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US Air Force pilot becomes first female to fly F-35A into combat

On the first day of her combat mission, the Air Force said Capt. Emily "Banzai" Thompson had an all-female maintenance team.

AL DHAFRA, Abu Dhabi — The United States deployed its first woman F-35A Lightning II pilot into combat, the U.S. Air Force announced.

Capt. Emily "Banzai" Thompson deployed for her first deployment from the 388th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, according to a release from the Air Force on June 9. She is part of a small number of F-35A female pilots.

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“This is my first deployment … so for me it was a pretty big deal, the first combat sortie for me. … Of course being the first female, it’s a pretty big honor," she said in a statement. "There’s a lot of females who have come before me and there’s a lot of females already flying combat sorties in other platforms. So just to be the person who gets that honor, that first, it just meant a lot.”

The Air Force said after Thompson graduated college, she trained for a year and a half to become an F-16 pilot. After that, she started training on the F-35A.

On the first day of her combat mission, the Air Force said she had a four-person all-women maintenance team.

“I think it’s a bright future," she said. "There is a number of us already in the F-35 and I think the number is just going to continue to grow. It’s a very supportive community, it’s very open, I think the opportunity for women to really excel in the F-35 is definitely there.”

The F-35A is the Air Force’s latest fifth-generation fighter. It was made to replace the aging fleet of F-16 Fighting Falcons and A-10 Thunderbolt II, which been the primary fighter aircraft for more than 20 years, according to the Air Force.

"With its aerodynamic performance and advanced integrated avionics, the F-35A will provide next-generation stealth, enhanced situational awareness, and reduced vulnerability for the United States and allied nations," the Air Force said about the jet.

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Credit: Tech. Sgt. Kat Justen
U.S. Air Force Capt. Emily Thompson, 421st Expeditionary Fighter Squadron pilot, dons flight equipment at the Aircrew Flight Equipment shop on Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, June 5, 2020. Thompson is the first female to fly an F-35A Lightning II into combat. She is currently deployed from Hill Air Force Base, Utah. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Kat Justen)