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Air Guard’s 1st Female F-35 Pilot has Inaugural Flight in Vermont

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Ryan Campbell,
  • 158th Fighter Wing

SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. – Three years of training led to one very important day. Over the Vermont mountains, history was made at 20,000 feet.

It wasn’t the first time for the 158th Fighter Wing. In 2019, it was the first wing in the Air National Guard to receive the F-35A Lightning II.

As the only wing in the Guard to fly a fifth-generation fighter, the Airmen have continuously made their mark, including recently completing the first overseas Guard deployment of the F-35.

Now, the latest chapter of Green Mountain Boys’ history has been written.

“I saw that they were having interviews. I was really interested in a fighter slot, and Vermont is just beautiful,” said 1st Lt. Kelsey Flannery, the first female F-35 pilot in the Air National Guard. “I was really excited, and I was lucky enough to get a pilot slot with them.”

Interviewing with the 134th Fighter Squadron in 2019, Flannery was part of a small group of hundreds of applicants selected to become the squadron’s newest pilots.

After being home for a week, Sept. 7, 2022, marked Flannery’s first flight as a member of the Vermont Air National Guard.

“I really wanted to be on the leading edge. I liked the focus it required and I liked the community a lot,” Flannery said about why she set out to be a fighter pilot. 
“It’s exciting to get up there, go fast and be able to employ weapons, so that was one of the more appealing parts of it.”

After a successful interview and hiring board, the 30-year-old former boxing instructor from Kentucky was sent to Officer Training School to get her commission.

Flannery already had a pilot’s license, so was able to go straight to undergraduate pilot training for over a year of successful training on T-6 and T-38 aircraft. That led to Intro to Fighter Fundamentals and Survival, Escape, Resistance and Evasion school.

Then came the time to get into an F-35 for the first time at the Air Force’s “B-course,” which lasted nine months.

“It was awesome, the instructors were top-notch,” said Flannery. “You felt very prepared to go into a single seat for the first time. It was super fun to go up there and work through problems on your own, figure it out and just learn to be a wingman.”

Unlike the other fighters in the Air Force inventory, the F-35 has no two-seat variant for training.

“We felt really prepared, the instructors were awesome and the simulators help prepare you very well,” said Flannery. “I guess the only thing you’re experiencing for the first time is the feeling of actually being in the jet, but you’re already exposed how to work through all the problems and you have a lot of experience up there with you with your flight lead.”

Flannery said she was excited to get back to Vermont and start flying with the wing.

“Flying in the B-course was a blast, but it’s really cool to be back,” she said. “I feel very grateful they gave me this opportunity and can continue learning from everyone here.”

Being back at the wing as a new pilot entails two years of full-time, on-the-job training to keep developing her skills as a fighter pilot.

She explained that though she is mission qualified and can be deployed, the two years will be spent learning from the wing’s instructor pilots and taking on certain roles in the wing, including working in the 134th’s scheduling office.

“Right now, I just want to be the best wingman I can be,” said Flannery.

The daughter of an Air Force pilot, Flannery said she always knew she wanted to fly for the military. After considering active duty, Flannery said she learned about the opportunities in the Air National Guard. Being selected by Vermont to fly the F-35 was “icing on the cake,” she explained.

Flannery said the topic of her being the first female in the Guard to pilot an F-35 never came up throughout the three-year process of becoming the latest pilot in the 134th Fighter Squadron.

“There’s definitely been a trail blazed already and I’m really grateful to the women who have done that, but nobody has brought it up and I feel very much like an equal here,” said Flannery. “People just treat me like a wingman and it’s great as it allows me to focus more on flying.”

Being back in Vermont, Flannery is full of praise for the F-35 and said she intends to make a career in the Vermont Air National Guard.

“I’d love to be able to deploy,” she said. “Right now, I feel like I’m in a great position to be able to learn from everybody, so looking forward to flights day-to-day and soak up as much information as I can.”

Capt. Jake Dubie, one of the 134th’s instructor pilots and the first one in the wing to hit 500 flying hours in the F-35, said Flannery did great in her first flight in Vermont.

“I met Kelsey three or four years ago when she first applied to become a pilot here, sat on the board and to be able to see her go from that and be lucky enough to get to fly her first flight here in Vermont was definitely super exciting,” said Dubie, who has helped train the more than 30 full-time pilots in the squadron.

“Never had to worry about her up in the air,” he said. “She did an awesome job, so it was definitely a lot of fun.”

The goals laid out for Flannery are to be the best fighter pilot she can be and be someone who can be trusted in the air, Dubie explained.

“Everything we do here is being part of a team,” he said. “Being able to employ your aircraft and do your job in a way that supports the team and makes us the most lethal F-35 squadron in the Air Force is kind of what we’re expecting, and I know she’s going to do a great job.”

Flannery said she was excited to be part of the 134th, a squadron that she said has a strong reputation in the fighter community and a history back to World War II.

“The heritage here goes back so many decades and it’s so important that we retain that heritage,” said Flannery. “It’s great to be in the Green Mountain Boys.”