Breaking Barriers as a Female Fighter Pilot

Posted on Tue, March 6, 2018

When you ask pilot Heather Penney to tell you her favorite aircraft to fly, her answer will be, “whatever I’m flying on that day.” For Penney, who goes by the call sign Lucky, there have been a number of aircraft to choose from during her groundbreaking career in aviation (including the F-16!). Penney signed up for the Air Force as soon as they began accepting female fighter pilots in 1993. She was the only woman in her training class and the only woman in the 121st Fighter Squadron with the Washington, DC, National Guard. She was also a 9/11 first responder with the 121st.  

After serving two tours of duty in Iraq, Penney is currently the director of U.S. Air Force Training Systems at Lockheed Martin. Her career has been driven by talent, passion, and grit. She credits the aviation community for helping her succeed. “Flight helps us become our better selves,” Penney said.

With decades of groundbreaking service under her belt—and many achievements yet to come—Penney reflects on what it means to be a woman in aviation and the commitment it takes to succeed, no matter what the field.

A US Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon, like the one flown by Heather Penney.

It’s never too late to find your passion—and it’s ok to have more than one!

Growing up, I loved the aviation community. I was fascinated by flight, but I was not singularly focused on becoming a fighter pilot. I had a number of different interests: I danced ballet for a long time. In high school, I was in marching band, and I was also in drum corps. I was in the theater. I had a lot of varying interests, but flight always continued to be a constant passion for me.

I stumbled into fighter aviation in graduate school. I had wanted to be a fighter pilot, and I had intended to sign up for ROTC when I got to Purdue, but women couldn’t be fighter pilots back then. I ended up going into literature, history, and philosophy. I was in the middle of my master’s degree in American Studies when I learned that the combat restriction had been lifted for women. That’s when I returned to that dream of becoming a pilot.

If we see female pilots, more and more of us everywhere, it’ll never occur to a young girl that she couldn’t be one, too.

Love your purpose more than you love your ego.

I think the desire to prove oneself, to test oneself, is an important motivation. And not just to prove someone else wrong, but to really test our own skill. That effort is really about pushing yourself to reach your potential and not settle for less. Though, there certainly had to be an element of proving all my naysayers wrong, because there were a number of those! You can’t let them get you down.

Regardless of the environment, the key thing is to truly be committed to being excellent in what you do. There’s inherent value in just achieving mastery and skill, and that’s the more important thing. Because you’ll have days when you really screw up and you’ve performed poorly. If you’re more concerned about what other people think of you than what you’re actually doing, you’ll never be able to survive those days.

If you’re truly committed and have purpose in your heart for what it is that you’re doing, that’s what gives you the strength to get up the next day and go try again—regardless of the naysayers, regardless of how badly you’ve fallen on your face the day before. Because you have a long-term commitment, you’re disciplined, and you love your purpose more than you love your ego.

John Penney and his daughter Heather Penney aboard their Piper Cub. 

Failure is a necessary and integral part of learning.

Who hasn’t had one of those days? Your skin burns, your throat closes up. They say you can’t take it personally, but of course you take it personally when you care intensely about what you’re doing! You have to own your actions, you have to own your mistakes. You have to raise your hand and say, “I really screwed that up and it was my fault.” That is not an easy thing to do! Rather than using your emotions to protect your ego, you have to care more about how to learn from those lessons so that tomorrow when you go out, you can do better. Use those emotions to increase your commitment and determination to improve and succeed!

When I was in T-37 training, I thought I was never, ever going to pass the instrument phase. If you’ve ever seen the instrument panel of a T-37, it’s not the easiest. It was really a challenge for me, because I was more of a stick-and-rudder pilot and I had not had much experience with instruments. But I didn’t sit around and feel sorry for myself.

I went home and I studied harder and went in after hours and flew the simulators. I did things over and over and over until it began to make sense and I could do all of the intellectual and physical tasks of instrument flight in the T-37. I passed! I was able to overcome the challenge—what it took was a dogged determination to continue to work hard and a commitment to not give up and to not lose hope.

It’s never too early to be a role model.

Someone who made a huge impact on me was USAF Lt. Col. Christine Mau, the first female F-35 pilot. She went through pilot training a couple classes ahead of me. She helped give me encouragement when I was all out of it for myself.

One of the challenges of being a woman in an all-male environment is that, especially in the fighter world when I went through training, all the instructors were male. It was a de-facto boys club (though the guys I worked with were great!). I just did not know how to fit in. Having the encouragement that Christine gave me just made all the difference in the world.

It’s funny when I look back on it, because she was only two classes ahead of me. She was just another student pilot! But she had such a positive impact on me. It’s never too early to reach your hand down to help someone else up the ladder. You don’t have to have arrived, you don’t have to be someone, to help someone else out. It’s never too early in your career to be that role model, to be that mentor, that coach. Don’t wait to pass it on.

Pilot Heather Penney. Credit: United States Naval Academy. 

If you can see it, you can be it.

When you take a look at the female pilot population across the United States, women comprise only six percent of all certificated pilots! Part of increasing the percentage is increasing the visibility of women who are pilots. There is truth to “If you can see it, you can be it.” If we see female pilots, more and more of us everywhere, it’ll never occur to a young girl that she couldn’t be one, too.

Join pilot Heather Penney at the “We Can Do It! Women in Aviation and Space” Heritage Family Day on March 10 at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. From 10 am to 3 pm, enjoy hands on activities for the whole family, take your own Rosie the Riveter-inspired photo, and hear from special guests from the aviation field.