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Female Fighter Pilot continues family legacy

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Julie Avey
  • 104th Fighter Wing

BARNES AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Mass., — Air Force Maj. Ashley Rolfe, a member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, is making history at the 104th Fighter Wing here as the first female fighter pilot in the wing’s 70-year history.

Having grown up near Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida as an Air Force “brat,” Rolfe wanted to follow in her father’s and grandfather’s footsteps to carry on the family legacy of military service.

“The noise of the sonic booms would shake the entire room,” Rolfe recalled. “I thought it was the coolest thing in the entire world. So I made my dad take me to all the air shows, and I would drag him from pilot to pilot and ask them, ‘How did you become a pilot?’”

Determined to Become a Flier

Most of them said the most direct path was the Air Force Academy, she said. “So, I was a 10-year-old girl in 5th grade saying, ‘I’m going to be a fighter pilot,’” she added. “I was usually shorter than everyone else, and people were usually saying, ‘OK, little girl.’”

Rolfe did go on to graduate from the U.S. Air Force Academy and serve in the active-duty Air Force for 11 years. In addition to serving at Tyndall, she has been stationed as a fighter pilot at Kadena Air Base in Japan and Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. She has deployed twice, most recently to Afghanistan for six months.

During her swearing-in ceremony to join the Air National Guard’s 104th Fighter Wing, she thanked the wing’s airmen for a warm welcome.

“I’m really excited to get to know everyone here,” Rolfe recalled saying at the time. “Hopefully, you don’t necessarily just see me as a ‘chick,’ but you see me as one of the pilots or one of the ‘bros.’”

“I think it is really awesome to hire our first female to the 104th Fighter Wing,” said Air Force Lt. Col. William Bladen, 104th Operations Group commander. Bladen said he’s known Rolfe since around 2012.

Rolfe said she flew T-38 aircraft in an aggressor role as part of the F-22 Raptor fighter program at her previous duty assignment at Tyndall before coming to the 104th.

Becoming a fighter pilot wasn’t easy, Rolfe said.

“For anyone going into flying fighters, it’s a challenge -- a lot of hard work, a lot of studying, and a lot of practice, [and] getting into the fighter pilot culture,” she said.

F-15 Fighter Pilot

Rolfe graduated from pilot training in 2007, fulfilling her lifelong dream to become an F-15 Eagle fighter pilot.

“I was the only girl in my first half of pilot training,” Rolfe said. “But then, I ended up transitioning after the first section of training. Once I went to the T-38s in Columbus, Mississippi, there was another girl in my class. She ended up being one of my bridesmaids, and we’re still very close. We were competitive, but still became lifelong friends, and she ended up going to [F-15E] Strike Eagles. We were a little nervous when we first met, because we are both type-A personalities, and who knew how that meshing was going to work? But it worked out great.”

Women first entered pilot training in 1976 and fighter pilot training in 1993. The Air National Guard has 195 female pilots. Of those, 10 are fighter pilots.

Kadena was Rolfe’s first duty assignment, where she served as the 67th Fighter Squadron as the only female F-15 pilot.

“At first, the guys were hesitant, because they hadn’t had a female in the squadron for a few years,” Rolfe recalled, “but it didn’t take long until I became just one of the ‘bros.’ They were very accepting and gave me just as much crap as I could give them. Brotherly love, pretty much, and [they] treated me as a little sister, picking on me.”

‘Fiercely Independent’ Daughter

Rolfe said she has a year-and-a-half-old daughter.

“She’s already a fiercely independent little girl,” Rolfe said.

“I just want to impart you don’t have to be limited by what other people say,” Rolfe said. “There was a high school football and baseball coach at my school when I was a senior. I had been telling people, ‘I want to go to the Air Force Academy. I want to be a fighter pilot,’ and blah-blah. He straight-up told me, ‘You won’t ever be a fighter pilot, because you are a girl.’”

Rolfe emphasized that she wants her daughter “to know even though someone might say you can’t do that, do the research and realize, ‘No kidding, if you put your mind to it, you can most likely do this.’”

Rolfe added, “Like my mom, she said I couldn’t fly off the dining room table when I was 2 and a half. I broke my arm doing it [anyway], and that’s the kind of thing my daughter got from me. I’m having to tell her, ‘Don’t stand on that rocking chair.’”