by Lt Col Christine Mau, USAF
I grew up interested in aviation due to family influences. My father was a C-130 pilot in the Air National Guard, and also an airline pilot with Continental Airlines. Additionally, my grandfather served one combat tour in the European Theater flying B-24s during WWII. So I went to a few airshows growing up and loved them. My earliest memory of wanting to fly was when I was about 5 years old; I remember watching fighter aircraft in the traffic pattern at El Toro MCAS and telling my mom that I wanted to do that when I grew up. According to her, she said girls couldn’t do that yet, but I only remember her telling me that girls can’t do that at all.
My interest in flying sat somewhere in the back of my mind while I played multiple sports growing up. That is, until my junior year of high school when I needed to decide on what I would do for the rest of my life. It was then that I remembered I wanted to be a fighter pilot. It was the only thing that made sense, and the only thing I knew I wanted to do. Looking back, I find it interesting that I didn’t really know much about being a fighter pilot other than what I saw from watching the movie Top Gun. I knew I wanted to serve something greater than myself, I wanted a challenge and I wanted to have fun doing it. From that moment on, I was determined to become a fighter pilot.
The Air Force Academy offered the best chance for pilot training so I applied and was accepted in the Class of 1997. Interesting enough, it wasn’t until after I was accepted that women were even allowed to fly in combat. The Combat Exclusion Law blew my mind as over 50 years prior, the WASP flew every aircraft the Army Air Corps had during WWII. But, my timing was perfect as I could follow in the footsteps of women like Jeannie Leavitt (Flynn).
My first flight piloting any aircraft was during the Soaring program after my freshman year, flying sailplanes. I absolutely loved it and the experience only strengthened my innate determination to become a fighter pilot. The next opportunity to fly was after my junior year during the Flight Screening program. We flew the Slingsby T-3A Firefly and I performed well enough to be eligible to compete for a pilot training slot at Euro-Nato Joint Jet Pilot Training at Sheppard AFB. At the time, it meant a guaranteed fighter so that’s where I selected to go. There weren’t many women there at the time, perhaps just 3-4, which made it hard not to stand out. If I had a good or bad flight, it seemed everyone knew about it. So I learned early on that growing thick skin, ignoring those who don’t support you, and persevering was the key to success. I graduated as a Distinguished Graduate in 1999 and got my first choice of aircraft, the F-15E Strike Eagle.
After F-15E training I was assigned to the 492nd Fighter Squadron at RAF Lakenheath in the United Kingdom. I was the third woman to be assigned to the squadron, but there was still some resistance to women being there, especially from the older, dinosaur types. I ended up being the only woman in the squadron shortly after arriving and did my best to keep my nose to the ground and persevere. While stationed there, I deployed 3 times in support of Operation Southern Watch, Operation Northern Watch, and Operation Enduring Freedom. It felt completely amazing to actually employ the aircraft in combat since most of what we do is train. I dropped my first bombs on the enemy in Iraq in 2001. To this day, some of the guys from the squadron back then still give me grief about being a girl. However, I was blessed with wonderful leadership and had the same opportunities as anybody with similar performance.
My next assignment was instructing at the F-15E schoolhouse. Surprisingly, there were 4 other woman instructors there at the time, and we often had classes with 2-3 women going through. It was a rare sight to see that many women in one squadron of 70, as we only make up less than 2% of all fighter pilots and approximately 5% of all Weapons System Officers (back seaters). It was during this assignment I started thinking about having children. Since you cannot fly ejection seat aircraft while pregnant, this desire posed a serious challenge to my career. At the time, the people who ran assignments didn’t really know what to do with a fighter pilot who wanted to get pregnant. Thankfully, I had wonderful leadership who supported my wishes and helped make the assignment process work within the existing constraints. This led to my assignment to a non-flying position followed by a year of school at Air Command and Staff College (ACSC).
During these assignments, I was blessed with two amazing daughters. I considered separating from the Air Force to provide a more stable life for my family, but I’m very glad I decided to stay in. My children have enjoyed moving around the country every 1-3 years and I have enjoyed continuing to serve our great nation while being a mom. Balancing work and motherhood is a continual challenge, but with the help and support of friends and family, I’ve managed just fine.
I graduated as a Distinguished Graduate from ACSC and since I had been out of the jet for almost 5 years, I was able to get back to flying the F-15E. My next assignment was to the 389th Fighter Squadron at Mountain Home AFB. Within a few months of re-qualifying in the jet, I deployed to Bagram AB, Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Times were very busy then and we dropped a record number of bombs during the 6 month deployment. It was sometimes the most boring, but others the most exciting, and rewarding sorties I’ve ever flown. Hearing the words “Troops in Contact” with guns firing in the background is a sure way to spike your adrenaline. Knowing we were protecting and defending coalition troops on the ground was very satisfying. Despite that, being away from my children was very difficult. Thanks to modern technology we were able to talk over video regularly and I kept myself very busy outside of those chats.
Following the deployment I became the Director of Operations for the 428th Fighter Squadron, which is a US flagged Singaporean squadron that flies the F-15SG. And after about 7 months in that position, I moved to Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina to take command of the 4th Operations Support Squadron. Being squadron commander was the best job I’ve ever had. Leading airmen toward a common goal, getting the mission done, and taking care of people is something I’m passionate about. I am blessed to have led a squadron while flying the F-15E. I loved every single one of my airmen like family. No one cared at all about my gender. My superiors and peers were wonderful. Coincidentally, Jeannie Leavitt (Flynn) was my Wing Commander. I would still get occasional comments about my airmen’s expectations of a woman commander versus reality once I took command. I’m happy I delivered in a successful way, but a little bewildered at some of the poor expectations they had. People wondered if I would cry, be too soft, or be bitchy as a commander. I just did my best and gave it my all.
To my surprise, following my squadron command in 2015, I was assigned to be the 33 Operations Group Deputy Commander at Eglin AFB, flying the F-35! I felt like I had won the lottery as I got to fly the Air Force’s newest jet and live in paradise. Apparently, I was the first, and remain the only woman to fly the F-35 so far. While I don’t think this makes a compelling storyline, I appreciate the fact that publishing it may encourage more young men and women to join the military and perhaps fly fighters. And we definitely need them!
The fact of the matter is, women flew fighters over 73 years ago! Those women, the Women Airforce Service Pilots, are true heroes. I couldn’t begin to imagine the obstacles they had to overcome with the social norms that existed then, despite the fact that our country needed them. Nor can I imagine tolerating the treatment they received by our government once they were disbanded.
I hold the WASPs in the highest regard and have had their photos on my wall since I entered the Air Force almost 20 years ago. They have inspired me throughout my career. I’ve been fortunate to meet quite a few of them on several occasions. What strikes me is that despite their diverse backgrounds and lives after the WASPs, their love of their time as WASPs, each other, and aviation, is the same. Each one of them has a spark in their eye, a flair of rebelliousness, and true grit. I’m so thankful that my daughters have heard their stories and met some in person and developed a respect for these women. Their courage and perseverance are awe-inspiring!
Watch as Lt Col Mau takes her first flight in the F-35!