Shawna Rochelle Kimbrell, the first black female fighter pilot in the U.S. Airforce was assigned to the 13th Fighter Squadron in Misawa, Japan. She was deployed in support of Operation Northern and Southern Watch, becoming the first female pilot to fly combat missions.
Rising to become a Major and now a Lieutenant Colonel, Kimbrell shattered racial barriers by becoming the first black female in the career field.
Kimbrell was born in Lafayette, Ind., on April 20, 1976, to Guyanese parents who were naturalized U.S. citizens by the time she was born. Her parents had moved to the U.S and as it turned out, her father earned a degree from Howard University and a doctorate from Purdue University, which in turn earned him a job offer in Parker, Colo.
Kimbrell and her three older siblings spent their school years in Parker. “Education was the thing that opened doors. If you got your education, you could do whatever you wanted to do. That was how our house was run,” Kimbrell said.
In her early years, Kimbrell didn’t think she’ll end up as a fighter pilot. While still young, she wanted to be an astronaut and even wrote a letter to NASA asking how she could join the program.
But as she grew and learned more about joining the astronaut corps, she realized that wasn’t a career she wanted. “I decided to focus on something I could do every day versus maybe going to the moon one time which would be awesome, but it’s just one time,” the major said. “So I started to look at the jets and flying fighters.”
She was eventually accepted into the Air Force Academy after joining the Civil Air Patrol, working at air shows and earning her private pilot’s license. She knew there were no female fighter pilots, but still pursued her dream.
Whereas women gained admittance to the U.S. Air Force pilot training program in 1976, it was only in 1993 that they were permitted to train as fighter pilots, following the order of the U.S. Secretary of Defense.
“I think what kept me on the straight and narrow is that I didn’t give myself any other options,” Kimbrell said. “I didn’t think about a back-up plan; I didn’t think about a ‘what if it doesn’t work out plan.'”
Kimbrell graduated from the Academy in 1998 and was accepted into pilot training. She earned her pilot wings in August 1999. She had tough times but never gave up.
“There were times when I didn’t think that I was going to make it through. It was in those times I learned to be humble and realize there is a point in everyone’s struggle, no matter how strong they are, when they need help, and the key is to seek it out before it is too late.”
Her hard work earned her an Air Medal with one device, an Aerial Achievement Medal and an Army Commendation Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, Iraq Campaign Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal and the Korean Defense Service Medal.
She was stationed at Misawa Air Base, Japan; Kunsan Air Base, South Korea; Aviano Air Base, Italy; Fort Stewart, Ga.; and now Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. And she also flew combat sorties in Operation Northern Watch.
In 2008, Kimbrell received a distinction as the first female African-American fighter pilot. She is currently the course manager for the Air Liaison Officer Course at Nellis AFB and she teaches pilots how to work with the Army in air-to-ground integration.
Whenever Kimbrell isn’t on duty, she dedicates her time to speak to children about dreaming big. She’s observed that a lot of children aren’t told that they can achieve their dreams and don’t realize that a lot of barriers have been knocked down.
“I literally see the lights turn on in kids’ eyes when I talk to them when they realize that someone like me can go do something as cool as (being a fighter pilot).
“It’s really awesome to be able to go out and talk to them and have them light up and say, ‘I’ve heard people say that you can do whatever you want, but now I can put a face to the story and I can see that it can be done, which means I can go out and do whatever I want to do.’ That is what I focus on and what I think is really important,” she said.
She urged both adults and kids to set goals and put those goals into context. “Nothing’s easy,” she said, adding, “Expect road blocks, expect that there are going to be people out there who don’t want you to succeed, expect people are going to tell you no. But the desire that comes from within- if it’s something that you really want -will carry you through.”