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5 real-life female fighter pilots who made history

Contributed by
Sep 20, 2018

Carol Danvers, our beloved Captain Marvel, is not the only person to have held the title of Captain Marvel over the years. Before her, a Kree warrior named Mar-Vell was the first, and after her, Monica Rambeau had a claim through a lengthy Avengers run. Before taking up the mantle, Carol had many codenames, going by Ms. Marvel, Binary, and Warbird. These many different identities likewise led to a lot of different jobs. In her first appearance, she was head of security on an Air Force base. When she gained powers similar to the original Captain Marvel and was given her own title, Ms. Marvel, in 1977, she was working for the Daily Bugle’s J. Jonah Jameson as a women’s magazine editor. After that, she joined a group of space pirates.

Most importantly, though, we know Carol as a fighter pilot, one of the only women to hold the title in comics. In the real world, female fighter pilots remain likewise a rarity, as restrictions have commonly barred women from consideration for such jobs. That's why female fighter pilots are all the more awesome, eschewing convention and blazing trails — just like our girl Carol Danvers.

Yekaterina Budanova

Yekaterina Budanova

Budanova had been a civilian pilot for some time, earning her license before she joined the military. She died during a fight against German aircraft, although she did shoot down one plane and hit a second before being taken out herself.

WWII-era Russia had no shortage of brave women pilots — harassment bombing units like the Night Witches have received a great deal of attention in recent years. After the war ended, women were discharged from military duty and forced to turn in their uniforms. Despite the dismissal of the contributions of women towards winning the war, Budanova’s fighting spirit can’t be ignored. In a letter to her sister during WWII, she wrote, “I am now devoting my entire life to the struggle against the vile Nazi creatures. If I am fated to perish, my death will cost the enemy dearly.”

Lydia

Lydia Litvyak

Known as “The White Lily of Stalingrad” during WWII, Budanova’s contemporary Lydia Litvyak has a legacy all her own. She is the first female fighter pilot known to have shot down an enemy plane and is still believed to hold the record for most number of kills by a female fighter pilot.

Although she began her career in a women’s regimen, she saw the majority of action in her career while serving alongside men. Like Budanova, she was eventually felled in a fight against German planes, but her life story went on to influence countless women over the decades. Her fierce romanticism has been commended by those who served with her.

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Kara Hultgreen

Born in Greenwich, Connecticut, aerospace engineering major Kara Hultgreen underwent years of training to become an early example of a female fighter pilot in the U.S. military. She became a minor celebrity and was interviewed often about her advancement to the role of fighter pilot. Her call signs were "She-Hulk" (a reference to her ability to bench press 200 pounds) and later, "Revlon" (when she wore makeup during a television interview). She was soon to be deployed in the Persian Gulf when things went wrong.

Tragically, Kara died only a few short months after becoming a fighter pilot. She crashed into the ocean when her flight went awry and was killed instantly. Still, the greater legacy of Hultgreen as one of the very first women to serve in the U.S. Navy to be certified for active combat can’t be denied.

Mariam Al-Mansouri

Mariam Al-Mansouri

Al-Mansouri had held dreams of joining the Air Force since her teen years but was forced to wait until 2007, when women were finally permitted to enlist. She was the first to do so in her country and the first to succeed by becoming a fighter pilot. Once in the military, she advanced quickly. After she commandeered an F-16 in 2014 to join an air assault on ISIS, she became a bit of a media darling.

Interviews with all-Mansouri have often focused unduly on her gender, but there’s no denying that’s she’s been effective. She is best known for leading airstrikes against ISIS in Syria — not exactly a task for the faint of heart.

Misa Matsushima

Misa Matsushima

Female fighter pilots weren’t allowed in most countries until the ‘90s, and some countries have never had one at all. Japan just got their first this year in First Lieutenant Misa Matsushima. Although women were allowed to join the Air Force as early as 1993, they were barred from careers as fighter pilots until 2015. Even then, it was opened up mostly in an effort to create more job opportunities for women in Japan, which currently rates at 114 of 144 countries for gender equality. As of today, the Japanese military is only 6% women, and women are still barred from submarines.

Inspired to become a fighter pilot when she watched Top Gun as a kid, Matsushima finished her course at age 26. Before the restriction against women pilots was lifted, Matsushima had planned to fly transport planes, but becoming a fighter pilot was her dream. Matsushima might be the first, but at the time of her graduation in 2018, there were three women still training in hopes to eventually make the cut.

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