The US Air Force (USAF) has reached a milestone as Major Rachael Winiecki became the first female F-35 test pilot to lead and complete an F-35 Lightning II fighter jet flight mission.

The mission, which was completed at the Edwards Air Force Base in California on 14 December 2018, signifies an increasing presence of women in USAF test missions.

Winiecki, of the 461st Flight Test Squadron (FLTS), said: “I may be the first female developmental test pilot (in the F-35), but (test pilots) are just one small part of the test enterprise.

“I am grateful for the women who have broken barriers previously, they built the path. I look forward to the day when sorties like this are a regular occurrence.”

She added that although it is a field traditionally dominated by men, the number of females in aviation, and particularly the USAF flight test process, is starting to increase and that there are now several female test directors, test conductors, discipline engineers and flight test engineers in the 461st squadron.

Commander of the 461st FLTS Lieutenant Colonel Tucker Hamilton said: “Major Winiecki was selected to become an F-35 test pilot based on her exceptional flying ability and the important voice she brings to the F-35 development as a prior A-10 (Thunderbolt II) pilot.”

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According to Winiecki, her experience of A-10 mission sets, such as close-air-support, combat search and rescue, and forward air controller, can be applied to the 461st FLTS’s F-35 jet in order to fully test both air-to-air and air-to ground capabilities.

“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. As testers, the contacts we have back in the Combat Air Force are valuable,” she said.

“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. I can reach back to my friends and contacts in my previous community just like other test pilots here.”

Before joining the 461st FLTS, Winiecki flew A-10C fighter jets operationally across Southwest Asia, Eastern Europe and the Pacific region. After graduation from the USAF Test Pilot School at the Edwards airbase, Winiecki was reassigned as an F-16 Fighting Falcon test pilot with the 416th FLTS.

The 412nd Test Wing Commander Brigadier General E John Teichert said: “Major Winiecki’s accomplishments are exactly why we continue to be at the centre of the aerospace testing universe. Breaking barriers is what we do, with history-making impact every day for the warfighter.”

The breakthrough comes at a time when the USAF is suffering from a long-term pilot shortage. In March last year, the USAF teamed up with NATO to try to address this issue.