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Sky's the limit for all-woman Navy fighter squadron in Virginia

These five Navy pilots are soaring high to help create a pathway for women in aviation.

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — With each step on the flight line at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach, Lieutenant Michelle Espinal walks a path few like her have traveled. But she doesn't walk alone

"Growing up, there's nothing I ever thought I couldn't do because I was a female. It's not how the world was when I was born," Espinal said.

Espinal is one of five female pilots in the same squadron. That's unique for the Navy. 

Espinal, Amber Somma, Rebecca Ryan, Mikaela Sakach and Natalie Sava make up Strike Fighter Squadron 213, the Fighting Blacklions. For them, the cockpit of a fighter jet never seemed out of reach.

"It's pretty epic, the job that we're doing," said Sava. "So I think sometimes we get really wrapped up in the tactics and all that sort of stuff. But it's cool to take a step back and be like, 'wow, like, this is pretty rare.'"

Rare, even after almost 50 years.

The Navy was the first branch of the U.S. Military to welcome female aviators. That was in 1974. But it wasn't until nearly two decades later, 1993, when the military finally allowed women to fly combat missions. Today, women make up about 12% of all Navy pilots.

The pace of progress can seem slow.

"There are some squadrons that still don't have very many women, especially not aircrew side. But it's awesome, seeing more and more women out there on the flight line."

Though that doesn't diminish what these women, and those who flew before them, have accomplished. In the air, and with each other.

"It's even cooler to be with each other and have such a great female support system that we do in the command," Mikaela Sakach said.

Now, as these five women soar to new heights above Virginia Beach, they become the role models for the next generation of Navy pilots.

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