First in Flight

Lt. Sheila Johnson always knew she wanted to be a pilot; but for the F-15 whiz kid, understanding why has been a longer journey.

They used to play a car game, the pilot and her mother. Carmen Johnson never imagined she could be surprised by anything a three-year-old could do-she’d already raised two boys and two girls, seen and heard it all and learned a great deal more as an educator.

Maybe it was because Sheila had come into the world when Carmen was a thirtysomething college sophomore, still learning herself. Maybe it was because Sheila’s father, Roger, visited his wife and newborn in a hospital wheelchair, the first tap of mortality still fresh on his shoulder. So much adulthood greeted her when she arrived in August 1970 that this last and unexpected baby of the Johnson clan might just have been born an old soul.

But whatever the reason for her precocious nature, little Sheila sure was good at that car game. The verbal opposites test, it was called. Give her a word and she could tell you its opposite and maybe even teach you a word you hadn’t heard yet. All around town the mother and daughter would drive, running their errands. First one word, then another and another and another, each one increasingly harder than the last. What’s the opposite of ground? Sky. What’s the opposite of sickness? Health. What’s the opposite of fear? Courage.

As she grew older, she was a good student in her high school class of 42. Summers growing up in Medford, Wis., Sheila worked in her father’s cabinetry shop just as the other Johnson kids did, cleaning bathrooms and sweeping sawdust and earning the wages that would take her through her first year at Purdue. Allowances were not part of the family vocabulary. If you wanted something, you had to pay your dues. No radios provided a serenade on long family car trips, for even travel should be meaningful: Play a learning game, Describe what you see out the window, Don’t forget to look around you, kids.

This is how you build a fighter pilot.

All the children took flying lessons, and Carmen, shy and reserved before meeting Roger, even learned how to solo. Dave, the oldest child, was always particularly good, turning loops and pulling stunts and building a Christen Eagle aerobatic plane in the family garage. As for Sheila …well, she would learn how to fly a plane years before she learned how to drive a car. When there are eight years between you and your youngest sibling and five planes lined up outside like cars at a Wal-Mart, any age is too long a wait to touch those immortal clouds.

“The first time I steered the plane was about 5 years old, sitting on my dad’s lap,” she recalls. “And then I was tall enough at 7 that I could sit in the seat by myself. That was when I started flying.” Sixteen is the legal age to solo; she unapologetically went out at age 13 in a six-seater Beechcraft Bonanza.

“When your dad says, ‘Go do this,'” she explains, simply, “you just do it.”

No one thought she would be doing this, though. Of 4,015 fighter pilots in the U.S. Air Force, 37 are women; there are five women who are mission capable to fly the F-15E in combat. Sheila Johnson ’96 is one of them. As part of the rotating crisis-response Aerospace Expeditionary Wing, should the United States fight a conflict anywhere in the world tomorrow, she would be first in the air to defend Old Glory. It’s her turn. It’s taken a while to get here.

At home in the air

“My whole philosophy in life is that I don’t want to be 80 years old, in a nursing home, drinking my lunch through a straw and going, ‘I wish I would have done this or that.’ I don’t take unnecessary risks. I don’t go out looking for death traps. But I am not going to let fear,” Johnson says the word with great disdain, “stop me.”

Carmen Johnson recalls only two occasions in her life when Sheila was frightened, both involving the use of public ground transportation: on the New York City subway, and London’s double-decker buses, both during trips she took as an adult. Those are minor blips coming from a woman who once pulled nine G’s (the force of gravity) in a fighter jet, which is a sensation equivalent to nine times your body weight slamming into the seat of the aircraft. Most people black out at eight G’s.

“She’s utterly fearless,” says her former ROTC commander at Carolina, Col. Mark Clodfelter ’87 (PhD). “It’s not just the desire to be technically proficient that she possesses, but to handle a high-speed aircraft the best that it can be done. If the Air Force were full of officers like Sheila Johnson, we could conquer the world.”

For now, she’ll settle for Goldsboro. At 29, Johnson, a first lieutenant in the 336th Squadron at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, has amassed 300 hours of flight time in the F-15E Strike Eagle, an air-to-ground fighter that accelerates from idle power to maximum afterburner in less than four seconds. Soon, says her commander, Lt. Col. Rett Newton, she’ll receive a promotion to two-ship flight leader, meaning she’ll no longer be someone’s wingman, or shadow in the sky. Others will follow her.

Johnson arrived at Seymour Johnson with a heady reputation as a graduate of the 13-month-long Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training program at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas — the crème-de-la-crème of international basic fighter training. There are three other, less grueling bases in the United States where an Air Force pilot-in-training can go, but only at Euro-NATO, where U.N.-member countries send their best instructors and fliers, are you guaranteed a spot in a fighter.

She graduated fourth in her class of 30, which is a class that, until five years ago, didn’t admit women. Her name is etched on a plaque at Euro-NATO because on two occasions while there she accomplished the virtually unthinkable. She scored two “outstanding” marks on her check rides in the air, the kind of deed that prompts playground whispers of legend among pilots. For one of those, the instrument check ride, she demonstrated exceptional ability to complete the usual aerobatic maneuvers, such as taking off and landing and controlling speed during all phases of flight while not being able to see a lick outside the cockpit due to poor weather.

Pure luck, she says. But luck isn’t keeping your plane level, three feet from the wing of another plane, going Mach 1 at 500 feet every single time out without a hiccup. That’s just part of low-level formation flying, and she got an outstanding for that check ride, too.

“Imagine Ed Cota hitting eight three-pointers every time out and never missing an attempt. Just going 8-8 every single game,” says Clodfelter. “That’s how unlikely what she accomplished is.”

She is a gifted pilot. And, beneath the ego carefully disciplined to blend in a male environment and the easy sense of humor, she knows it. “I don’t think I ever thought I’d be anything else,” she says. “I was around aviation my whole life, and for some reason, I was good at it. Things came a little bit easier to me than they do other pilots. But there was a phase where I went through a little bit of soul-searching, where I asked myself: ‘Am I going to be a pilot because I want to be one, or because everyone has just assumed that I would be one?'”

Call sign: Ivana

Ironically, what she really, really wanted to do was drive a truck. Still wouldn’t mind it, truth be told. A big 18-wheeler just like the guy who worked at the cabinet factory when she was scampering around the place, the one who gave her all his old trucker magazines so she could study them front-to-back and learn the jargon. In the end, of course, she chose the sky over the ground. She got her pilot’s license at 17, after failing her driver’s license on the first attempt “for going too fast.”

Now, faster is better. And so is sameness. On base, she also serves as the SELO, or Squadron Standardization and Evaluation Liaison Officer. In civilian terms, that means she makes sure all of the 336th Squadron’s performances in the air and on the ground are done correctly and identically. Everything in the three-ring binders, the briefing room, the check-ride schedules of other pilots, must adhere to the same code that permeates all military conduct.

Likewise, whenever she goes outdoors, the hat comes out of its pocket in her right leg and tucks neatly over her bobbed hair, as is the rule. “I shouldn’t say this, because it’s part of the uniform, but I hate this thing,” she confides. “And I’m always leaving the house without it. I have to go buy one at the cheap store on base.” On the other hand, there is this advantage: “I don’t have to do much ironing, and there’s never an issue about what to wear to work. ‘Hmmm… what’ll it be today? Flier suit, flier suit, or maybe the flier suit?'”

Uniform, in this case, is quite the double entendre. At 5-foot-8, Johnson, a slender blonde who bench-pressed twice her body weight en route to earning the second-highest fitness score of all the pilots at Euro-NATO, blends in quite well on the Seymour Johnson campus. She is different, of course, because she is the only active female fighter pilot on base. But she walks with the easy confidence that belies someone who operates a $50 million aircraft daily, a confidence that is common to all the pilots here; and she demonstrates a just-one-of-the-guys bantering rapport with everyone in her squadron.

“There is one standard to be met in the Air Force,” says Lt. Col. Newton, “and she has met that standard. Once you strap on a fighter, it doesn’t matter what gender, race or religion you are. It’s all about heart. And she has blended into the squadron magnificently. I expect great things from her including becoming a lieutenant colonel one day.”

The closest she gets to making a point of being a woman in a mainly male world is by poking fun with her call sign: Ivana. Johnson dislikes nothing more than a female pilot who plays the gender card. Her recoiling at the subject is palpable, as intrusive to the discussion as the sound of jets landing nearby. If she were editing this story, you can bet you wouldn’t be reading this paragraph. When The News & Observer approached her in December about a “Tar Heel of the Week” profile, to run about the time she was chosen to perform the fly-over at the Wright Brothers’ Memorial anniversary observance, she refused. “This isn’t about me,” she told the reporter. “If you want to do a story on this, do it on all the people who are making this ceremony happen.”

And yet, she will admit, her gender is a difficult fact to ignore. “You can’t help but think about it,” she says. “I’m sure there are people out there who don’t think women should fly fighters. And they are completely entitled to that opinion; in some ways, that’s an accurate opinion. Not from a standpoint of doing the job, but from a ‘what happens if you get shot down and you’re a POW?’ standpoint. How much will to resist interrogation will your fellow POWs have if you’re a woman being tortured and they’re listening to you scream?”

Johnson’s biggest annoyance on the gender issue, though, is with women she says have been pushed through the pilot ranks to boost female numbers and granted leniency along the way. “I could probably point one out if I saw one, though I don’t know any specific names,” she says. “It’s unfair to the males who have to meet the same standards, and it’s unfair to the other females who do meet the standards, because it puts us all in the same category.”

Technically speaking, says Clodfelter, the ROTC commander, women are better suited physically for air fighting, because their center of gravity is lower. And although Johnson says she’s never felt discriminated against because of her gender, both Clodfelter and his wife, Donna, who have long followed her career, say she has encountered initial skepticism from fellow pilots wherever she has gone, which are doubts that are quickly snuffed once she hits the cockpit. “They view her as one of their own,” he says. “Some of the male pilots she flies with have said that she’s the first woman they’ve seen who can really play with the boys.”

A father’s genes, a daughter’s dreams

There was a time in Johnson’s life when the discipline she grew up with, the discipline she has chosen to grow old with, was as stifling a force as it was undergirding. She was a college dropout 10 years ago, when her flying talent was matched only by her vast questions about life. No, not mortality – for mortality’s fact had followed her ceaselessly – but life in terms of a mission, a blueprint for how to live it.

In 1988, a year after she was the youngest person ever to compete for a spot on the U.S. Aerobatic Team (ranked seventh nationally, she narrowly missed), Johnson went off to Purdue, looking for a place far enough away that she didn’t have to go home every weekend. “I thought I was a pretty savvy 18-year-old; I had been places, done things,” she says. “I was so culture-shocked, I didn’t know what to do. I was just lost.”

The size of the classes and the student body in West Lafayette, Ind., overwhelmed her. She jokes now that her major at Purdue was “staying up all night playing cards and then skipping class all day. When I did go to class, however, it was in the hopes that I would eventually graduate with a business degree.”

And at home in Wisconsin, her father’s health continued to deteriorate from the effects of polycystic kidney disease (PKD). Roger Johnson was a pilot with American Airlines for 20 years, but when flying had become impossible because of PKD, a genetic condition that causes large cysts to develop on kidneys and often spreads to other organs, he started the cabinetry business to help support his family. Then, during the summer before Sheila’s sophomore year, a kidney transplant that had given him at least a dozen more years than he might have had otherwise also took its toll on other parts of his body — side effects from the steroids that helped maintain the organ’s functions. He died of heart failure at 61.

“It wasn’t a surprise that he passed away because he got sick,” Sheila says of her father, who was in and out of the hospital her entire life, including the day she was born. “It was a surprise that he didn’t get better this time.”

When she returned to Purdue in the fall of 1989, she was studying less, attending even fewer classes than before and tired of wasting her time. “I never could have said to him, ‘Dad, I want to take a year off school.’ He would have said no. Once he passed away, I had all this ability to make my own decisions. So the first one I made was, ‘I’m not happy here. I’m leaving.’ Had he still been living, my life would be a lot different now. I would have finished Purdue and gotten some sort of job, maybe flying, maybe not.”

Carmen Johnson puts it more bluntly: “She wouldn’t be a fighter pilot.”

When your father’s first glimpse of you is soon after a diagnosis for a disease that has no cure, when his suffering was starting just as your world came into focus, of course you want to make him proud. The convergence of new life and slow death is a remarkably strong force; in this case, entwining a daughter and a father with the differing expectations of what to do while living, and what to do before dying.

“He was really loving,” she recalls, “but he was the head of the household, and he wanted things done a certain way. He always thought his days were numbered. He felt a sense of pressure to teach us things, because he didn’t have the luxury of being around for an unlimited amount of years.

“He had 30,000 hours of flying time,” she continues. “He’d say, ‘I have all this knowledge to give you, but you have to listen to me now, because I may not be here in 10 years when you’re old enough to say, ‘Gee Dad, I really wish I would have listened to what you were saying.’ He wanted to see things accomplished before he passed away.”

Sheila tested negative for the gene that causes PKD after her father died. But her concern was never so much about dying as it was about not forgetting to live. With her reason for finishing Purdue gone, she moved to Pompano Beach, Fla., and worked as a flight instructor for a while at the urging of a friend, and then later to North Carolina, where her brother Dave worked as a pilot for Midway. She enrolled in some aviation classes at Lenoir Community College, but when the same friend summoned her to California to work for Hollywood producer and Clinton pal Harry Thomason’s small charter airline, she put school on hold again.

“I was still in that thinking that I could be successful without having gone to college,” she says. “Going to California cured me of that.” For a salt-of-the-earth girl from the Midwest, the Gucci-and-Armani set wasn’t a gel. She was dating a man who lived in Raleigh. And to top it off, Thomason Aircraft’s executive was Darnell Martens, who was later indicted in the White House Travelgate scandal. California had served its purpose.

“Her father’s death caused her to be very reflective about what she wanted to get out of life,” says Donna Clodfelter. “She realized there was more to life than just taking people from Point A to Point B. She needed more than that.”

After a year out west, she headed back to North Carolina, an acceptance letter from UNC in her pocket.

Johnson moved in with her mother, who had relocated to the Triangle. For a year and a half, she went to Carolina’s business school during the day, worked in bookkeeping for a pool distributor in Garner at night, and commuted to her home in Cary in between. At 23, she was a college freshman again; very few academic credits had transferred from Purdue.

And, oh…how she missed flying. Not in the sentimental sense, but the way the rest of us would miss breathing if it were taken away from us. There was no time for flying now, with bills for books and tuition. No time for it if she were to finally get that diploma…

Then again, what was it her dad used to tell her? “If somebody asks if you can do something, you say ‘Yes.’ You never say, ‘I can’t do that. I don’t know how to do that.'”

One day, she called the Air Force ROTC unit on campus.

“Hi. I’d like to be a fighter pilot,” she told the person who answered the phone. “Who do I need to talk to?”

That evening, Sheila met with a brochure-toting Clodfelter at Hardee’s at the I-40 exit off N.C. 54. The colonel told his wife he’d be a little late for dinner. He was gone an hour and a half.

“I knew within 15 minutes of talking with her that she could be one of the best officers I had ever met,” he says. “I knew it beyond a shadow of a doubt.”

Johnson explained that she had more than 1,500 flying hours to her credit, but that wasn’t what impressed Clodfelter, what made him think that she could beat the numbers and make it as a woman pilot in the Air Force.

“With Sheila it was obvious that I was talking with someone who had seen a great deal of life, who had carefully considered what she wanted to do, who knew her limitations,” says Clodfelter. “And she was not afraid of the future.”

Of course, no story is this simple. You don’t just pick up a phone and decide to be a fighter pilot. You become one. Johnson did harbor some doubts about committing to the Air Force after the mandatory ROTC field training program off campus.

“I never had any doubts that I could be a fighter pilot, that I would fly a plane that goes faster than the speed of sound and drops bombs,” she says. “But, having been indoctrinated into the military with Clodfelter, I set him as the standard. Some of the people I came across at field training fell far short of that standard. They were a bit more of the hypocritical set, preaching integrity and then not living it. I didn’t want to spend a commitment of my life with people I don’t respect.”

She left ROTC, talked with friends and fellow pilots and watched her fellow civilian classmates going off to interviews in suits that were not of the flier variety. She also found that most Air Force folks were like Clodfelter. Six months later, she was back. She told Clodfelter she couldn’t just work for American Airlines the rest of her life.

“There’s something wrong with you if you can’t be patriotic in this country,” she said. “This is something meaningful. This is something more than just being a pilot.”

While Johnson served as second in command of 72 cadets at UNC, she also finished both her junior and senior years as the top cadet, picked up two scholarships along the way and earned a diploma in business. Just like Roger Johnson had hoped.

Life at the speed of sound

For most of us, the world of the fighter pilot has been crystallized through Tom Cruise’s “Top Gun.” That was Navy. The Air Force’s version is called U.S. Air Force Weapons School, at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas. It is, in Johnson’s words, “a six-month course where you will basically bleed out your eyeballs. It’s like getting your Ph.D. in fighter tactics.” For Sheila, the very thought of applying to Weapons School right now is akin to “your eighth-grade cousin telling you she’s going to get her doctorate in biophysics. You’d say, ‘Whatever. Let’s see if you can make it through chemistry first.'”

But any observer in the know would tell you that the question isn’t if Johnson will one day wear the bull’s eye uniform patch that announces she is a graduate of Weapons School, that will give her instant credibility whenever she walks in a room. It’s a question of when. The first female F-15 pilot, Jeannie Flynn, graduated from Weapons School in 1998.

“Sheila,” says Col. Clodfelter, “is following right in her footsteps.” In two or three years, Johnson says. Maybe in two or three years.

In the meantime, she’s basking in the thrill of what she learned at Red Flag, the Air Force’s six-week war games course in which the classroom is the Nevada desert. And in six months’ time, she’ll be deployed for her first overseas mission when she assumes “Northern Watch” duty, policing the no-fly zone over Iraq.

Carmen, whose birthday presents from her children in recent years have included a parachute jump – and who remembers a time when Sheila refused to let Mom tie her shoes – is still surprised “Ivana” chose the military. “I never thought she’d be following orders just for orders’ sake,” she says.

And what would Dad think of Sheila’s life now?

“Oh, he’d be so jazzed,” says Johnson, the glee of a three-year-old lighting up her face. “Yeah. He’d be really proud.”

A college degree, a job with a purpose, a life of discipline, a window on the world from an F-15. In the end, it seems, what a father thought should be accomplished before dying, and what a daughter wanted to do while living, never had to be opposites. They were the same thing all along.

Copyright 2000 UNC General Alumni Association

Published in Carolina Alumni Review, July/August 2000. Received 2001 CASE Special Merit Award for Excellence in Feature Writing.