Shawna Rochelle Kimbrell, is a black American who shattered racial barriers and by becoming the first black female fighter pilot in the U.S. Airforce, assigned to the 13 Fighter Squadron in Misawa, Japan. She was sent in support of Operation Northern and Southern Watch, making her the first female pilot to fly combat missions.
Born in Lafayette, Ind., on April 20th, 1976, to Guyanese parents who were naturalized U.S. citizens by the time she was born. Kimbrell and her three older siblings spent their early life in Parker, in the city where their father was working. “Education was the thing that paved the way for us. If you have your education, you could achieve the unimaginable feat. That was how our house was operated,” Kimbrell said.
In her school days, Kimbrell never knew she’d end up as a fighter pilot. While a teenager, she desired to be an astronaut and even wrote a letter to NASA asking how she could join the program.
As time flew, she grew and learned more about joining the astronaut corps, it was then she realized that was not a career she wanted. “I then decided to direct my attention on something I could do every day versus maybe going to the moon one time which would be awesome, but it’s just one time,” the major said. “So I began to look at the jets and flying fighters.”
Eventually, she was recruited into the Air Force Academy after joining the Civil Air Patrol, working at air shows and earning her private pilot’s license. Despite being aware that there were no female fighter pilots, she still pursued her dream.
Although, in 1976 women were allowed into the U.S. Air Force pilot training program, but not until 1993 that they were permitted to train as fighter pilots, following the order of the U.S. Secretary of Defense.
“I think what kept me on the path is that I didn’t give myself any other options,” Kimbrell said. “I didn’t think about a plan B; I didn’t think about a ‘what if it doesn’t work out plan.’”
In 1998, Kimbrell graduated from the Academy and was accepted into pilot training. A year later she earned her pilot wings in August. Though, she had tough times but never gave up.
“Though, there were times when I did not think that I was going to survive the tough times. It was in those tough times I learned to be humble and realize there is a time everyone gets to this stage, no matter how strong they are, when they need help, and the key is to seek it out before it is too late.”
Her persistence earned her several medals ranging from an Air Medal with one device, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, Iraq Campaign Medal, an Aerial Achievement Medal and an Army Commendation Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal and the Korean Defense Service Medal.
She has been deployed to Kunsan Air Base, South Korea; Fort Stewart, Ga.; Misawa Air Base, Japan; Aviano Air Base, Italy; and now Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. Also, she flew combat sorties in Operation Northern Watch.
Kimbrell received a distinction in 2008, as the first female African-American fighter pilot. Now she has been named the course manager for the Air Liaison Officer Course at Nellis AFB and she teaches pilots how to work with the Army in air-to-ground integration.
Whenever Kimbrell isn’t on duty, she commits her time to speak to children about having a bug dreams. She’s observed that a lot of children are not told that they can achieve their dreams and don’t realize that a lot of obstacles have been cleared.
“I literally feel the lights turn on in kids’ eyes when I talk to them when they realize that a person like me can go after something as cool as (being a fighter pilot).”
“It’s really interesting to be able to meet the children and talk to them and have them light up and say, I have heard people say that you can be whatever you want, but now I can attach a face to the story and I can see that it is achievable, which means I can go out and be whatever I want.’ That is what I focus on and what I think is really important,” she said.
She urged both adults and kids to set goals and put those goals into actions. “Nothing is ever easy,” she said, adding, “Expect barriers, expect that there are going to be people out there who don’t want you to be successful, expect people are going to tell you no. But the desire that comes from within, if it’s something that you really want, will be your guide and take you through.”