All-mom Strike Eagle flight shows women’s strength, capability

  • Published
  • By Carolyn Herrick
  • 4th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

Four F-15E Strike Eagle pilots flew together at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, NC, Nov. 9 with one significant commonality: they’re all mothers.

Although women have been flying as Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) since World War II and as Air Force fighter jet pilots since 1993, their strength and capability are tested in different ways as moms, which is why Maj. Tiffany McElroy chose fellow moms to accompany her in her final flight as a 333rd Fighter Squadron instructor weapons systems officer.

“When I joined the Air Force, I didn’t know any fighter pilot moms,” said, McElroy, who is leaving the flying world for a few years to teach Undergraduate Combat Systems Officers. “After going through almost three years of training to become qualified in the jet, I understand why. You put your entire heart into the upgrades, and you work 12 hours a day, easily. Once you are qualified, you look forward to the trips and combat missions, and most of us spend more time at a hotel than in our own beds, which makes having a family more difficult.”

McElroy and her husband, who serves as a Wake County Sheriff, met in 2018 and now have a 16-month-old baby girl. Although they had been trying to conceive, she said nothing prepared her for the roller coaster of feelings she went through when two pink lines appeared on her positive pregnancy test.

“At first I was so excited, but my excitement turned into pure terror,” she recalled. “I immediately started to think how this would affect the flying schedule, and how I just became the squadron’s worst asset, that I wouldn't be able to fly or do the mission, and all my training just went down the toilet.”

However, her squadron leadership made it clear they were nothing but happy for her, and McElroy said she never felt any sense of inferiority during her non-flying months leading up to childbirth; in fact, her unit celebrated her and showed up with meals when she delivered. Her return to work after maternity leave was harder than expected, however.

“I had to request longer and more breaks to breastfeed between classes, briefs, flying, and debriefs,” she said. “At first, I was nervous to ask; but then realized it’s all a normal part of raising a human, and when I came to terms with that, not only was I comfortable with it, but also felt like an advocate for future moms-to-be.”

McElroy also connected with several other fighter pilot moms here who helped her navigate the newness of flying postpartum, including the different effects of G-forces – which she said was “a life saver” for her getting back into the jet. 

Department of the Air Force policies on flying while pregnant have changed since McElroy gave birth. As of April 2022, the DAF may consider aircrew for flight duty with proper documentation including a request to fly, Aircrew Voluntary Acceptance of Risk, and more.

“At the end of the day, we need to balance operational readiness, safety, and our aircrew’s agency, and I’m proud of the progress we’ve made to that end,” said Under Secretary of the Air Force Gina Ortiz Jones in a statement about the updated guidance.

As with any medical condition, the DAF will continue to review the aircrew pregnancy policy and practices, including ongoing collection of health and safety data, according to the Air Force Medical Service website. The service remains focused on identifying, analyzing, and appropriately mitigating flight safety hazards and exposures to facilitate the safe and successful accomplishment of the military mission.

“Throughout the years, women have been proving that we can fly, fight, win – and be moms,” said McElroy, who plans to expand her family soon and continue flying as an instructor in the T-1 at Naval Air Station Pensacola. “There is never a perfect time to become a mom, so embrace your journey and know that you have a support community out there. Just because you’re a mom doesn’t mean you can’t fly.”