Meet ‘Jet Girl’
After nearly a decade of preparation, both in the classroom and the sky, the debutant-turned-fighter pilot flew her first combat mission in 2014.
“You can never really prepare yourself for what it’s like,” reflected Caroline Johnson.
As an F/A-18 Weapons Systems Officer (WSO) in the United States Navy, the Colorado native spent years flying missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, interacting with nations like Iran in the air and also participating in the fight against terrorist organizations, such as ISIS.
Looking back, Johnson said things got real interesting right away.
“First thing we encounter? The Russians in the Mediterranean,” she said. “No one prepared me for that.”
Female fighter pilots are somewhat of a rarity in the U.S. military—even more so during the years Johnson served. Growing up in a family of boys—“my Lego guns were always made in pink”—she was accustomed to this dynamic, but her time in the Navy still presented challenges.
“It didn’t come without its hurt and heartbreak,” the veteran pilot said.
Now out of the service, Johnson has written about her experiences in the recently released “Jet Girl, My Life in War, Peace, and the Cockpit of the Navy’s Most Lethal Aircraft, The F/A-18 Super Hornet,” and next week, she’ll be in Pensacola for a reading at the Bodacious Bookstore.
A Decision to Serve
Growing up in Colorado, Johnson was a go-getter from the get-go. She wanted to excel at her studies, wanted to knock out accomplishments. She recalls wanting to be the best version of herself, to be prepared and dependable and in the company of others who felt similarly.
“That’s what I was attracted to and the kind of people I wanted to surround myself with,” Johnson said during a recent interview with Inweekly.
This is what initially drew the teenager to the U.S. Naval Academy. As she grew older, she realized a strong sense of country and mission also guided her path—“As an 18-year-old, I didn’t get that.”
From the academy, Johnson decided to pursue flight school and from there, combat missions in the F/A-18. This isn’t a decision a lot of women make. During her time as a pilot, Johnson estimated there were perhaps a dozen female naval fighter pilots on the East Coast. In her squadron of 230, there was only one other female pilot.
“There were so few of us we had to support each other,” she said, “both in the jet and on the ground.”
While Johnson considers her time in the Navy to be a positive experience, she said there were “a few bad apples” that presented challenges.
“There were some challenging times in my squadron,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t always positive.”
In short, there were times a girl wasn’t made to feel like she belonged in an environment that can at times feel rather fraternal. After a while, that kind of treatment wears on a person—“Can’t you just accept me for what I am?”—and it, Johnson said, “erodes away at your psyche.”
“To be made to feel that you don’t fit in and you’re not as capable of a warfighter just because you look different—that’s just frustrating,” Johnson said.
A Window to a New Worldview
Aside from dealing with the challenges that come with being a pioneering female fighter pilot in an organization like the Navy, Johnson looks back on her time serving her country with a respectful fondness. The experience offered her windows into entirely new perspectives.
From her bird’s-eye vantage point, Johnson saw worlds far different from the home she was familiar with back in the states. She became familiar with people living a hand-to-mouth, war-scarred existence.
“You can’t fathom a life like that,” she said, describing a sparse village scene. “That just opened my worldview.”
Johnson thought back to the brutally beautiful geography fleeting beneath the blur of her jet in Afghanistan. She waded into the memory with vivid details of a land both different and new.
“How severe the landscape was, having that come to life—feel it, touch it, taste it, as much as you could from a fighter jet,” she said. “It was constantly a learning experience.”
Johnson’s time in the Navy was also an education on sacrifice. Like every combat veteran, she’s experienced the inevitable horrors of war. She’s lost friends to the fight.
“In my 20s, I went to more funerals than I went to weddings,” Johnson said.
In dealing with such loss, the pilot relied on her military training. You are trained, she explained, not to allow emotions to cloud your head or interfere with the work at hand.
“What the military teaches you, and is so effective at, is compartmentalizing,” Johnson said, explaining how she made a point to shed such weight outside the cockpit. “I never wanted to be processing that when I strapped into the jet for the day.”
After spending some time as an instructor at the naval academy, Johnson ended her military career last January. She still serves in the Navy reserves but is otherwise a veteran beginning the next phase of her life.
Shortly before the release of “Jet Girl,” Johnson was at home in Colorado, watching some October snow fall outside the window and studying for the GMAT. Maybe she’ll go to business school—perhaps Harvard Kennedy. She hasn’t decided yet.
For now, Johnson has ventured onto the public speaking circuit—she relays lessons learned in the military to tech and economic organizations, as well as to the world of academia—and is looking forward to promoting her new book with a tour that begins in Washington D.C. and New York City and winds through Pensacola and other destinations across the country.
Johnson said that she hopes any perspective she can offer through sharing her experiences through her speaking engagements and book might offer people a window into military life and serve to both educate and connect civilians to those that serve.
“Not just to share my story, but to share the story of those brilliant people in the military and the Navy specifically,” Johnson said.
MEET “JET GIRL”
WHAT: A book signing with Caroline Johnson, author and former Navy fighter pilot
WHEN: 5 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 14
WHERE: Bodacious Bookstore, 110 E. Intendencia St.