Trailblazer: Michelle Curran, former Thunderbird pilot

After a phenomenal career as a Thunderbird pilot and a combat veteran of the US Air Force, Michelle Curran share why we need more women in aviation

My big life plan was to study Criminal Justice so I could pursue a career with the FBI – I initially joined the Air Force to pay for my tuition. But halfway through college, I saw a fighter aircraft fly for the first time – I was blown away. I remember saying: “Forget the FBI, I want to do that!” As I was already enrolled in an Air Force college programme as a candidate, I was already headed down the right path to pursue a career as a pilot, so all I had to do was be brave enough to raise my hand.

At first, the fear and hesitation that came with being a fighter pilot had nothing to do with being a woman; though it did become apparent to me later, the initial nervousness stemmed from knowing it was a very difficult path to excel in. But I did excel, and I was on active duty flying F-16s for 13 years – three of which were as a solo pilot for the Air Force Thunderbirds. 

Moments of self-doubt did creep in though. When I first became an F16 pilot, we got straight into tactics and technical data– that’s when I realised I was in way over my head. I was one of two women in a squadron with 50 pilots, and I felt a lot of pressure to fit into the distinct fighter pilot culture. I was put under a microscope and there were a number of people waiting to see if I would fail – I knew I had to prove myself.

When asked about being a female fighter pilots, I usually say: “It doesn’t matter what your gender is, the enemy can’t tell, the jet can’t tell.” However, when I joined the Thunderbirds, out mission was to inspire. At that point, I was the fourth woman to fly in the demonstration in almost 70 years, I knew I was in a unique position to be able to inspire little girls and young women.

For this reason, I emphasise to young girls that I was just like them – I had my own struggles and doubts too. I was shy, awkward and I got bullied in school, but eventually realised I had the power to create the life I wanted and achieve the goals I had.

When I was a new fighter pilot, I was so afraid of failing and showing weakness. But I learnt that if you can go after the things that you want, but also scare you, it starts to become who you are. So when those big life-changing chances come your way, you can grab them with both hands and with no hesitation. 


Words: Michelle Curran

Share

Featured Articles

How she got there: Microsoft's Priyanka Gangishetty

Priyanka Gangishetty shares the incredible story of how she battled societal norms, family illness, and depression to finally find her true path in life

March8 LIVE: Sign up for our virtual event on IWD 2023

March8 LIVE is back and bigger than ever. On International Women’s Day 2023, join our virtual event for unmissable keynote speaker and panel discussions

#OscarsSoMale: Women excluded from Oscar’s director category

The nominations for the Oscar’s Best Director category have been announced, but no female filmmakers have been included

The climate conversation: Gender equity and climate change

Educate

Rising Star: Lauren and Sarah Murrell, By Sarah London

Elevate

Compare and despair: The disastrous impact of social media

Motivate