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Life as a Female Fighter Pilot

Posted on Mon, October 3, 2016
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Throughout her military career, Lt. Col. Christine Mau has helped prove that women can perform, outstandingly, in some of the toughest positions in the United States Air Force. And, as a fighter pilot, she has done so with only a small community of female military pilots.  

Mau began her career at the United States Air Force Academy at a time when women were forbidden to serve in combat positions—a fact that baffled her. “The Combat Exclusion Law blew my mind as over 50 years prior, the WASP[s] flew every aircraft the Army Air Corps had during WWII,” she said.

By the time she graduated and entered into the United States Air Force, the Combat Exclusion Law had been lifted for aviation positions. But this didn’t mean the young pilot’s career would be free from challenges. Mau recalls being among only a handful of women in the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training program, which, she remembers made it hard not to stand out.

“So I learned early on that growing thick skin, ignoring those who don’t support you, and persevering was the key to success.”

“If I had a good or bad flight, it seemed everyone knew about it,” she said. “So I learned early on that growing thick skin, ignoring those who don’t support you, and persevering was the key to success.”

Mau was also only the third woman assigned to the 492nd Fighter Squadron at RAF Lakenheath in the United Kingdom flying the F-15E Strike Eagle. It’s there she flew combat missions for Operations Southern Watch, Northern Watch, and Enduring Freedom.

Today, Mau is the first, and remains the only, woman to fly the F-35, one of the Air Force’s newest jets. She doesn’t share that fact boastfully, but rather hopes it inspires young men and women to become fighter pilots.

This Thursday, October 6, Lt. Col. Mau will discuss her journey at the Museum’s GE Aviation Lecture, Views from the Cockpit of the F-35. You can watch the lecture on Air and Space Live or request tickets to attend in person.

In the meantime, Mau agreed to answer a few questions for us.

When did you first know you wanted to be a pilot?
My earliest memory of wanting to fly was when I was about five years old; I remember watching fighter aircraft in the traffic pattern at the El Toro MCAS (Marine Corp Air Station) 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.

If you could fly anything right now, what would it be? 
Tough one. I’d like to fly the F-22 just for comparison sake since it’s also a fifth generation Lockheed Martin product.  But my passion would be to fly old war birds like the P-51 or P-40. 

What is the most amazing experience you’ve had in your job? 
A combat sortie in Afghanistan where we took out key leaders of the Haqqani network and recovered a sizeable cache of U.S. uniforms and weapons. I have seen no better example of teamwork and integration between the JTAC, MQ-9, and the 4 F-15E aircrew than during this particular sortie. 

What’s something people might not know about you or your job?
I’m a single mom of two amazing daughters.  Balancing work and motherhood is a continual challenge, but with the help and support of friends and family, I’ve managed just fine. And while my job requires a lot of hard work, it has never been unfulfilling.

Lt. Col. Christine Mau currently serves as Deputy Commander of the 33rd Operations Group at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Information for this story was gathered from Fly Girls and directly from Lt. Col. Mau.