Maj. Rachael Winiecki flew her first test flight in an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter out of Edwards Air Force base last week, making her the first female aviator to serve as a test pilot for the advanced fighter. Previously an A-10 pilot, Winieiki also served as an F-16 test pilot in the 461st Flight Test Squadron before moving on to the F-35.
“I’m honored to have the opportunity to become part of the diverse team at the 461st,” Winiecki said. “While there may only be a few individuals in these photos [of the test flight], there are countless dedicated personnel working hard to ensure we execute safe, secure, effective and efficient flight tests.”
Close air support (CAS) may be the one function the F-35 will be expected to absorb that many still have reservations about. The purpose built A-10 Thunderbolt II (also known as the Warthog) and it’s legendary 30mm GAU-8/A Avenger canon have long been the aircraft of choice among American infantry soldiers in need of air support, but the dated platform will eventually be retired, and the F-35 will likely fill that role in many operations. Winiecki’s experience in the cockpit of the A-10 may prove invaluable as the F-35’s CAS mission continues to mature.
“I really do appreciate the perspective that I can bring coming from the A-10 and the F-16 to hopefully bring some influence from that perspective,” Winiecki said. “As testers, the contacts we have back in the combat Air Force are valuable. We can reach out to our networks to solicit feedback, solicit information on how we could and should accomplish our mission sets in the future.”
“That’s really where we can open doors,” she continued. “I can reach back to my friends and contacts in my previous community just like other test pilots here.”
Winiecki also made sure to point out that although she is the first F-35 test pilot, she is not the first female to fly the fifth-generation fighter. That honor belongs to Lt. Col. Christine Mau, who flew the F-35 in May of 2015.
“I am grateful for the women who have broken barriers previously,” Winiecki said. “They built the path. I look forward to the day when sorties like this are a regular occurrence.”