Changing Perceptions

  • Published
  • By Maj. Candice Allen
  • 926th Wing

In 2018, a young boy picked up his video game controller in his house as he has done many times. He turned on Fortnite and selected his go-to character to battle with – a female skin.

The other kids on the game began teasing him about his character choice.

His reply? “I just like that skin. My mom is a fighter pilot and girls can pretty much do anything, so I can pick whatever skin I want.”

The boy’s mom is Lt. Col. Caroline Jensen, an Air Force Reserve F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot who often plays the aggressor pilot in the Air Force’s premier air-to-air training exercise, Red Flag.

Before April 28, 1993, the Air Force only allowed females to fly non-combat aircraft. Fighter aircraft were included in that category. However, on that day, the Defense Department lifted the combat exclusion policy allowing women to serve in most aviation positions. A year later, the Air Force produced its first female fighter pilot – then 1st Lt. Jeannie Leavitt.

“The combat exclusion was lifted during my senior year in high school as I was applying to the U.S. Air Force Academy,” Jensen said. “I was literally writing a paper on what I wanted to do after high school for my English class when the news broke on the television. Of course, I was writing about going to the Academy and was over the moon to see history changing before my eyes, a change that would allow me to pursue my dream. I will never forget that moment.”

Jensen’s pilot dream began when she was 5 years old, seeing her father fly as a helicopter pilot as a Marine in Vietnam and later as an Army National Guardsman. She enjoyed watching movies about flying too.

“I vividly remember seeing a movie with a biplane flying around cumulus clouds and I was fascinated by it.”

Later as a teenager, Jensen saw the Thunderbirds perform at an air show in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. At the event, she narrowed down her pilot choice. She wanted to become a fighter pilot. Though it could only be a dream deferred at that time since combat exclusion was still in place, Jensen pressed forward with her dream, entered the Academy and became a cadet. Jensen was never deterred by being one of the few.

Fast forward two years after the policy lifted, Jensen saw Lt. Col. Martha McSally, an A-10 Thunderbolt II pilot, become the first female in the Air Force to fly in combat.

Jensen selected the F-16 Fighting Falcon as her weapon of choice following pilot training, and a tour as a T-38 First Assignment Instructor Pilot.

 “I was fortunate to get to fly the F-16 and employ it in combat.” 

Jensen went on to fly almost 200 hours in combat, which equals 8 days in a fighter aircraft. Her first combat deployment occurred in the late 2000s. She maintained confidence in her ability.

“The phrase ‘failure is not an option’ was true during that time,” Jensen said. “That phrase doesn’t mean you can’t fail, it means you won’t fail. Things will not go perfectly either, but we are trained for any anomaly that happens in aircraft systems, airspace coordination, weather, attack requirements, you name it. All my training led up to that point.”

Jensen also had a unique experience as her expeditionary fighter squadron had a few female pilots while deployed.

Jensen recalled a specific time when the Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) continuously asked the pilots to individually read back their own search responsibilities separately thinking there were two fighter pilots – one male and one female. Finally, Jensen realized he thought he was hearing from only one pilot on the radio and said, “It’s your lucky day, you have two female pilots looking out for you guys tonight.” Her wingman was female too. The JTACs were amused and appreciative to have that two-ship providing cover for them that evening.

Jensen likens the female voice on the radio to the A-10 Warthog effect. You hear them; you know their capability; and you can trust them.  

“The entire squadron was extremely successful in executing the mission; however, the women did more damage to the adversary than others. We were a proven entity,” Jensen said.  

In the end to Jensen, it wasn’t just about being a female pilot.

“I have had a lot of support from great commanders and ‘bros’ along my journey. Most fellow pilots are supportive and I’m proud to be a part of an amazing community of warriors,” Jensen said.

“And at the end of the day, the aircraft doesn’t know if you are male or female and your officership, leadership and skills all speak for themselves.”

Jensen, a combat-proven pilot, joined the ranks of other women who have flown in combat since the Defense Department lifted the combat exclusion policy.  

Jensen’s skills speak for themselves.

Just like the female skin in the video games.