10 Pioneering Female Military Pilots


Military aviation may indeed still be a male dominated field with a history with a sharply discriminatory history when it comes to matters of gender and race. However, the female military aviators who have pursued their careers, whether historically when they had to battle to be accepted, or modern members who benefit from equality policies despite unofficial discrimination, stand out in the history of armed flight. In this account, we look at 10 female military pilots, whether noteworthy or notorious who made their mark on aviation history.

10. Amy McGrath

A pioneer of girl power in aviation, Amy McGrath holds the distinguishing qualifier of being no less than the first female to pilot the formidable McDonald Douglas F/A 18 Hornet in combat. The determined fighter pilot joined the Naval Academy promptly after completing high school, later completing a masters degree in matters of global security. When still a child, McGrath became convinced that her future was in military aviation after a trip to see the planes at the famous National Museum of the United States Air Force left a particularly lasting impression on the intrepid young visitor.

During her 20 year service in military aviation, she was on 89 combat missions that included bombing missions against Al Qaeda. Her action saw her deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, carrying out duties that included providing ground support to troops. She handled challenging situations effectively and was inducted into the Hall of Fame at the Aviation Museum of Kentucky in 2016 before her 2017 retirement from the armed forces. She’s now running for Congress in Kentucky, and won the Democratic earlier in 2018.

9. Kyleanne Hunter


Flying airplanes is hard enough with their fixed wings and matters of piloting at hand. Flying helicopters is a step harder in many ways, and flying a combat helicopter in active deployment presents a suite of challenges that call some of the highest levels of skill demands, pressure and risk tolerance. While many of the female pilots in this list mastered propeller driven or jet combat aircraft, Kyleanne Hunter is a real life legend of menacing helicopter combat pilot mastery.

The skilled and determined Hunter served as a United States Marine Corps AH-1W “Super Cobra” attack helicopter pilot, and in her bid to be at the controls of this beast, became the first woman to pilot this formidable rotary winged combat machine. Taking the lethal and ideally camouflaged helicopter into combat between 2002 and 2012, Hunter served in Iraq and in Afghanistan on highly dangerous missions demanding only the best possible piloting, tactical strike and evasion techniques either taught or sometimes not taught in the flight training books.

8. Melitta von Stauffenberg

Born Melitta Schiller, one of Nazi Germany’s lead military aircraft creation and procurement masterminds was a technologically talented woman named Melitta von Stauffenberg. Despite her work for the Nazis, von Stauffenberg had a father who was of Jewish heritage, meaning she was considered half Jewish by the Nazis.  Before the outbreak of World War II, she was building a career as an outstanding aeronautical engineer, gaining her pilot’s licence by the time World War II began.

In 1936, oppression by the Nazis forced her to stop working on military aircraft, but as the war began, the murderous regime hypocritically brought her back to work as a designer/test pilot. She completed approximately 2,200 test flights for the Luftwaffe, and was decorated with the Iron Cross, second class by Herman Goering. In a peculiar twist to the story of this aviator, Stauffenberg’s husband was the brother of Claus von Stauffenberg, the German officer who attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler in a bid to topple the Nazi regime (the famous Operation Valkyrie). Her life was spared despite her arrest due to connection, but she died in a plane crash just weeks before the end of World War II.

7. Hazel Ying Lee

The contributions of minority groups to the Allied War effort has at times been forgotten and glossed over. Though China holds a large percentage of the world’s population, Chinese-Americans and Chinese-Canadians have unfortunately experienced discrimination as a minority in these immigrant countries that has at times become better known than some of their greatest contributions. Hazel Ying Lee was a Chinese born woman who unsuccessfully sought to join the Chinese Air Force to fight Imperial Japan as the country was threatening her homeland, but later moved to Hong Kong and then to the USA when it became clear they only sought male candidates at the time. Although she encountered ethnic and gender obstacles, Ying Lee became the first Chinese-American female in the US Air Force.

In her flying role, she transported aircraft and then taught American fighter pilots and prepared them for battle against the Axis. In one case, she was attacked by a farmer with a pitchfork in Kansas after an inflight emergency put her on the ground when the man mistook the Chinese woman for a Japanese combatant. Not intimated by challenges and increasingly trusted by those she taught despite institutional barriers, Ying Lee flew high performance aircraft including Mustangs and Thunderbolts on delivery missions, a duty that ultimately spelled her tragic fate. Tragically, Ying Lee died in a flying accident while transporting a P-63, an aircraft that became known for some safety issues.

6. Shawna Rochelle Kimbrell

While being a female fighter pilot is a distinction enough, Shawna Rochelle Kimbrell holds the added, barrier shattering distinction of being the first female African-American fighter pilot serving in the US Air Force. Kimbrell sought a career in aviation from a young age. Having her heart set on flying the formidable machines in the interests of national defense, Kimbrell Succeeded in gaining the right to join a combat unit and pilot the iconic legend of more modern aviation history, the F16 Fighting Falcon.

Her expertise has contributed to the removal of obstacles facing female pilots, African-American pilots, and female African-American pilots alike and supporting a more empowered and non-discriminatory environment in the ranks of the US Air Force. Her career path included flying at remote locations right from the start, including being stationed at Japan’s Misawa Air Base at the beginning of her career. Kimbrell later became the only female pilot flying from the Aviano Air Force Base.

5. Yu Xu

China is a country where gender equality measures have resulted in policies that include service of females in the armed forces. China’s most famous female fighter pilot, the tragically late Yu Xu was the first female pilot in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force to pilot the formidable Chengdu J-10 fighter jet. Sadly, Yu was killed in an accident that occurred during training. After bailing out of her plane, which crashed in a field in Hebei province, Yu was unfortunate enough to be struck by the wing of another aircraft upon exiting the aircraft.

A collision between aircraft flying close in formation during the process of the training maneuvers necessitated abandonment of the aircraft in the first place. Capable of air to air combat and ground mission roles alike, the J-10 is an aggressive looking delta winged fighter with canards. Deng Xiaoping authorized the building of the planes in a bid to create a domestically built fighter in China. The death of the female Air Force pilot was a blow to the public in China, who had referred to her as the “Golden Peacock.”

4. Maureen Dunlop de Popp

While British Royal Air Force aviator Maureen Dunlop de Popp did not see actual combat in World War II, she was an advocate for a woman’s role in aviation with a dramatic influence on the field. While her interest was primarily in combat flying, British restrictions on the roles of women in actual combat limited her prospects in aviation service. She trained pilots in World II and transported fighter aircraft for the RAF, including Spitfires.

While she contributed to the war effort with her aircraft expertise, she held a strong yearning for front line aerial battle action. She expressed her discontent and desire for battle by explaining that she did not feel it was fair for only men to risk or give up their lives in the specter of war. The result was that she did the flying duties she was permitted to undertake, but did not engage in any direct battle. Prominent was her contribution to aviation history, serving as an inspiration to women to bravely advance the horizons of flight. Having trained pilots and improved their chances of success, she further cemented her name into aviation history. She survived the war and, afterward, married a Romanian diplomat.

3. Lydia Litvyak

In the Second World War, the Soviet Air Force deployed female pilots into battle, having a view that women could be equally suited to addressing front line personnel shortages facing the country as World War II continued to take its toll. The need for more aviators was handled by training skilled crews of female bomber crews and fighter pilots, poised to take down the menace presented by the invading German Luftwaffe. The result included some successes that required a reckoning by enemy forces. Not only did female pilots train and serve in the Soviet regime as pilots, their involvement soon led to the development of a new profile of combat pilot: the female fighter ace.

These woman knew how to fly, how to shoot, and how to hunt down enemy aviators in cold and often dark conditions. Lydia Litvyak was one female Soviet fighter ace distinguished by being the highest scoring female pilot in World War II with 12 victories in total. An Annie Oakley of the skies, Litvyak was no less than the first female pilot to shoot down an enemy aircraft. With her successes, she went on to become a real life legend of aviation history in the making as the first ever female fighter ace to patrol the skies.

2. Katya Budanova

With its adopted policy of allowing women to become fighter pilots, the Soviet Union became recognized in World War II not only for bravery and determination in the air but also as the birthplace of the female ace. An expert handler of aircraft unimpeded by reticence in the face of combat, Katya Budanova was the second highest scoring fighter ace in the Soviet Air Force in World War II. While female pilots were a minority in World War II and front line fighter pilots of the female gender were even rarer, Budanova stood out as one of the most challenging foes an enemy pilot could be unlucky enough to encounter.

Budanova was an expert pilot and a great shot, becoming an ace and holding an impressive list of kills in air to air action against the Luftwaffe of Germany, including 6 solo victories in combat action as well as shared victories. In addition to being the second highest scoring Soviet ace, Budanova holds the title of being just the second female ace in the history of military aviation.

1. Martha McSally

Many of the pioneering woman pilots on this list who have demanded and proven equality have focused on fighter aircraft or been relegated to transport and training, in historic cases, due to gender biases. Martha McSally holds the distinction of piloting an exceptionally intimidating US Air Force ground attack aircraft, the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II, named in honour of the iconic World War Two aircraft by Republic. Often known as the “Hog” by pilots, the machine is armed to the teeth with bristling guns, cannons, and a wide suite of assorted ground attack armaments.

Designed to fly deep into enemy territory and efficiently wipe out even heavily protected and armored targets, the plane, itself heavy and armored, is no easy machine to master. Not only has McSally gained the distinction of being the first woman combat pilot to fly after the landmark lifting of ban on women in combat aviation in the US Air Force, she also put in a great deal of time. McSally flew 100 missions in the A10 Warthog. Furthermore, in addition to being the first female combat pilot in the United States, McSally holds the added distinction of being the first women to command a US Air Force combat unit. 

Just like our first entry, Amy McGrath, McSally has also transitioned to a life in politics. She’s been a member of the House of Representatives since 2012, and this year she’s running for US Senate on the Republican ticket in Arizona.

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1 Comment

  1. I miss Sabiha Gökçen, most probably, and at least according to the Guiness Book of Records, the first female combat pilot.