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'The Jet Doesn't Care:' 1st Female F-35 Demo Pilot Says She's Focused on Excellence

Jul 31, 2020
by Oriana Pawlyk
Capt. Kristin "Beo" Wolfe, the new face of the U.S. Air Force's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter demonstration team, is "used to" being outnumbered as a female pilot.

Wolfe, of the 388th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, has served in the Air Force for nearly a decade. But now, as the first woman ever to hold her job, she knows there’s an additional expectation to perform with superiority and excellence.

"A lot of people have misconceptions still about either females flying or females being fighter pilots, all the way from little kids … to adults," she said. "So that's probably the most important part, is that they get to see it … for them to see that anything's possible."

At the same time, she said, "the jet doesn't care if you're a male or female."

While modest about her achievement, Wolfe, whose call sign "Beo" stands for an acronym she didn't wish to disclose, is part of an exclusive community of military women who fly the Pentagon's premier -- and most expensive -- stealth jet.

There are 11 active-duty female F-35A pilots as of earlier this month, according to the Air Force. By comparison, there are 286 active-duty male pilots flying the F-35 in the service.

The other military branches have even fewer female F-35 pilots. The Navy currently has two female F-35C pilots -- one is an instructor at the Strike Fighter Squadron 125, and the other is an F-35C weapons school instructor, Naval Air Forces said.

The Marine Corps has three female pilots currently flying the F-35. One full-time aviator and a student pilot fly the F-35B, while another student in the training pipeline flies the F-35C, according to service spokesman Capt Joseph Butterfield.

"In the military, females are outnumbered in general," said Wolfe, a military brat whose father was an F-15C Eagle pilot. "It just gets narrower and narrower as you get into the pilot community and then the fighter pilot community.

"But my only mission as a demo pilot is for us to just get on the road to show off the F-35," she added.

Wolfe admits that it has not been the easiest task, with many air shows canceled amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. Still, she is taking to the skies more often at Hill to get her flight hours in, and helping out with instructing where she can.

A former F-22 Raptor pilot, Wolfe can use her skillset flying for audiences at air shows or for an overseas deployment.

"The biggest difference is just my focus," she said.

Wolfe flies a combat-ready fifth-generation jet even as a demo pilot. "It's not stripped down. It could completely go to war the next week if we want it to," she said.

The demo show typically simulates how the F-35 can perform in combat. "That's kind of the message we try to share with everybody," she said.

Wolfe has an earlier milestone under her belt: She was part of the Air Force's first squadron to deploy the F-35A to the Pacific in 2017.

"We're sitting at Kadena ... getting intel updates and daily statuses of anything in this theater, like if North Korea is doing something," Wolfe said about the rotation to the air base in Okinawa. "It was huge, for not only the F-35, but for the 34th Fighter Squadron, which ... was the first operational Air Force Squadron that we had" at Hill.

The unit flew alongside the Marine Corps' F-35Bs operating out of Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan.

"To declare that we finally had enough pilots to fill the squadron and fly the jets out there and operate for six months was really kind of a testament to how quickly we got the squadron up and running and ready, and we were out the door," she said.

As for her future, it hasn't been decided whether she'll go to a training unit or a combat-ready unit following the 2020-21 demo team season. As the service builds its ranks of female pilots, Wolfe said she'd like to see one at her next rotation -- but it's not something she expects.

"I was the only female in my squadron for three years at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, and then the only one here for a couple years," she said. There are currently five women flying the F-35 at Hill, she added.

There's been slow but steady progress for women to see combat in the jet. Last month, Capt. Emily "Banzai" Thompson, also of the 388th, became the first woman to fly the F-35A Lightning II in combat in the Middle East.

"If we only make up less than 4% of the community, then that's going to happen, but it's definitely not going to happen pretty quickly," Wolfe said of breaking barriers in combat.

For now, she said she is just happy to be part of the growing F-35 community, both as an instructor and the demo lead.

"We tend to focus too much on the female aspect. I'm just lucky to be in this job," she said.

"We're concerned with having the best fighter pilots that we absolutely can go to war with, because at the end of the day, it's all you care about: Is your wingman competent? Can they save your life? Can you rely on them?"

* * * * *

Photo caption: Capt. Kristin "BEO" Wolfe, F-35A Lightning II Demonstration Team pilot and commander is interviewed by local media after an airshow demonstration practice at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. (U.S. Air Force/Cynthia Griggs)


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