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How a Small-Town Girl Ended Up in the Cockpit of an A-10 Warthog

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  • How a Small-Town Girl Ended Up in the Cockpit of an A-10 Warthog

    Kayla Bowers loves riding horses and target shooting. That fits nicely with her day job, where she tames the Air Force’s thoroughbred close air support jet, the A-10 Warthog, and executes aerial target practice using the aircraft's legendarily massive and hideously powerful GAU-8 30mm Avenger cannon.

    Lieutenant Bowers is better known by her peers in the 74th Fighter Squadron, “The Flying Tigers,” by her callsign, “Banzai.” Being a female fighter pilot is still a rare experience these days, and being one that flies the rugged A-10 Warthog is rarer still: today, only around five women fly the jet, according to Lieutenant Bowers.1

    In what is arguably the most masculine flying machine on the planet, Banzai found her true calling early on. She grew up in the tiny town of Pinckney, Michigan, pop. 2,500. The drive to fly for the military came to her while she was in high school.

    "I was looking into the military as a possible career field," Banzai says. "It really intrigued me that I could go into something that could offer such a challenge and adventure on a day-to-day basis. I looked into the types of things that would be the most challenging and adventurous I could do as a woman in the military, and got interested in flying."
    Frank Crebas & Rich Cooper

    “I started researching the different aircraft," she continues, "and when I learned about what an incredible platform the A-10 is, and looked at its combat search and rescue (CSAR) mission—it intrigued me. I also heard stories about it from high school friends who had enlisted in the Marine Corps and the Army. They had already deployed and told me stories of the A-10 saving their lives. It just really spoke to me that I could potentially do something like that, and make such a difference in somebody's life. It's not glamorous. Really, it's just a very rugged aircraft that has a lot of capabilities. It's just really incredible.”

    She enrolled in ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) after graduating high school and started college in 2008. After completing flight training years later, she ended up exactly where she wanted to be: in the A-10’s cockpit, surrounded by a “bathtub” of titanium armor. Along the way, she was pranked by her instructors.

    “They played a trick on me on assignment night, which is not very nice," she says of the evening when aircraft assignments are handed out. "When I first got up, they pretended like I had received a first assignment instructor pilot slot, and they kind of sent me back and let me think that that was what my future was. In the end, I found out I had really gotten the A-10. It was a roller coaster of emotion day, that's for sure.”

    It took a while to move from flying the slick T-38C Talon trainer to strapping into her dream jet. But when the time finally came, it was eye opening.

    “You obviously have a lot of academics before your first flight and various other training events on the ground," she says. "Actually flying the A-10 for the first time felt awesome. After six years of just loving that aircraft and wanting the A-10 so bad, the first time I flew in it, I remember thinking it wasn't even real life. I just could not believe it. You go out and you fly some instrument approaches and you fly advanced handling characteristics, maneuvers, as well as some formation, like close formation fingertip, route, all of that."

    And what about firing the A-10’s notorious gun?

    “I grew up shooting, so it kind of fits that now I shoot one of the biggest guns around. Shooting in the air is a rush, but it’s still a rush shooting on the ground too. I like doing that.”
    Banzai has been assigned to Flying Tigers since December of 2014. Her first assignment at a frontline squadron has been an incredibly positive experience according to the young lieutenant that is still mastering the ins and outs of the mighty Warthog.

    “When I got into the 74th, I remember thinking, Wow, there is not a single person I don't like in this squadron. I really feel like I fit in and the guys don't treat me any different just because I'm a girl. As long as you show up and you do your job and you don't do things to stick out as a female, nobody is going to think anything of it.” Banzai continues, “These guys are my family, for sure. It's really cool to share experiences and little inside jokes and things like that. Everyone has each other’s backs.”

    Click the link for the whole story and lots of photos