SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – They're two of just five women in the U.S. who can operate F-16 Fighting Falcon jets for the Air National Guard, but their gender is the last thing the millennial pilots based in South Dakota dwell on.
Instead, they're focused on jump-starting their careers and perfecting the skills that one day may lead them to defend their country by operating a jack-of-all-trades-type aircraft that can shoot down other airplanes and drop bombs.
Capts. Shanon Davis and Valerie Vanderostyne were among four people selected from a pool of 100 applicants in 2011 to join the 114th Fighter Wing with the South Dakota Air National Guard in Sioux Falls. After undergoing years of training that has taken them to seven states, South Korea, and soon, Poland, the women are the first two female fighter pilots in the state Air Guard's 70-year history.
"Why not?" Davis, 27, said when asked why she chose to become a fighter pilot. "I was always going to be a pilot. I always knew that's what I wanted to do. ... I was surprised when we first got back about the response of the women that work here in all jobs and how excited they were to have us here."
In interviews at the Joe Foss Field in Sioux Falls on Tuesday, both stressed that they earned their spot through hard work, not preferential treatment.
"From Day 1, it's been great," the 28-year-old Vanderostyne said of joining the 114th Fighter Wing, which has 31 male pilots. "I haven't felt weird for being a female or anything or treated any differently, and when I fly, I'm expected to do my job just as well as any of the other guys here."
Davis said girls or young women considering careers as fighter pilots should not be discouraged by what others may think of their choice. She said it's all "a matter of how hard you want to work."
The Air National Guard has 195 female pilots; of those, 10 are fighter pilots and five have trained to fly the F-16 Fighting Falcon, an almost 50-foot long aircraft used in air-to-air combat and air-to-surface attacks. The agency did not immediately disclose where the other three F-16 female pilots are based. In comparison, the Air Guard has 3,547 male pilots, of which 884 can operate fighter jets.
Davis and Vanderostyne have not been in combat, but both said they are ready should they be asked to do so.
Vanderostyne, who was selected as Wingman of the Year in 2015, will be flying an F-16 as part of the Sioux Falls Air Show on Sunday, even if some of those on the ground watching don't find it plausible.
"If they believe me, people think it's the coolest job ever," Vanderostyne said of people's usual reactions. "My friends brag about it to their friends, but to me, it's my job, and I love it. I wouldn't do anything else."