She Once Was Barred From Fighter Jets. Now She’s the Pentagon’s Only Female Four-Star

 In U.S. Air Force

Editor’s note: This arti­cle by Oriana Pawlyk originally appeared on Military.com, a lead­ing source of news for the mil­i­tary and vet­er­an com­mu­ni­ty.

It was the morn­ing of June 18, 1983. Jacqueline Van Ovost, just 17 at the time, got up early to wit­ness his­to­ry in the making.

She flew her father’s Cessna 172 Skyhawk up the coast from Fort Pierce to Melbourne, Florida, rough­ly 25 miles from Cape Canaveral, where Sally Ride was about to embark on NASA’s sev­enth shut­tle mis­sion and become the first woman in space.

Donning her blue “Ride, Sally, Ride” T‑shirt in the cock­pit, Van Ovost cir­cled in the sky for most of the morn­ing in a hold­ing pat­tern as the space shut­tle Challenger pre­pared for liftoff, final­ly streak­ing across the sky.

Van Ovost, now an Air Force four-star and head of Air Mobility Command, kept that T‑shirt for the next 30 years, partly to cel­e­brate Ride’s momen­tous achieve­ment — but mostly because it sym­bol­ized oppor­tu­ni­ty for women just like her.

“She made that much of an impres­sion on me,” Van Ovost said in an inter­view Thursday, adding that she never had the chance to meet Ride in person. “At the time, I was in Civil Air Patrol, and I could­n’t stop talk­ing about what the pos­si­bil­i­ties for any woman were at that point.”

Today, Van Ovost is the Pentagon’s only female four-star gen­er­al, and the fifth in the Air Force’s 73-year his­to­ry. She’s been a test pilot; com­man­der of a refu­el­ing squadron, a train­ing wing and an air­lift wing; and the head of the C-17 Globemaster III pro­gram at the Pentagon. She has served as the vice direc­tor to the Joint Staff, among many other post­ings fol­low­ing her grad­u­a­tion from the Air Force Academy in 1988.

But she does­n’t think of her­self as a trail­blaz­er.

“Frankly, I never wanted to be 'the first,' ” she said. “I’ve been for­tu­nate that other people have broken those glass ceilings and I’ve been able to blaze right behind them and widen the trail.”

Despite early strides, women like Van Ovost faced substantial barriers. For exam­ple, the Pentagon did not lift a decades-long policy that prohibited women from flying in combat until 1993.

While she des­per­ate­ly wanted to fly at Mach 1 fight­er speeds fol­low­ing under­grad­u­ate pilot train­ing, she was instead assigned to the C‑141B Starlifter, a cargo plane. But in 1993, she took a reas­sign­ment oppor­tu­ni­ty to become one of a few female test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base, California, flying air­craft such as the A-10 Thunderbolt II — a favorite — and the first iter­a­tion of the C‑17 cargo air­craft.

“I did a lot of dirt test­ing, which is dirt take­off land­ing per­for­mance and a lot of air­drop and per­son­nel drop test­ing, and heavy equip­ment loads,” Van Ovost said. “I thought to myself, ‘This is an expen­sive air­plane to put in a dirt field, to place in harm’s way’ and then, when Operation Iraqi Freedom came along, we used the air­plane to come in from the north and do air­drop and air land into dirt strips. … I thought to myself, ‘Wow, I was part of that.’ ”

The C‑17 is con­sid­ered the back­bone of air­lift oper­a­tions for the Air Force, despite being plagued with pro­duc­tion issues early on. Now, the ser­vice is look­ing beyond its decades-old equip­ment as it plans for the future bat­tle­field.

“What we do is a bit of physics, right?” Van Ovost said of the AMC mis­sion.

“We phys­i­cal­ly move people. We move pal­lets, equip­ment; we move energy or gas. We open air­fields and nodes, and we move patients. In the end, we have to do physics to ensure that the joint force can com­pete, deter and win, but what we’re going to be focus­ing more on now are the capa­bil­i­ties nec­es­sary to ensure that we can make better deci­sions before we have to start doing the phys­i­cal role. Meaning, what are we doing with data? How are we making precise decisions with respect to how we deploy, dis­trib­ute, sus­tain and maneu­ver the force?”

She added, “We are on that tra­jec­to­ry, but we need to focus a little more and accel­er­ate into areas that we tra­di­tion­al­ly don’t think about, like [how to con­nect] the force, and oper­a­tions.”

For out­side-the-box think­ing, Van Ovost is look­ing to airmen from diverse back­grounds.

“When people think about it in dif­fer­ent ways, you want a bunch of diverse people around the table con­tribut­ing to that solu­tion,” said the gen­er­al, who recent­ly sat on the Department of the Air Force’s Barrier Analysis Working Group within the Women’s Initiative Team. That team was instru­men­tal in amend­ing the service's cockpit height restriction policy, remov­ing its min­i­mum height require­ment for offi­cer appli­cants, as well as allow­ing some pregnant female pilots to stay in the cock­pit longer with­out need of a med­ical waiver.

The ser­vice is moving to topple entrenched bar­ri­ers and getting after biases that still per­pet­u­ate in its cul­ture, Van Ovost said.

“I’m all for it,” she said of the policy changes, such as the height restric­tion rever­sal. “If it still main­tains a mil­i­tary deco­rum, we still achieve com­man­der’s intent, and we do no harm, then why would­n’t we?

“I’m pretty proud of the Air Force for moving out as quick­ly as we have. But we’re not there yet,” she said.

As a cap­tain, Van Ovost said she made sure to act as a mentor or a guide in some way as more and more women came into the ranks — espe­cial­ly during her test pilot days when women were few and far between.

Male pilots viewed them as less capa­ble, she said. When she even­tu­al­ly became an instruc­tor, she wanted to instill into female pilots’ minds that they were just as ready as the guy next to them.

“I wanted to make the path wider — not nec­es­sar­i­ly easier — but wider, with greater oppor­tu­ni­ty and [fewer] bar­ri­ers,” she said.

Her main mes­sage for women in the ser­vice? “Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it.”

“It’s that imposter syn­drome [men­tal­i­ty], the small voice that you think you have in your head that says, ‘You’re not good enough, and even though some other person has done it, you are not as good as they are.’ It’s real and it can be par­a­lyz­ing,” Van Ovost said. “I don’t think that men often have that kind of inner con­flict.

“So, [know that] ‘I can reach for that knob, and I can go and try to be in the E‑ring if I wanted to,” she said, ref­er­enc­ing the top lead­er­ship offices inside the Pentagon.

A reach-for-the-stars mind­set is crit­i­cal not because it pro­duces his­to­ry makers, but because it drives airmen to become force mul­ti­pli­ers, cham­pi­oning those around them, she said.

“It does­n’t matter who they are or what career field, civil­ian or mil­i­tary,” Van Ovost said. “They’re the ones to help with who you’re going to be. It takes a vil­lage to raise a child, right? It takes all sorts of people to raise the right leader.

“The people who blazed the trail, the people who opened the door, those are the two most impor­tant; [but] the third most impor­tant is the one that walks beside you, and coach­es you along the way and says, ‘You know what? You can do this,’ ” she said.

This arti­cle orig­i­nal­ly appeared on Military.com

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