Women in Aviation: Gliders to fighters

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Kylie Barrow

SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, North Carolina – The young Minnesota girl held the flashlight in the cold hangar as her father tinkered with the aircraft handed down from her grandfather.

For as long as Lt. Col. Bridgett “Atlas” Fitzsimmons, 334th Fighter Squadron director of operations, could remember, planes and runways have been embedded in her being.

Her aviation passion can be traced back to her grandfather and father. Her Grandfather flew in the Korean War and later built and upgraded aircraft kit planes to his own high standard. Her father flew general aviation and was drafted into the Army as a mechanic. Her first time in command of an aircraft was at the age of 12 when her dad enrolled her in a program called Pitch Hitters, where they taught young aviators how to land safely in case of emergencies. At 14, Atlas had soloed in a glider. On her 16th birthday, she soloed in a Cessna 152 to achieve her pilot’s certificate. Atlas soloed in a power plane even before she obtained her drivers’ license.
On her 17th birthday, Fitzsimmons earned her private pilot’s license.

As high school graduation was approaching, the young pilot decided she wanted to follow the family tradition and attend the U.S. Air Force Academy. She had three uncles attend the Academy and all became pilots of various platforms: transport, tanker and fighter.
“I knew I wanted to fly and I knew I needed to attend college,” said the mother of two. “And if you want to be a pilot in the Air Force, the odds of getting a pilot slot are highest at the Academy.”

At the Academy, she majored in aeronautical engineering and minored in German.
After graduation and receiving her commission, Atlas was selected for the Euro-NATO joint jet pilot training program at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas. As she was getting ready to go, the Academy offered her a one year detour to get her master’s with a thesis at the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, which she accepted.

After finishing her schooling, Atlas moved on to pilot training. Throughout pilot training, Atlas was the only woman.
“Regardless of gender, the job and the work remains the same,” said Atlas. “I usually don’t like to highlight that I’m a female. When I’m at work, I’m an aviator, not a female in a flight suit.”

While in pilot training, she met her husband. Both were assigned to the F-15E Strike Eagle. They married en route to 334th Fighter Squadron at Seymour Johnson AFB, where they completed their initial qualification training. The couple received orders to remain at Seymour Johnson and have been here since 2009.
During her years at Seymour, Atlas was operational with the 335th Fighter Squadron. She also deployed to Afghanistan, racking up 200 combat hours and upgraded to four ship flight lead.

After being operational, Atlas transitioned to becoming an instructor pilot. She explained that one of her favorite parts as an instructor is when she was able to articulate to a student exactly what to do and seeing the mental lightbulb turn on in the students’ eyes as they were able to put things together and achieve the task.
“One of the most rewarding things was to see the torch passed on to the next generation,” said Atlas. “Seeing my students come back as instructors to teach the next generation aircrew could not make me more proud. The United States is in good hands.”

In July 2018, the mother of two decided to transition to the Air Force Reserves to focus on her family. She still instructed to instruct at the 334th FS but worked at the 307th FS as a reservist. In April 2021, she was asked to fulfill an active-duty position as the 334th FS director of operations.
“If I were to pick one thing that I love to do in the Air Force, it would be this,” said Atlas. “I get to do my dream job, I get to fly, I get to teach and I get to make an impact, not just on my flight but to the entire fighter training unit. Helping create safe, effective and lethal aircrew was my ‘going in’ game plan as I came into this position.”
According to Atlas’s leadership, she was the perfect person for the job.

“Atlas is a one in a million DO,” said Lt. Col. Jake Ashmore, 334th FS commander. “She is one of the most experienced Strike Eagle aviators in our community who brings a fantastic TFI solution to a DO shortage in the 4th Operations Group. There are very few F-15E aviators at this base that have more experience in our FTU [flying training unit]. She exudes an unmatched degree of enthusiasm and passion every day and I could not lead the squadron without her leadership and guidance.”
Lt. Col. Sriram Krishnan, 307th FS commander, echoed Ashmore’s sentiments.

Krishnan explained that Atlas is an approachable leader and is extremely dependable. She is able to take complex problems and simplify them so everyone is able to understand. Along with her work ethic, Krishnan says who she is as a person is something to be admired as well.
“Working with Atlas, there is never a dull moment,” said Krishnan. “She is energetic and creative.”

After fulfilling her childhood dream of a career in aviation, Atlas is preparing for the next phase in her life in which she plans on retiring with her husband and kids, moving somewhere near the mountains and living on a lake.

Until then, the little Minnesota girl who grew up with a passion for aviation will continue to make an impact on both her reservist and active duty Wingmen as she continues her aviation career always in search of Blue Skies.