Professor Missy Cummings, one of the nation’s first female fighter pilots, admits “when most people think of women fighter pilots, they think of some kind of macho, burly, girly-man.” But, she says, when she began her studies at the U.S. Naval Academy she was anything but that.

She was a product of a town infused with conservative southern values, where girls were encouraged to be into hair and make up and everybody wanted to be a cheerleader.

She admits without reservation that she thought seriously about attending “Hairdressing Bo-Tech School,” instead of high school. Fortunately for her future career as an engineer, her parents put their foot down and made her take challenging math and science courses instead.

Though Cummings shed a good deal of her former traits at the U.S. military academy, she said that she still had insecurities. “I still had all the self-esteem problems that all young women have,” she said.

When she was told by her superiors that she wasn’t cut out for her intended major, electrical engineering, she believed them. Still, she graduated 150 out of a class of 1,500 and excelled in her “easier” major 8212; math.

With her excellent grades, at service selection she made it into flight school, one of the most desired career paths in the Navy. Cummings graduated second in her class and, being a self-proclaimed “speed freak,” decided to try her hand at being a fighter pilot.

In the ’80s, Cummings pointed out, women fighter pilots were in an odd position. “We were trained to be in combat, but couldn’t be in combat,” she said. She was assigned to an adversary squadron in the Philippines to help pilots train in the art of arial war. But Lharr volcano errupted and a typhoon followed, destroying Cummings’ airfield.

With the extra time, she says, “I tackled my last remaining self-esteem issue.”

She got her degree in engineering at the Naval Postgraduate School in California.

In 1993, the Combat Exclusion Law was repealed, and Cummings was free to engage in real combat. But, the squadron she joined was vehemently opposed to women fighter pilots, and went enmasse to petition Congress not to allow them to engage in combat.

Cummings admits, “I was as cocky and arrogant as the male fighter pilots were.” She was branded as a feminist and “not a team player.”

“The social aspect was brutal,” she recalls. Even though she loved flying the technologically superior F-18s, she was continuously ostracized. After three years, she was worn down by being in a situation where no one was civil to her. Along with five other women of her small class of eight, she resigned.

For the remaining time on her contract, Cummings was a ROTC instructor at Penn State. “I realized that I liked teaching and found out I was good at it,” she said. She went on to become a professor of engineering at Virginia Tech.

Cummings stressed that her experience with the military was part of larger issues. “What happened to me was not entirely the military’s fault but society’s problem as well,” she said. She also reminded her audience that “becoming a female fighter pilot won’t become normal until it’s no big deal.”

Society of Women Engineers Co-President Kate Simon, who attended the lecture, said of the talk that “it was not focused so much on feminism, but the exciting experience of being a fighter pilot.”

“I wish I would have brought along some of my guy suite-mates8212;they like this fighter pilot stuff too,” Simon said.

Cummings is currently on leave from Virginia Tech, and has written a book also entitled “Breaking Through Barriers.” She is also currently finishing her Ph.D. at the University of Virginia. The lecture was sponsored by the Society of Women Engineers, NROTC, Outside Speakers Committee, Women’s Caucus, the McNair Program for Outside Speakers, and RIT.

McVay can be reached at

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