You Fly, Girl


"All those who see me, and all who believe in me, share in the freedom I feel when I fly."

Interview: Donna Kohout Douglass

Donna Kohout Douglass was the first female F-117A Nighthawk pilot in the US Air Force.

Visit her website at
Contact her at Kirby_Douglas @ (remove spaces).

Please take a paragraph to describe your familiy and childhood.

I was born on Long Island, NY in 1971, the younger of two girls. I took a semester off of college to earn my pilot's license, then went on to become a commercial pilot and flight instructor while working odd jobs at Colorado ski resorts during the four years after I graduated Duke University.

I applied to the Air Force after working many different jobs and deciding I really wanted to fly for a living - it was far better than any other employment! My dad, a retired airline and military pilot, encouraged me to do whatever I wanted to, but it was also his idea to earn my first flying license, so he probably had the greatest influence on me.

Incidentally, my sister finished her degree then moved out west, where she is now one of the most highly qualified female kayak instructors in the world, living in Washington in the summer and Baja, Mexico in the winter.

Your father was an Air Force pilot. Did you travel all around the world as an Air Force "brat"?

I was not a traditional "brat" because my dad only spent five years on active duty before joining the AF Reserves at McGuire AFB, NJ. By the time I was born, he was working for United Airlines out of the New York airports, so we just moved from Long Island to New Jersey and back a few times over the course of my youth.
You started your career as "a Colorado ski bum, a civilian pilot, then a mountain flying instructor." Please describe the chronology of your flying career.

Triathlon time

Flying career
My flying career began as a child in the back of a Cessna where I vaguely remember flying over New York City then throwing up. It picked up again when Dad suggested I earn my private pilot license during a semester break from college.

After that, I gave informal aerial tours for friends over Duke and familiar surrounding areas - just to "build time" because in order to get into professional flying, a pilot is required to have a certain number of hours. Following graduation in 1993, I moved to Colorado and melted into the ski resort culture. I took a mountain flying course from Tom Schorr, who still teaches at Leadville Airport, the highest public airport in North America.

Living a ski bum's life of hard work and harder play, I found that flying and sports were the two things I loved. For four months in 1996 I split my time between working in Summit County and flying in Denver in order to earn my commercial, instrument and instructor flying certificates. After teaching basic, instrument and mountain flying for six months, I applied to the Air Force: I was finally certain what I wanted to do for a living. The Air Force accepted me as a pilot in February 1997 and I left for "flight screening" in Texas in June of that year.

My flight screening class was scheduled for July and August, but the Air Force stopped flying the T-3 trainers in July. That left me free to race triathlons in Texas during August while I awaited my Officer Training School (OTS) class at Maxwell AFB, AL. Following OTS, I moved to Laughlin AFB, TX for pilot training where I flew the same T-37s that my father had flown at the same base, 34 years before. After six months in the "Tweet", I continued on to fly the T-38 Talon. I graduated from pilot training in January 1999 and spent the remainder of the spring and summer in various survival courses.

Autumn 1999 found me at Luke AFB in Phoenix, AZ, learning to fly the F-16. Eight months later I departed to Kunsan Air Base, Korea for my first operational assignment from March 2000 to March 2001. I continued to fly F-16s at Misawa Air Base, Japan until January 2004, then switched to F-117 Stealth Fighters at Holloman AFB, NM. I separated from active duty in January 2007 and have been teaching civilian flying since then.

When did you enter the Air Force. Was it always your ambition to fly fighter planes?

Air Force career
I entered the Air Force in June 1997 and began pilot training in January 1998. Pilot training began with about a month of copious classroom lessons and tests. Classroom lesson continued as we began to fly the T-37 Tweet. Flight training was organized into blocks of instruction, or "phases", including basic flying skills, aerobatics, navigation, flight with reference to instruments, low altitude flying and formation flying. At the end of each phase of training was a "check ride" or flying test which must be passed before a student could move on.

Once we completed the T-37 course, we were sent to one of several different training aircraft depending on what sort of flying we were going to do after pilot training. For tanker or transport aircraft, students flew the T-1. If a student was going to fly C-130s he'd fly T-44s next. And future helicopter pilots would move to an Army base for further flight training. Future fighter pilots continued on to T-38s, then a short stint flying AT-38s which actually dropped practice bombs. Beginning with AT-38s at IFF (Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals) nearly all of the training for fighter pilots was conducted as part of a formation of two or four aircraft.

Training in the F-16 likewise was nearly always in formation and introduced combat tactics. In six months students progressed rapidly from learning how to fly and land the aircraft to learning how to employ it in several different arenas of combat.

Unlike many people who focus their formative years on the goal of becoming a fighter pilot, I only knew that was what I wanted after I had worked many and varied civilian jobs. After teaching flying for half a year, I knew not only that I wanted to fly, but also that I wanted to fly fighter airplanes because they offered the most challenge, responsibility and adventure.

During Operation Southern Watch you flew missions in F-16s.

Donna and her husband

Operation Iraqi Freedom
Missions in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) entailed a variety of things which changed as time passed. Initially, the Block 50 F-16s I flew carried anti-radiation missiles to suppress enemy air defenses. After the first several days of the war, we increasingly carried several different types of bombs.

All fighters fly in "flights" of at least two aircraft and up to four. Since we was flying out of Prince Sultan Air Base (PSAB) in Saudi Arabia, each mission began with about 45 minutes of flying north toward Iraq, then hooking up to a tanker aircraft for mid-air refueling. Full of fuel, we would continue north to complete the required mission for the night. (Half our squadron flew during the day, and half during the night; I flew nights.) On nearly every mission, we would fly over Iraq until getting low on fuel, then return to the tanker aircraft, then fly back north over Iraq again. During an average night, we flew over Iraq three or four separate times for about one hour each time before returning to PSAB for a day of sleep.

The F-117 is very different from the F-16. Each aircraft flies alone, not in a "flight" as F-16s do. Also, Stealths fly only at night while other fighters fly during day or night. Finally, the mission of the "Nighthawk" is to drop bombs at a very specific spot on the ground at an exact time. It is still the best aircraft made at doing the mission for which it was designed. However, in order to achieve such accuracy, it flies primarily by computer, which means the pilot becomes an "autopilot manager" rather that the person flying the plane. As a result, it is far from an exciting airplane to fly.

As the first woman to fly the Stealth, my schedule included several interviews with local newspapers, but otherwise I was just another student in our class of six. I was the only one personally asked to visit the Operations Group Commander upon my arrival, but business went on as normal once he and all the other people involved knew that I was at Holloman to fly the F-117 and to fly it well as I could - not to make a statement or to stand out in the crowd.

Any negative reactions to you as a female fighter pilot?

Personally I have seen no overt negative reactions to myself or any other female fighter pilot. Although we do stand out when we arrive - just because we are different - once we show that we are there to do our job, life goes on as normal in a fighter squadron. There is a mission to be done and we are all working toward it.

Women and the Saudis
Only once I saw a foreign pilot struggle with the concept of a female fighter pilot and flight lead. In Saudi Arabia we flew with a flight of Saudi F-15s. During the entire brief and much of the debrief, the Saudis could not bring themselves to address me even though I was speaking for the US pilots. By the end of the day, they had begun to look at and speak to me, but it was a visible effort for them. As a side note, we had feared that the Saudi radar controllers on the group would not talk to the female pilots when they flew during Operation Southern Watch and Operation Iraqi Freedom, but we never had a problem with that.

"Red Flag is an air war game of enormous proportions held regularly at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada." Could you share a paragraph or two on how Red Flag is conducted?

Capt. Chandra "Cans" Beckham, Capt. Donna "Kirby" Douglass, Capt. Christine "Shaq" Szasz,
"Ladies of the Nighthawk"

Red Flag is an exercise for pilots and support personnel to learn about how operations would be conducted in war. Participants are given with a scenario which intelligence personnel interpret and present to the pilots and planners. Leaders develop tactics and publish an Air Tasking Order (ATO). Planners, which are often the pilots themselves, determine how to accomplish the mission they have been given. Each day several hundred aircraft fly these missions while the next day?s missions are being planned.

A Red Flag usually lasts two weeks and involve all aspects of tactical flying that could possibly be seen in combat, so in some ways, they are perhaps even more demanding than actual combat.

You're currently in the Reserves as an Academy Liaison Officer while teaching civilian flying at your local airport. What's the reaction of male pilots to a female instructor...or are we far beyond the days when that's a problem for guys? Right now I have several male students. I recently sent a young woman to her private pilot certification. But aviation is more often a passion for men, rather than women. That is just how God created men and women, and it's fine.

Primarily I fly Cessna aircraft. Cessna 152 and 172 are the two most common training aircraft. The airport also owns a Piper Arrow (PA-28R/200) and a Cherokee Six (PA-32/300) which I fly with students working on their advanced ratings like commercial and instrument.

I have yet to meet anyone - civilian or military - who has displayed any reaction to flying with a woman. As you say, I think we are "far beyond" those days.

Why did you leave the Air Force?

Donna and her husband

I left the Air Force for a variety of reasons. One was the amount of time spent away from home. Even as a single person who traveled constantly for triathlons and adventure races, I still hated to be sent away from home. In 2003 I was away from home for eight months. As a result I was leaning toward separating from the military.

When I met my husband in 2005 and the Air Force wanted to send us both to deployable jobs where we would likely spend less than half the year in the same place, I decided being with him was more important than my career. For me separation was not a difficult choice at all. I'd seen so many people pour their lives into their careers, only to retire into an empty home. Family outlasts career. We hope to have children, but even if we don't, we have each other and countless friends with whom we actively cultivate relationships.

I don't have specific goals, but my husband and I feel as if God is leading us toward Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF), an organization which supports missionaries and occasionally other groups around the world. For example, they were the first airplanes in and played a large role after the tsunami near Malaysia in December 2005.

I also enjoy writing and expect I will seek to start publishing my writings in the next several years, as many of my readers over the years have encouraged me to do.

Overall, I desire to continue the great marriage I have, and the wonderful, low-stress life of flying, writing and taking care of our home.

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