Quitting wasn’t an option for fighter pilot Tammy Barlette
When Tammy Barlette flies at 400 knots with her wingtip just three feet away from another plane, she doesn’t pay attention to her own excitement. “I’m good at compartmentalizing, and focusing entirely on the moment at hand,” says this fearless woman. “It’s easier to keep any emotion out of the cockpit.”
Learning to fly in this kind of a tight formation in the T-38, the aircraft used to train Air Force pilots on the fighter/bomber track, might have been overwhelming, and Tammy admits that at first, it was.
“I learned to focus on each step and how I would successfully execute it,” she says. “I take things one step at a time.”
At 400 knots, her steps come more quickly than they do for most.
Tammy Barlette is an Air Force Lieutenant Colonel. After growing up in the suburbs of Minneapolis, she finished high school at a local college, funded by the state, where one of her classmates encouraged her nascent interest in the military. A Navy veteran, he steered her toward the Air Force. “They treat their people better,” he told her.
When Tammy arrived as a freshman at the University of Minnesota, she headed straight to the Air Force Reserve Officers Training Corps office and signed up. Since then, she has never looked back.
In 2000, Tammy completed the Air Force Undergraduate Flight Training Program, and was stationed at Laughlin Air Force Base as an instructor pilot. In the intervening years, she flew three assignments in the A-10, including one in Korea. The A-10 Warthog is one of the military’s most lethal weapons, excelling in close combat attacks and known for high speed runs at low-altitudes. On one of those tours, on one of her sorties, things went wrong.
“I was twenty five minutes into my sortie when I saw my gauges jumping around a lot,” Tammy says. “I notified flight lead that I’d have to shut an engine down.”
The last A-10 pilot who had attempted a single engine landing in Korea had been forced to eject. Tammy wasn’t thinking about that. She knew focus was key to survival, and she was focused on the single engine landing.
Tammy was closer to Kunsan than Osan, her departure base, so she called for an emergency landing while executing her emergency engine shut down.
Because of the previous pilot’s misfortune, Tammy was greeted on the tarmac with a small crowd and cheers. “It wasn’t a big deal though,” she insists. “It was a standard single engine landing.”
One of the highlights of her time flying A-10s was friendship.
“When I went through A-10 training,” Barlette says, there was another woman, a lieutenant, in the class just ahead of mine. I followed her through, and then to Korea. She was an excellent pilot with more tactical experience than I had. We became really good friends.”
Barlette learned tactics from her fellow female pilot, and the lieutenant learned about leadership from Barlette.
“I’d worried about serving with another woman,” said Barlette. “In some places, women can be really catty, but I didn’t find that in the fighter community at all. We were all just there to do our jobs.” In her next assignment, Barlette worked for a female squadron commander, Martha McSally, the first female Air Force A-10 pilot (now a congresswoman for the State of Arizona).
Barlette doesn’t have any question about a woman’s abilities, but she does think men and women are different. “Women stress themselves out more than men,” she says. Women also tend to underestimate themselves, she found, but once she recognized that, she charged past it.
“I’d always considered myself average,” she says, “so I never considered pursuing Air Force Weapons School. Then one day — I remember the exact day — I looked around and realized the guys were just more confident in themselves.” This was the turning point in Barlette’s career, though she didn’t know it yet.
After cervical spine reconstruction, a repair from an earlier flight injury, Barlette found herself grounded for a time, coinciding with her marriage and starting a family, so she transferred to an active guard unit flying the Predator and the Reaper (remote piloted aircraft or RPAs also known as drones used in reconnaissance and remote attacks).
“We flew the RPAs out of ground control stations, which were literally trailers,” Barlette said, “but as soon as I found out I was pregnant, the flight docs grounded me. I asked them why, since I was just sitting in a trailer, and they said the regulations hadn’t caught up to RPA pilots, so they had to use regulations written for the tanker/support pilots.”
Frustrated, Barlette did what she had learned to do well by then: find a way to move through the obstacle. She did the background research and worked with the doctors to change the regulation. By her third trimester, she was back flying the RPAs.
“I shot twice in combat while I was pregnant,” Barlette says. “When you fly the RPAs, you can talk to the guys on the ground from the control station here in the US. After the shot, I messaged the troops on the ground that I was seven months pregnant. I’m pretty sure I might be the first pregnant women with two air to ground combat kills.”
TAMMY’S FAVORITE BOOKS
When Barlette was five months pregnant with her second child, her leadership, not fully comprehending the intensity of the Air Force Weapons School, asked her if she was interested in applying. “The Air Force Weapons school is a grueling six month program training the instructors of instructors not only in tactics but in how to teach the tactics as well. She went home to talk to her husband who worked as a federal agent for the U.S. Border Patrol Tactical Team. “You have to do this,” he said. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.” Her mom stepped in to help with childcare, too, and she started preparing for the course.
Somewhere in the midst of her preparation, the squadron leadership was tipped off to the challenge of the Weapons Course, and called Barlette into the office. “They started questioning whether I should go,” Barlette said. “I told them they had offered, I had accepted, and I would go. No questions.”
“I left my 18-month old and three-month old home with my husband, my mom and a nanny, and went to weapons training for six months,” Barlette said. “It was hard to compartmentalize my work from my family, but I had to do it. In Weapons School, you are always doing something way over your head. They push you past your limits. Things are dynamic, and you have to be able to manage change.”
Her participation was questioned externally, too.
“There were guys from my A-10 unit who were there and knew I had very young children at home,” she said. “There were people saying “There’s no way she’ll make it through.” That just fueled my fire. It wasn’t easy, but you just don’t quit.” She pauses. “I’ve always been one to ignore what people think.” It has obviously served her well.
Completing Weapons School is one of Barlette’s proudest accomplishments, though she discusses it with reserve. “I wouldn’t take it back, but I wouldn’t do it again, either,” she says. Her critics continued even after she earned her patch. “I got comments about what mother would leave her three month old for a job. No one would ever ask a man those questions.”
Tammy’s hardest lesson came in managing her career. “No one will watch out for you better than yourself,” she warns. “In the military, you transition all the time. It’s important to keep a record of all that you do and it’s your responsibility to ensure your leadership knows about it.”
Tammy’s Advice to New Officers and Leaders
“Show respect for the senior enlisted corps,” Barlette says. “They are a huge asset to you. Know what steps you need to take to get to the next level of your career, and keep detailed records.” Finally, in advice that echoes across several of our interviewees: “Get your masters degree sooner than later.”
If she were talking to herself as a new lieutenant, Tammy says she would just tell herself the lesson she learned partway through her years flying the A-10: “Have confidence in yourself.”
Barlette learned from working with both women and men. When I first started out I’d put on my armor and go out drinking with the guys,” she says. “I’d talk like the guys, even though it wasn’t me. I quickly realized I didn’t have to do that. They didn’t want me to do that. I just had to be myself.”
But her time working with women was more positive than she’d expected. She has relished friendships from her units as well as the informal Chick Fighter Pilot Association, or CFPA. Understanding the value of those relationships and mentoring, Tammy started a LeanIn circle at Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas.
“Grit is continuing toward a goal even when it’s more challenging than you had anticipated,” she says. “I don’t think of quitting as an option, and I always figure that if someone else has done it before, I can do it too.”
This strength is internal, but Barlette also credits the stories of those who have come before. “Our society needs to place much more value on the experiences of those who have led the way,” Barlette says. As she is doing for others.