaks of her trials to the newer pilots, it’s a foreign concept to them.
“They are absolutely shocked that I would get treated like that,” said Ovanek. “Because to them, it wasn’t weird. It was normal that women could do anything they wanted to do.”
For 29 years, female fighter pilots have met their trials head-on. Today, women continue to strengthen and diversify the Air National Guard, thanks to the trailblazers that came before them.