Jackie Parker – Fighter Pilot

Interview by Eric Hehs

This article appeared in the April 1995 issue of Code One.

Jackie Parker photo

Soon after Defense Secretary Les Aspin announced in 1993 that women could be placed in US military combat roles, the New York Air National Guard offered Maj. Jackie Parker an F-16 assignment. Throughout her Air Force career, she had been the first female in a number of traditionally male assignments. She was Reese AFB’s first T-38 instructor pilot and the first female graduate of the USAF Test Pilot School. Parker will tell you that being first has not always been pleasant. The opportunity to fly the world’s best fighter, however, was too good to pass up. Parker is the first woman in the United States to be assigned to an F-16 fighter squadron.

Before setting out on a career of female firsts, Parker spent her earlier years being the youngest. This designation goes back to her birth as the youngest of five sisters. At age fourteen, she was the youngest student to attend the University of Central Florida and then, at seventeen, the youngest graduate. She took her bachelor’s degree in computer science to NASA where she became the agency’s youngest space flight controller. She was the Air Force’s youngest instructor pilot for the T-38 and for the C-141. Parker has accumulated over 3,000 flying hours in over twenty-five types of aircraft, including the F-16, F-111, F-4, A-7, C-130, C-141, KC-135, T-38, OH-58, and UH-60. After KC-135 Aircraft Commander School at Castle AFB, California, she was assigned to the 4952nd Test Squadron of the 4950th Test Wing at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, where she was program manager and test pilot for the T-38 head-up display program. She was also program manager and test pilot for the testing of the C-27. She was elected as outstanding T-38 academic instructor at Reese five times. She received the Air Force Commendation Medal in 1985 and 1988 and the Meritorious Service Medal in 1993. Parker doesn’t relish media attention. The fact that one photo of her gets extended play in the media, however, often creates the opposite impression. In reality, she accepts very few interview requests and usually only after she has established credibility at an assignment.

Code One’s Eric Hehs interviewed Parker in Syracuse, New York, where she is now one of two female F-16 pilots flying for “The Boys from Syracuse,” the 138th Fighter Squadron of the 174th Fighter Wing of the New York ANG.

How did you come to graduate from Florida University at age seventeen?
I did well on an IQ test in the fifth grade. I ended up skipping grades nine and twelve and then completed ten and eleven in one year. College was wonderful after that year in high school. My family was moving around a lot, so I had no high school social life to sacrifice by finishing at a young age. I wasn’t passing up any friends, and the stability of going to one school for three years was a blessing for me. I received a good education at an early age and participated in a lot of the social events. I dated and played tennis and soccer.

How much do you credit your IQ for your achievements?
My IQ helped, but my tenacity and persistence played a much larger role. IQ scores can be overrated. To say you are a genius really doesn’t mean much if you don’t do anything with your ability. When I talk before school groups, I try to emphasize that self-confidence is the real key to success and that you don’t have to go to college at fourteen or be a genius to be successful.

How did you come to be the first woman in many of the roles and positions you held during your Air Force career?
It was purely accidental. I didn’t want to be the first and certainly did not plan my career this way. When I showed up at Reese AFB, Texas, in 1981 with the desire to be a T-38 instructor pilot, I didn’t realize that Reese didn’t have any female T-38 instructor pilots. By the time I applied for test pilot school, I was surprised that a woman pilot had never attended.

The first year that women entered Air Force pilot training was 1976. I came in 1980. I can only guess that the women who came before me either weren’t interested in becoming test pilots or they didn’t qualify. Test pilot school seemed rather open to the idea of having women pilots. They already had several women engineer graduates. And the Navy’s test pilot school had both women pilot and engineer graduates.

As far as being the first female fighter pilot in the Guard, I owe that opportunity to Gen. Mike Hall, who was then the wing commander at Syracuse. I had met him when I was at test pilot school in 1989. When the law changed allowing women into combat roles in 1991, he called and wanted to know if I was interested. We didn’t know it wasn’t going to be until 1993 when women were allowed to assume combat roles. On 28 April 1993, I literally woke up to the news report on my alarm radio announcing that Secretary of Defense Les Aspin was allowing women to enter combat. I was called that afternoon by General Hall, sold my house on the 30th, and was sworn into the New York Guard on the first of May. It was a difficult decision to join the Guard knowing that, again, it would mean another first for me.

What made the decision so difficult?
It is difficult to operate under the enormous visibility and pressure of being the first and many times the only. When you are one woman out of 100 men, it is like working in a fishbowl I am under incredible scrutiny every day. People who think I am treated like one of the guys are kidding them selves. Up until now, the rules for women pilots were different. When the rules are different, you will be treated differently, which leads to discrimination. The funny thing is that I really am just like the other pilots. I would give anything to blend in. But that isn’t possible, so I just have to do the best I can. I have to fly well and be patient until I am accepted. I can’t wait until the day when interviews like this are no longer newsworthy and a woman in a flightsuit can walk around virtually unnoticed so she can just concentrate on doing her job and not constantly have to defend her right to do it.

It’s not a deep dark secret that females as fighter pilots have not yet been fully accepted. However, I have been in this field long enough to know that people do come around in time. It is human nature to resist change even if it is for the good. Change is always accompanied with a certain amount of turbulence. But once people adjust, they are better for it. Women in combat is a monumental event and will have a significant impact in society. It will be a few years before most people understand that this is a very positive step forward and will eventually improve the relationship between men and women.

Did you pursue your flying career because you viewed yourself as blazing trails for other women?
No. I just wanted to fly airplanes.

How have you been received from one assignment to another?
After college, I was at NASA for two years. I worked with astronauts, mission controllers, and some of the brightest people I have ever met. They treated me with tremendous respect even though I was very young. Then I joined the Air Force and went through pilot training at Reese. Student pilots aren’t treated with much respect to begin with. The timing was bad, too. I was in a class full of academy graduates who had been in the first class with women cadets. They all knew each other and were close. On top of that, many had bad experiences with the way women were integrated into the academy.

My experience at Reese was rather difficult. Reese was one of the last training bases to have women T-38 instructors. They didn’t even have a women’s restroom in the building. We had to use a toilet in a closet. The fear of sexual harassment charges wasn’t prominent in the early 1980s. Fifteen years ago our society was very different. Women were not accepted as well as they are today. The mentality in the Air Force was more to tolerate women. It wanted women to know that we were lucky to be there. It was a brutal environment.

After Reese, I went to Charleston, South Carolina, and flew the C-141. In the heavy world (flying larger cargo and transport aircraft), women are more easily accepted because we’ve been there longer. We aren’t novelties. The pilots were not as competitive, and we had great working relationships as well as great social relationships.

Test pilot school was positive as well. I was once again a novelty but was well accepted. Most of the people there are very secure with themselves. My being a woman wasn’t as big an issue. It did not monopolize my time as it had earlier. I was also getting more accustomed to being in a high-visibility environment.

As a test pilot at Wright-Patterson AFB, I was treated very well. I was in a squadron that had several women pilots and navigators. I was well respected. The unit had only a few test pilots. The people I worked with knew how difficult it is to get through test pilot school and they seemed to look up to me for having the ambition and drive to complete it. Wright-Patterson was a great assignment and helped give me the confidence and strength to enter the tactical community later.

In the fighter world, I am not looked at as Jackie Parker, but rather as the woman who may be taking something away. However, I have been accepted relatively fast. It takes time for the community to be comfortable working with women peers. The rest of the country has gone through the learning process of integrating women into the workplace. Both women and men have learned to make adjustments. The tactical world has not had a chance to deal with this extensive transition. They have been virtually isolated and can’t be expected to adjust over night.

Has your experience been different in the Guard?
Yes, because, on average, they are older and older people have been around long enough to know that change is a part of progress.

The Guard has some other advantages as well. By staying with a unit, members become very close by working together over many years. Once new members break into this group, it’s great. They don’t have to worry about moving and starting all over again.

Does the experience at Syracuse spill over to other units?
To some extent. But it is like any learning experience. You can’t learn to ride a bike by watching an instructional video. You have to fall off a few times before you figure out how it works.

The fact that Syracuse was the first unit to actively seek women sends many signals. First, they are saying they believe this is right. It also brings the reality that it is just a matter of time until all units will have women. The “boys” get a lot of calls from units from other bases all over the world asking how the “girl” is doing. I hope the information passed is favorable. But good or bad, truth or fiction, I can count on the fact that they all know something.

Our unit also has direct contact with other units in our daily training. Yesterday, for example, I was part of a four-ship of F-16s that engaged a three-ship of F-15s from another unit. During the engagement, I shot one down. In his defense, he was supposed to die given the scenario.

Because he was flying the F-15?
Now, I did not say that. No, the F-15s were flying red air and we were blue air. We somewhat handcuffed them. I had an advantage by design. Given the advantage, I was supposed to kill him. I don’t think he knew it was a woman until he heard the kill call over the radio. Apparently, he took a lot of grief. Now is this situation right or wrong? I don’t know. It’s just new. But it would be nice if it were so commonplace that no one commented.

But don’t fighter pilots have an image to uphold?
Sure we do. But is it considered weak to be shot down by a woman? I think it is fair to assume that this is implied. We all want to be respected and revered as strong. People look in the mirror and see somebody they want to see. Some see a hero, but that doesn’t mean they are one. Sometimes a pilot wears a flightsuit like it is medal of honor and seems to forget that flying airplanes is a privilege. Although it is dangerous, we pilots love it and we do it voluntarily. We shouldn’t expect the rest of the world to place us on a higher level because we chose to live more dangerously. The pilots I look up to are the ones who can look in the mirror and see something closer to reality. They are so secure about themselves that they can depart from what is considered “manly” and just be themselves.

How does your personality compare with the personality of other fighter pilots? Very similar. I think that is what surprised the guys. When male pilots first heard about women pilots entering combat, many thought about their mothers, sisters, aunts-people who are not pilots. It scared them into thinking that the Air Force was going to allow just anybody in pilot training. Studies have shown that pilots have very common personality traits. Female and male pilots have more in common with each other than with other people, even with those of their own gender.

Are you familiar with the presidential commission on the study of women in the military?
Yes. Along with the combat exclusion law being repealed, there was another bill sponsoring a study of women in combat. Although the study was not a prerequisite for allowing women in combat positions, it became a prerequisite. Many of the issues the commission studied were the same issues examined in the 1970s when women first became pilots, issues like strength, g-tolerance, and logistics. Women have been flying high-performance aircraft since 1973 in the Navy and since 1976 in the Air Force. The only new issue was whether we should be allowed to be in combat.

Were you asked to testify?
I heard they were having one of their sessions in Chicago. So I jumped in my car and drove there from Dayton to see if they could interview me. At the time, I was one of only two women who had flown the various Air Force fighters. Neither one of us had been contacted by the commission. (Eileen Collins, who completed her first flight in the Space Shuttle the week before Parker was interviewed, is the other.) Unfortunately, interviews had to be scheduled in advance.

But my effort was not wasted. After seeing me in Chicago, the commission put me on the anthropometrics panel. I was one of the smallest pilots in the Air Force and I’d flown almost thirty different aircraft in the Air Force inventory. My height and weight put me in the 0 to 1 percentile for pilots. I ended up testifying in Dallas, Texas.

What did you have to say about size and strength?
My testimony lies in what I have flown. I have experience flying many different types of aircraft, including the F-16, the F-4, the F-111, and the heavies-the C-141 and the KC-135. One of the prime concerns with women flying fighter aircraft has been associating g-tolerance with physical strength. Apparently, I have the size and the strength to do it. I’ve never had a problem in any airplane.

To prepare for my testimony, I discussed this very issue with the expert who did the actual testing in the 1970s. He was stationed at Wright-Patterson. After looking at different programs and studying how strength is measured, the expert indicated that strength is almost impossible to quantify accurately. Too many factors are involved, including motivation, leverage angles, and body position. I took the strength test and did better than sixty-five percent of the USAF Academy students in upper body strength. What does that result say? That I am stronger than sixty-five percent of a bunch of twenty-two-year-old men?

If strength is an issue, it is not a gender issue. If strength is a realistic standard for a particular job, measure strength. Don’t say I can’t perform a particular job simply because I am a woman.

Did your testimony influence the commission?
There’s no way to tell. The results came out against women in combat roles by a vote of eight to seven. Given the composition of the commission, the vote was not a surprise.

Should standards based on height or strength be lowered or be done away with?
Standards should not be lowered, but they should be realistic. If you want to eliminate women, you can by creating height standards and strength standards. Many combat jobs don’t require a 250-pound brute. You may need a small quick person to go behind enemy lines, under fences, and in tiny places in aircraft fuselages. Not every country in the world has a population as big as America’s. But their military forces fly our airplanes. It is important that we open up our minds and take advantage of the majority of the population to do the job. If you incorporate the variety of talents that both small and large people offer, you end up with a diverse team that can do a greater variety of jobs rather than a limited, but physically larger, force. Admission standards need to be determined on the basis of real needs of the mission, such as passing a centrifuge evaluation for flying high-performance aircraft.

What about pregnancy and increased time off for medical reasons?
Most women plan their pregnancy around flying. It is not like a cold that they just catch. You won’t find many women getting pregnant during their flying tours because they want to fly. Studies have shown that men actually take more time off due to athletic injuries. As far as the rules go, for fighter aircraft, women can’t fly and be pregnant because of the forces involved with the ejection seat. In cargo aircraft, they can fly in their second trimester. If they can’t fly, then they perform ground duties and still contribute to the unit.

Most women plan their pregnancy around flying. It is not like a cold that they just catch. You won’t find many women getting pregnant during their flying tours because they want to fly. Studies have shown that men actually take more time off due to athletic injuries. As far as the rules go, for fighter aircraft, women can’t fly and be pregnant because of the forces involved with the ejection seat. In cargo aircraft, they can fly in their second trimester. If they can’t fly, then they perform ground duties and still contribute to the unit.

Women are coming into these combat positions as the forces are cutting back.This is the best time for the Air Force to go out of its way to accommodate women?

Even in a period of a drawdown, the military still recruits and should continue to recruit both women and men. There are some changes that need to take place, of course, now that many predominately male units will have more women. Restrooms and uniforms are two examples. It makes sense that aircraft, uniforms, and buildings have been designed around the male population because, for years, those designs reflected the military population. Now that the population has changed, we need to consider requirements based on the average individual as a opposed to the average male. At some time, we have to incorporate a more representative area of the selected population. The sooner we get through this, the closer we will be to unit effectiveness. This is the perfect time to change because there is no large crisis looming out there. Relative peace is a great time to make these changes.

How do combat roles relate to opportunity in the Air Force?
They are critical. The people who succeed in the Air Force are those closest to the mission, and that mission is dropping bombs and shooting down airplanes. The closer you get to that mission, the better off you are going to be. Fighter and bomber pilots are at the top of the pyramid. And they are above C-141 and KC-135 pilots, who are above people in the office. That arrangement may not seem fair, but that is the way it is. Most leaders and commanders in the Air Force are pilots.

Has the electronic nature of warfare made it any easier for combat forces to incorporate women?
Technology has certainly made it easier, but it has made it easier for all of us.

Why did the New York Guard choose you?
I think they wanted a person with an extensive background. Being the first woman in anything is not an easy job. It may be a little easier for me because I’ve done it before. So choosing me offers some extra security. They know I am the kind of person who is going to try to make the transition as smooth as possible.

Have most pilots given the gender issue much thought?
I would venture to guess that most pilots have entered a debate on this issue. Many men have told me that they were really against this change and that now they are defending my position.

Is the integration of women a subject of debate?
The issue of whether women are coming to a unit is not debatable. The policy is set. Questions on how the policy will be implemented are a different story.

Say I’m a squadron commander and a female pilot has just been assigned to my unit for the first time. Give me some advice on handling the situation.
First, you should talk to my commanders. The commanders that have been most successful with this transition have told me they truly believe that anyone who can meet the demanding standards of qualifying as fighter pilot should have the opportunity, regardless of gender. They are firm in their position that this opportunity is right and that the issue should not be one open to debate or left to popular decision. It takes a very strong leader to handle this situation well. You can’t be one of the boys. Trying to play both sides can lead to disaster because no one respects you. During the transition, of course, there will be problems with unit effectiveness, but they are only temporary. The problems can be minimized with aggressive and positive leadership.

Can you offer any advice for first females in a squadron?
The toughest thing to accept is that she is different. This difference isn’t always good and it isn’t always bad. The fact remains, no matter how much she might try to be one of the guys, she can’t be. It took me a long time to learn from some of my experiences. I am really stubborn. I really thought that I could change someone if I was nice enough or smart enough or funny enough. But I realized after a while that not everyone was going to accept me. It is a tough lesson.

Is being the second woman pilot in a squadron any easier?
Somewhat. The newness has worn off. A lot of it depends on how the first one handled the situation and if she performed well as a pilot. For some reason, women are compared with each other.

What are some of the techniques you use?
I try to do my best at everything that I undertake. To be respected as a pilot is one of the most important things that I can accomplish. I try to be myself. I use humor a lot. I don’t get on the defensive. If other people try to put me on the defensive, I get on the offensive.

I have been very fortunate to have had so many opportunities. This is the best job in the world, and I want to continue flying as long as I can. I have had a tremendous amount of support in every assignment. I couldn’t have made it so far without this support. In the last eight months, we have made phenomenal changes in Syracuse. The unit has been receptive to the change. I am lucky. I get along with most of the guys really well. I don’t have all the answers. I just do my best.

I don’t hide my femininity and that sometimes drives the guys crazy. My first day at Syracuse, I walked in with a pink pubs bag. (Editor’s note: “pubs bags” are cloth satchels in which pilots carry flight-related publications.) The test pilots from NASA at Edwards (California) gave it to me. They had it made special with the brightest pink fabric they could find. Most women wouldn’t come into an all-male squadron with something so abrasive. At first, the Syracuse pilots were in shock, but now they understand. I don’t try to be someone I’m not. I don’t try to behave like a guy. I am what I am–a fighter pilot.