When Jeannie Leavitt graduated at the top of her flight training class at Laughlin AFB in Texas in 1993, she chose to fly the McDonnell Douglas F-15E Strike Eagle. She was denied her choice, because the Department of Defense policy at the time did not allow women to fly fighter aircraft. Her second choice – to be an instructor pilot on the supersonic Northrop T-38 Talon – was also denied her, because the Air Force wouldn’t assign anyone right out of flight training to be an instructor. Instead, Leavitt was assigned to the McDonnell Douglas KC-10 Extender tankers at March AFB in California.
But Leavitt never started training for the KC-10 because that year, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin ordered the service chiefs to drop the prohibition on women flying combat aircraft. Air Force Chief of Staff General Merrill McPeak, was willing to allow women to fly in combat if Congress passed the necessary legislation, but he was hardly enthusiastic, telling a reporter, “Personally, I am not eager to increase exposure of our women to additional risk.”
The political climate in Washington was also changing. Prior to 1991, there were only two women in the US Senate – Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas. But the 1992 election saw four women elected to the US Senate – Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer from California, Carol Moseley Braun from Illinois, and Patty Murray from Washington.
Congress approved the needed legislation to back the Secretary of Defense’s directive and in July 1993, 1st Lieutenant Jeannie Flynn reported for the F-15E Strike Eagle training course with the 555th Fighter Squadron “Triple Nickel” at Luke AFB in Arizona. At the time, pilots bound for the Eagle community trained with one of several training squadrons with the 405th Tactical Training Wing in Arizona.
Leavitt described becoming the first female USAF fighter pilot:
“Quite honestly, I didn’t want to be the first. I actually asked if I could be the twelfth, thirteenth or fourteenth. I didn’t want the attention or the added pressure of being the first. If those are the terms of the deal, I’ll take it because I really want to fly fighters.”
Born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, Leavitt was only 9 years old in 1976 when women were first allowed into flight training in the USAF. She earned an undergraduate degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin and a masters in Aeronautics and Astronautics from Stanford University before joining the Air Force in 1992 through the ROTC. It wasn’t enough to learn about designing fighter aircraft, she wanted to fly them.
Completing her F-15E Strike Eagle training, Leavitt’s first combat assignment was with the 336th Fighter Squadron “Rocketeers,” part of the 4th Fighter Wing at Seymour-Johnson AFB in North Carolina. The 4th Fighter Wing was the first operational F-15E Strike Eagle unit and was in the midst of conversion to the F-15E during Desert Storm. The 336th Fighter Squadron was one of two that debuted the Strike Eagle in combat in the skies over Iraq. Leavitt recounted her challenges as a new F-15E wingman on her first Red Flag exercise:
“When I was a brand new Strike Eagle wingman and I came out to Red Flag, I was very much a target. Everyone knew who I was and knew that I was the first female fighter pilot, and quite honestly there were a lot of adversaries that wanted to take down my aircraft. My flight lead got a lot of kills during that Red Flag. Every time someone tried to roll in and kill me he would kill them. So, it was an entertaining deployment, and you have to take that challenge and turn it into an opportunity, and that’s what we did.”
Leavitt became an F-15E instructor pilot after completing the prestigious Weapons Instructor Course with the 57th Wing at Nellis AFB in Nevada. She held a number of F-15E assignments with the 391st Fighter Squadron “Bold Tigers” with the 366th Wing at Mountain Home AFB in Idaho and the 17th Fighter Squadron with the 57th Wing at Nellis where Leavitt trained other pilots who were going to become F-15E instructors before returning to Seymour Johnson AFB in North Carolina to the 334th Fighter Squadron “Eagles.” Leavitt soon assumed command of one of the fighter squadrons, the 333rd Fighter Squadron “Lancers.”
In 2012, Leavitt became the first woman in the USAF to command an entire combat wing when, as a Colonel, she assumed command of the 4th Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson AFB and its four operational and two training F-15E squadrons. At the time Leavitt assumed command of the 4th Fighter Wing, she had amassed more than 2,500 flight hours in the Strike Eagle, 300 of them in combat missions in the Middle East.
“It helped that once we started flying, people began to see that we were there because of our abilities and not our gender. I don’t see it as a `first’ sort of thing. I see it as an incredible opportunity, an incredible honor, to lead a unit with its history and heritage.”
In 2016, after serving as the principal military assistant to Assistant Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, Leavitt was promoted to Brigadier General and assumed command of the 57th Wing at Nellis AFB, the largest composite combat wing in the USAF with the most diverse set of assets.
The wing is the operational unit of the USAF Warfare Center and home to the Red Flag exercises. The mission of the 57th Wing is to train crews not to fly, but to fight. The USAF Weapons School alone has 16 squadrons for graduate level training in advanced combat tactics. The 57th Adversary Tactics Group is in charge of the “Aggressors” that play the role of adversaries in the Red Flag exercises. And of course, there’s the best known squadron in the 57th Wing, the Thunderbirds.
Leavitt made her final flight with the 57th Wing on 8 May 2018 and relinquished command to her successor in June. She is currently the commander of the Air Force Recruiting Service at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas. She was kind enough to meet with actress Brie Larson as Larson prepped for her role as Carol Danvers in the upcoming Marvel film, “Captain Marvel.“
More: See out how Leavitt and the U.S. Air Force are engaging the next generation of women through the new recruitment campaign “Every Hero Has an Origin Story.“