First Woman F-16 Pilot Talks with Students about Following Their Passion
BETHANY, W.Va. – The first woman to fly the F-16 fighter jet and fly combat missions in the U.S. Air Force spoke of the importance of perseverance when pursuing your dream during a webinar Tuesday sponsored by the Bethany College Office of Career Services.
Sharon “Betty” Preszler was taken with flying from her first airplane ride at age 4. After a visit to the cockpit, she returned to her mother, excitedly declaring: “I want to be a stewardess.”
Her mother replied: “You might want to think about becoming a pilot.”
That experience set in motion a dream for Preszler, who was among the initial cadre of women fighter pilots in the U.S. Air Force.
She ultimately logged more than 1,300 hours, including 50 in combat in Iraq, in the F-16, and served as a flight instructor. During her more than 20-year Air Force career, she was a navigator, piloted a Lear Jet, and wrote homeland defense plans with the North American Aerospace Defense Command after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. After retiring from the military, she joined Southwest Airlines and flew more than 9,000 hours in a Boeing-737. She recently retired from Southwest as a captain.
But her success as a pilot didn’t always come as quickly as she would have liked.
As a college junior in the ROTC program, she was among 350 female cadets who met the Central Selection Board vying for 11 pilot slots and 16 navigator spots. She was selected to attend navigator training after graduation.
“I knew I should be thankful, I knew I should be happy for the opportunity, but I didn’t want to be a navigator, I wanted to be a pilot,” Preszler said. “I wanted to fly the plane, not give directions. But this is the military, so I put on my brave face, I accepted the congratulations from my fellow cadets, and I started wrapping my head around the fact that I was going to be a navigator.”
Still, she didn’t give up her dream and she decided to find an opportunity for military pilot training.
“How do you convince someone to give you an opportunity to do something different, or maybe better?” she asked. “You do the absolute best you can at whatever it is they asked you to do in the first place. And that’s what I did.”
She graduated in the top of her class at navigator training, and she paid for lessons for flying a Cesna 152.
Each year, the Air Force has selection boards to select people from other training programs to attend pilot training.
She applied to the first available selection board, and she said she was crushed when she was turned down again.
She quit flying for a few months before returning to the skies, “knowing that was where she should be.”
The next year, Preszler was accepted. She graduated in 1992, a time when women were forbidden from serving in a combat role. Not long after, she learned that the ban had been lifted and she was selected to fly the F-16.
“I was so excited,” she said. “But, guess what? I realized that if I would have gone to pilot training right out of college or even if I would have got picked up by that first selection board when I was navigator, I wouldn’t be here. … I never would have gotten to fly the F-16 because my timing would have been all wrong.”
The resulting media appearances often included questions about how she would deal with those service members who doubted a woman could successfully become a fighter pilot. Afterward, Preszler too began to have doubts.
“The biggest mistake I made was I let myself get into my own head,” she said. “I listened to that voice of self-doubt, but I handled it. I talked to friends and family, I talked to a mentor, and that helped quiet my voice of self-doubt.”
Even after all of her successes, she said that voice of doubt never really goes away, but that she is able to push it out of her mind.
“When it starts to creep forward, I think about the support I have and the confidence my mentors have in me, and I push it back again,” Preszler said. “That’s the lesson. If you can learn to quiet your voice of self-doubt, you’re going to be able to step up and take advantage of any opportunity you are given with confidence.”
After discussing her service, Preszler took questions from students about breaking barriers, prejudice, opportunities in the military, and bucking the status quo.
“I would advise everyone, the women and men, to do what they want to do whether it adheres to the status quo or not,” Preszler said. “Going against the status quo is difficult, so you don’t want to do it just to do it, just to be a rebel, you want to do it for something you love.”
Paisley Travis, Hailee Vizyak, Eden Rice, Julianne Latynski, Desiree Podgorski, Victoria (Tori) Magnotti, Louis Banks, and Celeste Marchbanks served as student panelists.
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Bethany College, founded in 1840, is the oldest private college in West Virginia. The Bethany experience focuses on academic excellence in the area of liberal arts and prepares students for a lifetime of work and a life of significance.