In Captain Marvel, Brie Larson plays Carol Danvers, an Air Force fighter pilot who uses the special powers she gains during an accident to save the galaxy. The movie is fairly realistic—not in the all-powerful superhero scenes, of course, but in the sense that it’s set in 1995. Just two years earlier, women were granted the honor of flying fighter jets by the U.S. Air Force (USAF). So Danvers is a leader in more ways than one.
But in the 26 years we’ve had female fighter pilots in the Air Force, only five have made it to the Thunderbirds. The demonstration squadron boasts some of the world’s most elite fliers, and those skilled enough to make it serve a two-year assignment. They act as the public face for the USAF, performing jaw-dropping maneuvers at air shows around the country.
Today there’s only one female Thunderbird pilot: Major Michelle Curran, a 32-year-old Wisconsin native who flies the coveted Opposing Solo position. It means she’s front and center in one of the most visible squadrons in the military. Next year, her last with the Thunderbirds, she’ll get bumped up to Lead Solo, where she’ll be showcasing the maximum capabilities of the planes.
Her favorite maneuver is the vertical roll. “It makes a spiral in the sky,” she tells me. “I’ll go from 150 feet above the ground to 15,000 in a few seconds while rolling. We have music associated with all our maneuvers and for that one I got to pick the song. I chose [No Doubt’s] ‘I’m Just a Girl.’”
The Air Force turns 72 years old this month. Pair that with Captain Marvel providing more visibility to female pilots earlier this year, and the timing seemed right to experience a day in the life of the only female Thunderbird. To really complete the picture, the Air Force even offered a flight in a F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft (which, I learn via military.com, is a mainstay of the combat fleet).
I didn’t realize I was nervous about the day ahead, though, until I was halfway to the 177th Fighter Wing of the Atlantic City Air National Guard Base. For one, I’d been told most people who go up in a F-16 for the first time throw up or pass out (for reasons I’ll explain later). One way to mitigate the nauseating effects is to drink lots of water, but that meant double the bathroom breaks on the drive there. So now, I’m not only anxious about puking or passing out in front of a badass pilot but also concerned I’ll be late to meet this badass pilot. On top of that, I worry she might be intimidating. What if I call her by the wrong rank? Do I have to salute? What happens if you unwittingly commit a faux pas in front of one of the best fliers in the world?
But from the moment I meet Curran on the scorching hot tarmac, she is warm and funny. She’d just landed from a Thunderbirds show in Sioux Falls and immediately jokes that she needs to fix her hair after sweating too much on the flight over. “These are not breathable,” she adds, tugging at her flight jumpsuit.
Curran has been in the Air Force for 11 years, but flying wasn’t always her goal. Growing up in a small town of about 4,000 people, she knew she didn’t want to stay there forever, but she worried about how to pay for college. She was applying to scholarship programs when her father suggested looking into the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). She applied, picking the Air Force as her military arm of choice on a bit of a whim. (“I’ve always liked roller-coasters, I’m a thrill-seeker, and I wanted to travel,” she explains.) Once she visited a base and heard the roar of the jets, though, she knew she wanted to pursue the pilot route. She went for it, even competing for a highly coveted pilot spot while still in college. Eventually she was selected. “I was so excited, I called everyone in my family—and none of them answered their phones,” she deadpans. “So that was cool.”