You’ve probably seen images of a U.S. Navy fighter jet in action, perhaps even catching a glimpse of the awe-inspiring F/A-18 Super Hornet jet, the Navy’s $80 million twin-engine aircraft which can carry air-to-air missiles and air-to-surface weapons. The pilot takes the front seat of the jet, and a Weapons System Officer takes the second seat behind the pilot. Many of those incredible pilots and weapons system officers are women.
Currently, there are more than 59,000 women who serve in the U.S. Navy, and over 12,000 of them are aviators, and as more women continue to join the ranks, they have those who have gone before them to look up to as they embark on this challenging and rewarding career, like U.S. Navy Reserve Lieutenant Commander, Caroline Johnson, a Weapons System Officer. Johnson spent ten years in the back seat of a F/A-18 Super Hornet – flying in dozens of combat missions, and recently spoke with Fox News for Women’s History Month about her high flying career and about the obstacles she faced while navigating the challenges she faced as a female aviator, which she also detailed in her recent book ‘Jet Girl’.
WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH: CAROLINE JOHNSON, PIONEERING NAVY AVIATOR, OPENS UP ON GENDER DISCRIMINATION
Johnson says becoming a Weapons System Officer was something that she “never in a million years even dreamed of”. But after taking a closer look at the career opportunities joining the U.S. Navy could bring, in addition to watching her brother apply to the Naval Academy, that’s when she thought she could envision herself being in the military. Then, once being introduced to aviation and discovering what that career path could bring her in addition to “how much fun you could have, how high performing…and what kid doesn’t want to fly in fighter jets, you know?”
The Colorado native vividly remembers what it felt like to see and touch a FA/18 Super Hornet for the first time, and says she was in awe telling Fox, “I’m like, man, there is so much technology behind this thing, then your brain just starts ticking and it’s like, what an incredible machine.”
After completing Naval Academy, she attended flight school in Pensacola, Florida. Once there, instructors and classmates noticed her as someone who had the skills and personality to become a Weapons System Operator. Her fellow classmate and friend Matt Kruggle remembered Johnson as being quiet in the classroom at first, but once she got going answering all the questions he saw the floodgates were open, and after she was assigned to her new role, he told us, ” I knew that whatever target that they were prosecuting, mission that they were set out assigned to do that Caroline was going to be the one to get it done.” Johnson spent close to three years of flight training until she was qualified and ready to go into combat.
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Once she took her seat in the FA-18, she flew missions over Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq in 2014, becoming the first woman to drop bombs on Islamic State fighters. I asked her what that felt like, to be capable of being at the controls at such a critical moment. Johnson said, “I mean people talk about finding purpose in your job and there is no greater calling than that to protect your fellow men and women living in those contested area, trying to do their job, they’re trying to create policy.” Adding, “I now know how moms feel with their children when the kids start walking or when the kids get their driver license. LIke, I’m probably going to be that mom that follows my kids under surveillance because that’s what I did for the Navy SEALS and Army Rangers and Special Operations Troops on the ground.
But Johnson says, there was an ongoing strain and part of the job that was too hard to ignore. After completing 42 combat missions and taking out 16 enemies in action during her 10 years in the Navy, she chose to leave the cockpit and a career she loved after what she says were years of gender discrimination.
She described it in her memoir ‘Jet Girl’ as a “thousand paper cuts”. A series of microagressions targeting her and her fellow female aviators that she could no longer take. Johnson tells us,
“I’m glad that people are talking about it because that’s the only way that we can make it better. And it breaks my heart that not only did I experience incredible challenges, but my friends experienced more”. She went on to say “And those situations are very real and they still are a problem. And as military sailors and Marines, it’s our jobs to do better, be better because we are stewards of the American taxpayers. And so for me, it was encounters that I never in a million years expected.”
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We reached out to the U.S. Navy for comment, which issued Fox News the following statement:
“As our Nation celebrates Women’s History Month, we acknowledge the service and many sacrifices of our female shipmates. Their contributions toward defending our freedoms, from on the land, sea and in the air, cannot be overstated. The U.S. Navy is committed to fostering an environment in which all members are treated equally, valued, and respected – regardless of gender, race, religion, age, national origin or sexual orientation. Our diverse team – uniform and civilian, active and reserve – will not tolerate discrimination of any kind. We are ONE team and ONE Navy, every day.”
After leaving active duty, Johnson went on to teach leadership at the United states Naval Academy, helping to recruit new aviators while being honest about her own experiences — Which she hopes will empower women to stand up for themselves and find the career path that’s right for them. Johnson says, “if you’re curious, reach out to the people who have your dream job, reach out to the astronauts, reach out to the Jet Girls, reach out to these people, because you will be shocked. They want to help you and they want to bring you along for the ride.”
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