Major Shawna Rochelle Kimbrell is the first female African-American fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force. As a child, Kimbrell wanted to become an astronaut, but later changed her mind.
“I fell in love with the idea of the freedom of flying and after my first flight lesson at age 14, I never looked back,” Kimbrell said in a 2008 interview on the U.S. Air Force website. She also spoke about achieving an African-American first: “It is an important step for progression and although I am not fond of the spotlight, I think it is important for people to know that this barrier has been breached. Especially for the African-American community and for women to know what types of opportunities are available to them.”
While 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, per the order of the U.S. Secretary of Defense.
Kimbrell graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1998 and earned her pilot wings a year later. She continued to push herself in an effort to become a fighter pilot.
“I was in constant competition with myself, trying to do better, to make the grade,” Kimbrell said in the Air Force interview.
Kimbrell’s military decorations include the 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.
In 2008, when Kimbrell received the distinction as the first female African-American fighter pilot, the Air Force had more than 14,000 pilots. Of those, 3,700 were fighter pilots and just 70 fighter pilots were women. Her first operational assignment was to Misawa Air Base, Japan.
“The turning point in my career was when I arrived at Misawa. It was like a whole new world of options opened up to me,” Kimbrell said in the Air Force interview. “I flew my first combat sortie in 2001 in Operation Northern Watch. The sorties were actually anti-climactic, until I recognized that people were actually shooting at us.”