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This Air Force pilot is the first woman to fly the F-35 in combat

Air Force Capt. Emily “Banzai” Thompson had never conducted a combat sortie before deploying to Al Dhafra Air Force base in the United Arab Emirates. Now, she is the first woman to ever fly the F-35A Lightning II in combat.

“This is my first deployment … so for me it was a pretty big deal, the first combat sortie for me. … Of course being the first female, it’s a pretty big honor," Thompson, who is assigned to the 388th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base, said in an Air Force news release.

"There’s a lot of females who have come before me and there’s a lot of females already flying combat sorties in other platforms,” Thompson said. “So just to be the person who gets that honor, that first, it just meant a lot.”

It’s unclear where or when the combat sortie took place, but airmen and F-35s from the 388th and 419th Fighter Wings at Hill Air Force Base deployed to Al Dafra on May 20. The 388th Fighter Wing did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Air Force Times.

Thompson originally started her Air Force career as an F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot before moving to F-35s. Although there are only a few number of female F-35 pilots, Thompson remains optimistic about what’s next for women flying the fighter jets.

“I think it’s a bright future," she said. "There is a number of us already in the F-35 and I think the number is just going to continue to grow. It’s a very supportive community, it’s very open, I think the opportunity for women to really excel in the F-35 is definitely there.”

“Know there’s a lot of supportive people out there," Thompson said. "Just stay positive, work hard, and you can achieve whatever you set your mind out to do, you can get it done.”

Then-Air Force Lt. Col. Christine Mau became the very first woman in the F-35 program in 2015 after previously flying F-15 jets.

It wasn’t Mau’s first time making history though. She also participated in the first all-female combat sortie during a deployment to Afghanistan in 2011 to provide air support for coalition and Afghan forces.

Similarly, the sortie that Thompson participated in involved an all-female maintenance crew. Airman First Class Ashlin Randolph, a weapons load crew member for the mission, described it as “very empowering.”

“I would definitely say be confident and never let anyone tell you that you can’t do something because you can,” Randolph said.

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