Shattering the glass ceiling at Mach 2.5

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Jennifer Shirar
  • 173rd Fighter Wing

When someone says fighter pilot…what do you picture?  Perhaps a mustached doppelganger of Val Kilmer and Tom Cruise clad in aviator sunglasses strutting on to the flightline.  And while there may be more than a few “Maverick” and “Ice Man” fighter pilots in the Land of No Slack, that is not the only persona one sees. 

At this moment, there are two female fighter pilots assigned to the 114th Fighter Squadron, with one more waiting to join their ranks shortly.  All three of them are playing different roles within the squadron.

1st Lt. Annalisa Sanfilippo is a current F-15 B-course student.  She commissioned out of the Air Force Reserve Officer’s Training Corps at University of Oklahoma in 2022. 

Sanfilippo says she initially did not plan to become a fighter pilot. “I have always been obsessed with the sky between weather and aviation.  I didn't come from a military or aviation family, so I never really knew flying was an option for me.”

Sanfilippo says she had planned to become a weather officer, but after shadowing a fighter pilot her sophomore year, she knew this was exactly what she wanted to do. 

  “The Eagle is a beast!” she adds.  “It can be the most exhilarating, exciting, fun, stressful, confusing, and painful experience all at once.  It is an absolute blast to fly.”

Once she completes the B-Course, Sanfilippo will be assigned to the 144th Fighter Wing in Fresno, California.

On the other side of the coin is Major Shanae Coker.  Coker is a permanent party member of the 114th FS and is assigned as the chief of scheduling and safety liaison for the unit.  Additionally, she flies as a two-ship flight lead for student training.

Coker initially commissioned through Officer Candidate School at the Coast Guard Academy in 2013.  She began flying for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as part of the Hurricane Hunter unit until 2020 when she decided to transfer to the Oregon Air National Guard.

“I didn’t know that aviation was something I’d become passionate about and certainly didn’t think I would become a fighter pilot,” says Coker.  “During my first flying lesson I was hooked and knew aviation was a career I would be passionate about.”

Coker will continue to fly the Eagle until she heads off to become an F-35 instructor pilot as part of the initial pilot cadre for Kingsley Field as they plan to transition to the F-35 when the Record of Decision is signed in 2026.

Another future F-35 Instructor pilot in the squadron is Capt. Deborah Guthmann.

Guthmann commissioned into the active duty Air Force as a physical therapist.  While at Luke Air Force Base, she worked in the fighter squadron and closely with the fighter pilots there.  After being exposed to the flying community, she realized she belonged in the air.

“I wanted to be at the forefront of the mission,” says Guthmann.  “I’ve served Army special forces, Air Force EOD, and fighter pilots and knew I fit the personality and desire of someone who wants to protect, grow, and do what others cannot.”

Guthmann was hired by Team Kingsley in 2023 and is currently waiting for her pilot training dates.  In the meantime, she takes every opportunity she can to fly in the backseat of the Eagle.

“It is like alternating between a roller coaster and the most intense peace you’ve ever experienced,” she says.

Sanfilippo, Coker, and Guthmann are not the first female pilots at Kingsley Field. 

Col. Carol Kohtz was the first permanent party female F-15 pilot, as well as the 173rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron commander in 2016.  She has since moved on and is now the wing commander at the 149th Fighter Wing in San Antonio Texas. 

Multiple female student pilots have tested their mettle in the F-15 B-course.  In fact, the 114th FS trained four female Eagle Drivers over the last year. 

“While the initial look at those numbers, it may not seem like a lot, but when you compare them to the number of female pilots in the Air Force, it’s huge,” said Lt. Col. Thomas McGee, 114th Fighter Squadron commander.

In 2023, there were only 103 female fighter pilots across the entire U.S. Air Force.  Of the 10,964 rated pilots total in the Air Force today, only 708, or 6.5 percent, are women. The majority of those women fly mobility aircraft, and fewer than three percent fly fighters.

“There’s not a ton of lady pilots,” said Guthmann.  “So, it’s a tight knit group who absolutely want to raise each other up.”

Shattering that proverbial glass ceiling into the fighter pilot world has taken some time.  

In 1948 President Harry S. Truman signed the Women's Armed Service Integration Act allowing women to receive regular permanent status in the armed forces. 

It wasn’t until 1976 that they were allowed enter into the aviation career field in the Air Force.  The first class of ten women earned their pilot wings from undergraduate pilot training in September 1977. 

However, it wouldn’t be until the early 1990s that a woman would hold the title of fighter pilot.  Jeannie Leavitt became the first female Air Force fighter pilot in 1993, flying the F-15E Strike Eagle.

While the road for these trailblazers has often been fraught with contention and skepticism by some, Coker says today’s culture is much different. 

“I haven’t found any hurdles or things to ‘overcome’ as a female pilot that would be different for anyone else going through this program,” she says.  “I enjoy being a part of my squadron and have felt a part of the fighter pilot culture and community since day one.  I am thankful for women who were pioneers in this career field so that my experience could be what it is today.”

Guthmann concurs.  “The jet doesn’t care who you are; neither does any enemy,” she says.  “Therefore, being a female fighter pilot is being a fighter pilot--work hard and be a good human.”

McGee says these women represent a trailblazing force in aviation, shattering stereotypes and proving their exception skills in the demanding field of aerial combat.  “Ultimately, their presence underscores the diverse talents that contribute to the success and safety of every mission, enriching the dynamics of the aviation community,” he adds.

For all three of these women, flying a fighter jet was not their original plan.  Perhaps because fighter pilot is not considered a traditional female occupation, but that is something all three of them hope to change.

Guthmann wants to encourage all women who have an interest in aviation to consider the fighter pilot trajectory.  “Don’t count yourself out; don’t make excuses; don’t use your age, situation, or current trajectory as a reason not to,” she says.  “If you have a desire, find a mentor and get exposed to the life of a fighter pilot.”

Coker and Sanfillipo agree.

“Go for it,” Coker says.  “There’s great camaraderie within the fighter pilot culture and it’s an amazing profession within the bounds of aviation.”

“I can't wait to be your wingman one day!” adds Sanfilippo.

A traditional fighter pilot embodies the blend of confidence, precision, and fearlessness.  Clad in a classic flight suit, with the iconic helmet and visor, they exude a sense of adventure and mastery over the skies.  With a history steeped in valor and daring exploits, the traditional fighter pilot represents the epitome of courage and skill in the field of aviation.

These members of the Land of No Slack are, without a doubt, a true mirror of what it means to be a fighter pilot.