The Fight of My Life
Young Rebel with a Cause
McSally was one of the first
females to fly a fighter jet.
Image courtesy of The
I was raised in Warwick, Rhode Island, the youngest of five children. My father, a lawyer, died suddenly of a heart attack when I was 12. In what ended up being our last conversation, he said, "Make me proud." I tried to do just that. In high school, I was valedictorian of my class and captain of the track team. My mother, who supported our family as a teacher after my father died, was a tremendous role model. From her example, I learned tenacity and grace under pressure.
When it came time for college, I applied to the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, though I was naive about military life. I liked the concept of trading a free education for service to my country. At the time, I expected to be a physician specializing in aerospace medicine. But by the end of freshman year, after taking some rides in fighter jets -- what the Air Force calls "incentive flights" to introduce cadets to flying -- I changed career plans. I found it exhilarating to fly upside down, looking at the clouds and the sunset.
Flying a fighter jet is the premier assignment in the Air Force, so I decided that's what I wanted to do -- even though in the mid-1980s women were prohibited from flying combat aircraft in all branches of the military. And at 5-foot-3, I was an inch too short to fly cargo, tanker, and other support aircraft. For two years, I lobbied the head doctor at the academy for a waiver, because even though my legs weren't long enough, they were strong and my sitting height was within limits. I had a hunch that the military eventually would lift the ban on women fighter pilots, because it didn't make sense to exclude so many servicewomen from this line of work.
Fortunately, the doctor designed a series of tests so I could prove I was fit enough for flight training. During my senior year, I was the only cadet to receive an exemption.
In 1988, I graduated with a degree in biology, ranking 25 in a class of 1,050 cadets, and won an Air Force scholarship to Harvard, where I earned a master's degree in public policy. In 1993, when the military opened up combat aircraft to women, I was one of seven female officers selected to fly a fighter jet. I chose the A-10, a single-seat plane designed for close air-to-ground support. We call it the "Warthog" -- it's an ugly, down-and-dirty tank killer -- but I was attracted to its mission of assisting our troops on the front lines.