The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Finally, ‘Top Gun’ has a female pilot. Real life should catch up.

Eileen Bjorkman with an RF-4C that she flew in the back seat of at Edwards Air Force Base in 1988. (Courtesy of Eileen Bjorkman)
Placeholder while article actions load

Eileen A. Bjorkman is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and executive director of the Air Force Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Lately, my Twitter feed is full of praise for “Top Gun: Maverick,” the sequel to the 1986 hit. But little of the chatter has mentioned one of the film’s most significant achievements: the inclusion of a fighter pilot nicknamed “Phoenix,” played by Monica Barbaro.

Phoenix is, significantly, not a love interest. She’s one of a group of handpicked F/A-18 “Super Hornet” pilots whom Maverick trains for a mission to bomb a target in an enemy country. (Kelly McGillis’s strong character in the original “Top Gun,” based on a true-life woman, was a civilian defense analyst at the Navy’s fighter school, not a pilot.)

Phoenix’s position as a combat pilot would have been impossible when I began my Air Force career, in 1980. The military had been training women as pilots only since 1973, and none flew in combat or trained for combat missions. The Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, passed by Congress in 1948, prohibited that.

A few women managed to skirt the combat exclusion laws during the 1970s and ’80s. Some female naval aviators flew the A-4 and other combat-capable aircraft, but only to train male pilots.

As a flight test engineer at Edwards Air Force Base, I flew in the back seat of F-4 and F-16 fighters to support test missions. I pulled nine G’s and ran navigation systems, radars and jamming pods. The flights were demanding and fun, but nothing that resembled combat.

My desire to fly in combat, and that of other women, wasn’t just about chasing equality. It was about fairness to some of the best pilots trained by the military — pilots who happened to be women — and about making sure military leaders had the best people to fill very important jobs.

Pilots who graduate at the top of their class normally get to fly the hottest fighters in the inventory. But when Air Force Capt. Connie J. Engel graduated at the top of her class, in 1977, she settled for being an instructor pilot in a training aircraft. Other top female pilots suffered a similar fate, pushed into cargo airplanes, refueling tankers or other support aircraft.

Meanwhile, male pilots without these women’s skills became fighter pilots.

By the late 1980s, talented women were fed up with being relegated to the junior varsity. It was also obvious that the combat exclusion laws didn’t keep women from harm’s way, as intended.

In Grenada, Panama and Libya, women were flying into hostile areas to deliver cargo and troops, refuel airplanes, evacuate wounded personnel, direct air battles, or eavesdrop on enemy communications. But letter-writing campaigns by the aviators and lobbying by supporters failed to sway Congress to make policy reflect reality.

The Persian Gulf War in 1991 changed everything. The nightly news made it clear that to function, the U.S. military needed women. And the public realized that women were already being exposed to combat.

Within months of Operation Desert Storm’s end, Congress repealed the laws excluding women from combat flights. But a presidential commission created to further “study” the issue kept women out of combat cockpits for nearly two more years.

Finally, on April 28, 1993, Defense Secretary Les Aspin announced that the services would open combat aircraft to women. That same day, the Air Force introduced the first three women who would become fighter pilots.

Nearly all the female aviators who had helped kick open the door never got the chance to fly in combat. By the time the laws changed, they were too old to switch careers. But the younger women proved they belonged.

Jeannie Flynn, who in 1994 became the first woman fully qualified as an Air Force combat pilot, is now a two-star general. Martha McSally, who in 1995 became the first U.S. woman to fly a combat aircraft in combat, retired as a full colonel and later served in Congress.

To remain the best military in the world, the United States must draw on the talents and capabilities of all service members. Yet although women make up nearly one-quarter of U.S. Air Force officers, they make up only about 8 percent of Air Force pilots.

The adage that “you can’t be what you can’t see” continues to get in the way. With “Maverick,” I hope little girls will see Phoenix flying her fighter and realize they, too, can take to the skies.

And while I’m thrilled that Hollywood has finally acknowledged women as full team members in today’s military, it still has some work to do. Although Phoenix represents the best of Navy pilots, she’s just one of Maverick’s students.

Meanwhile, in the real world, on Aug. 19, 2021, Navy Capt. Amy Bauernschmidt, a helicopter pilot, became the first woman to command an aircraft carrier. Maybe the star of the next “Top Gun” sequel will be an aircraft carrier commander who just happens to be a woman.