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More Than A Passenger

By: 1st Lt. Elizabeth Pennell, USAF

(From left to right): Haley Gorie, Crew Chief: “Mo,” and 1st Lt. Elizabeth Pennell

People often ask me, “Did you know you wanted to fly when you were young?” If by that you mean, did I love adventure, was I comfortable in a mostly male dominant setting, and was I willing to do whatever it took to compete and win as much as possible? Then yes, I knew I wanted to fly when I was very young. As has been said, “Success is when preparation meets opportunity,” and I have been blessed with both… But not as you may think. 

Growing up in a small town in Montana, I didn’t know a soul who flew fighter jets, let alone a woman. Coming from an incredible line of both male and female patriots, I was in the shadow of many strong and fearless women who, as role models, prepared me for my future. I also learned discipline, as my three siblings and I were homeschooled all the way through high school, and it wasn’t easy.  Perseverance, discipline, excellence, and finishing strong were common themes in our home. I also had the opportunity to dance, play sports, learn piano and compete in English horse riding as a child and live in a faith-filled home with high expectations of the calling and purpose God had for my life. 

Close formation (fingertip) flight — coming up “initial”

My upbringing provided the mental and emotional preparation for flying, but the opportunities weren’t quite so apparent. I attended Montana State University on a full-ride Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC) scholarship and loved the camaraderie and people. Even into my junior year, I was uncertain of my direction in the AF until meeting an amazing group of people: the Order of Daedalians, Flight 121, of Bozeman, MT. These veteran pilots took me under their wings, believed in me, encouraged me, fought over which airframe I should fly, and funded my private pilot’s license. From that point I knew I wanted to fly–the fire was lit. After earning my degree, I was accepted into Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training (ENJJPT), where I attended Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) and Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals (IFF) before moving to Eglin AFB, FL. I am currently flying the T-38A in an adversary air assignment in support of the F-22 B-course before moving into a gray jet for my next assignment.

I have been blessed to work with amazing pilots, both men and women, and continue to be encouraged by the strong, courageous, talented women who have gone before me, defending and serving our country and making a way for future female aviators. Because of these daring women, I have a world of opportunities before me. My goals in the AF after this assignment are to earn a slot flying the F-22 Raptor and one day fly on the F-22 Raptor Demo team! I hope to inspire young girls everywhere to pursue their dreams, no matter how daring. But my highest calling is to serve both my God and my country wherever I am needed, honoring them in both word and deed and giving back just an ounce of what has been given to me through the opportunities and freedom available in this land I love.

During this March, a month honoring women’s contributions to flight, do I believe the future looks bright for female pilots? Yes, I do, and as the great Amelia Earhart said, “There’s more to life than being a passenger!”