AL DHAFRA AIR BASE, United Arab Emirates --
Throughout the day and night, air refueling missions regularly come and go out of Al Dhafra Air Base, delivering fuel to various aircraft in order to extend their time airborne in support of regional missions.
However, on August 1, 2021, the KC-10 Extender aircraft taking off from ADAB was unlike all the rest: its mission was supported entirely by women.
In recognition of Women’s Equality Day, which is observed on August 26, the commander of the 908th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Lindsey Bauer, conceived a plan to execute a completely ‘unmanned’ KC-10 mission.
“The last time I was deployed to Al Dhafra in August 2011, we flew an all-female flight,” she said. “I was the aircraft commander of that mission, and we saw morale instantly increase when getting four women together.”
It’s not that Bauer prefers to fly with a specific gender, but she recognizes that in a predominantly male career field, “there’s just an honor and a huge appreciation for being able to form an all-female crew, especially in a combat environment.”
The four female crewmembers onboard, two pilots, a flight engineer and a boom operator, had to be pulled from four completely different flight crews since women are still the minority in the flying community.
Among U.S. Air Force pilots, approximately six percent are women, and Capt. Carly Jones, KC-10 pilot, 908 EARS, is one of them.
Jones, who served as the aircraft commander for the all-female flight, decided to pursue a career in flying after growing up with a family friend who went to the U.S. Air Force Academy and was a C-141 StarLifter pilot.
“She introduced me to the military and really opened that door for me,” Jones said. “After I experienced flying at the controls at USAFA, I knew there wasn’t anything else I wanted to do.”
U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brianna Wilson, 908 EARS, is one of only a few female boom operators on base, and like Jones, she has a passion for what she does.
“I could talk for days about reasons I love my job,” Wilson said, “but I was sold on the refueling itself, flying overall and the travel that comes with it.”
Even more rare than female boom operators, are female flight engineers. U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jordana Gordon is the only female flight engineer in the entire 908 EARS, and her desire to serve led her to enlist.
“I ended up in aviation quite by accident,” Gordon said. After spending some time in a flying squadron, she recognized the morale and comradery.
“I loved that everyone was passionate about their job and happy to be there,” she said. “I was invited to interview, and here I am.”
With a year of training and two years on the job as an active flight engineer, Gordon is used to working with all men.
“My training was done by all men, my instructors are all men,” she said. “This was the first time I’ve flown a mission with all women, and the entire flight, there was an awareness that this flight was different-- this is rare and we were all accomplishing something special together in that moment.”
The women agreed that they are happy to serve with any Airman, male or female, however the opportunity to support an ‘unmanned’ mission was a unique and exciting opportunity that required an “Athenian effort” to make happen, Bauer said.
The feat was even bigger than initially meets the eye. Not only were the four primary aircrew members female, the support personnel who assisted along the way were also all women.
“The fact that we were able to make an all-female crew happen overall was special,” Wilson said, “but having women involved in almost every single aspect of the flight from start to finish was empowering, cool and a lot of fun!”
Women from multiple organizations came together to accomplish the mission each step of the way. Female Airmen generated the flight orders, delivered the pre-mission intelligence brief, prepared the aircrew flight equipment, chauffeured the crew where they needed to be, conducted maintenance operations to ready the aircraft for the mission, recovered the aircraft at the completion of the mission, and photographed the process along the way.
U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Jesca Taylor, electrical and environmental systems specialist, and Airman 1st Class Marilyn Sossa, crew chief, both assigned to the 380th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, were on the ground pre-flight to ensure the aircraft was safe and ready for the mission.
These maintainers agree that being a woman in the aircraft maintenance world can be challenging.
“Being a female in a maintenance career pushes me to outperform and strive for greater standards because you know there is a bigger set of eyes on you,” said Sossa. “Being in the spotlight can be draining, but I’ve adapted to my work environment, established a good reputation and cherish what I do.”
Taylor agreed. “At times it can be challenging to prove yourself to the men,” she said. “Oftentimes I have to work twice as hard to prove that I am capable of doing the same job and I am part of the team that supports the same mission.”
Both women agreed that much like any job, once they proved themselves, they have been treated with respect and trust, and this particular mission gave them the opportunity to demonstrate their capabilities using only “girl power.”
“It was my dream to directly support a mission that is an all women crew,” Taylor said. “The maintenance workforce is mostly men and having the opportunity to complete a mission that was supported by women is greatly exuberating and gratifying.”
Completing a single flying mission requires a lot of work, before, during and after, and to commemorate the significant feat of doing so with all women, U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Liza Matson, co-pilot for the mission, designed an “Unmanned KC-10 Flight” patch for all the women who played a part.
“The patch recognizes the additional empowerment we inherently feel when working side-by-side with all females,” Bauer explained. “We can do anything… we can travel the world.”
All the women involved really appreciated being a part of this event.
“I think it’s really special to see what can happen when we support each other and come together,” Jones said.
The fact that it was such a challenge to mastermind the all-female flight simply shows that while women have come a long way, there is still so much more ground to cover, Bauer explained.
However these women are up for the challenge and are leading the charge for all women in the military and beyond.
“We’ve broken down barriers,” Gordon said, “and we’ll continue to do that every day going forward, not only in aviation, but in anything we set our minds to.”
As a commanding female in the Air Force, Bauer’s efforts masterminding the ‘unmanned’ flight were a huge success and hope to inspire continued progress for women in the Air Force.
“We look forward to accelerating that progress and continuing to recognize our accomplishments every single day,” Bauer said. “This flight was a day where we could boost morale, execute a mission, make history, and ultimately, just have some fun.”