Making history: Ten women make up elite, small cadre of B-2 pilots

A B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber, assigned to the 509th Bomb Wing, at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, taxis down a runway at Royal Air Base Fairford, England, on September 11, 2019. Three B-2 bombers, Airmen and support equipment from Whiteman AFB deployed to RAF Fairford as part of Bomber Task Force Europe. Bomber missions like BTF Europe, help familiarize aircrews with air bases, airspace and operations in different geographic combatant commands. These multinational missions strengthen professional relationships and improves overall coordination with allies and partner militaries. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Thomas Barley)

A B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber, assigned to the 509th Bomb Wing, at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, taxis down a runway at Royal Air Base Fairford, England, on September 11, 2019. Three B-2 bombers, Airmen and support equipment from Whiteman AFB deployed to RAF Fairford as part of Bomber Task Force Europe. Bomber missions like BTF Europe, help familiarize aircrews with air bases, airspace and operations in different geographic combatant commands. These multinational missions strengthen professional relationships and improves overall coordination with allies and partner militaries. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Thomas Barley)

WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. --

In the B-2’s 30 year history, there have been nearly 700 people airborne in the two-person cockpit of this $2.2 billion stealth bomber. About 500 of them have been pilots, 10 of which have been women.

The 10th woman to become a B-2 pilot, Capt. Lauren Kram, graduated from her training course at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, on October 4, 2019.

“Nine incredible women have come before me, blazing this trail,” Kram says. “I feel honored to be among them and I know there will be many more of us that follow.”

Their collective story began 17 years ago in 2002. Each has a common theme of strength, perseverance, making a long-time dream come true – and inspiring future generations.

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Lt. Col. (ret.) Jennifer Avery, No. 1, Spirit Number 278

Jennifer Avery made history on Feb. 12, 2002.

She was so excited – and nervous – that when she was collecting her parachute, helmet and other gear, she grabbed two right-handed gloves. Avery didn’t realize this until she was in the cockpit and it was time to taxi. So, she wore one glove backwards and hoped the instructor pilot sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with her didn’t notice. He did.

But it in no way hindered Avery’s flight, which she completed successfully, becoming the first female pilot to fly the B-2 stealth bomber.

“It’s still surprising to hear. Shocking, actually. I feel shocked that it’s me because I’m just me.”

Before her flight that day, the B-2’s two-person cockpit had to be modified with privacy curtains around the small toilet, which is necessary because the B-2 is capable of long-duration sorties with its lengthiest ever clocking in at 44 consecutive hours.

“To be able to fly such a unique aircraft that is the backbone of our nation’s nuclear-deterrence defense was a dream come true,” Avery said.

Her fascination with aviation started when she was just a child and her Uncle Bill took her into an aircraft simulator at Charleston Air Force Base, South Carolina, and continued during her college years at Georgia Institute of Technology, where she loved hearing the sound of F-15 fighter jets buzz over her apartment.

After graduating and commissioning as a second lieutenant in the Air Force, Avery earned her wings and was sent to Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota, to fly the B-1 Lancer. She was the first female pilot to fly the B-1 in combat.

Not long after becoming a B-2 pilot, she was the first – and still only – female to pilot the stealth bomber in combat, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.

“I’m proud of myself,” Avery said, but at the same time she didn’t want her gender to be a factor in her achievements. 

“I didn’t want to use it to my advantage, ever,” she said. “I didn’t want that to be a reason that I succeeded. I never wanted anyone to think I had gotten to where I was because of being a woman.”

 

Gen. Kristin Goodwin, No. 2, Spirit Number 279

Kristin Goodwin is a trailblazer in the truest sense of the word.

She became the Air Force’s first female bomb wing commander in 2014 when she led the nation’s oldest bomber unit, located at Barksdale AFB, Louisiana. Later, she served as the commandant of cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy – only the second woman to do so – and as a senior military assistant to the Secretary of the Air Force in Washington, D.C., before that.

The path she has forged began at Whiteman AFB, where Goodwin was stationed when she flew the B-2.

On the day of her “dollar ride” on Feb. 12, 2002, Goodwin became airborne just after the B-2 flown by Capt. Jennifer Avery had also taken off from the base’s runway in rural Missouri. Up until that day, more than 200 pilots had flown the stealth bomber since it first took flight in 1989, but all had been men.

Goodwin has pointed to her mother’s 20 years in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, among many other family members’ military service, including her father and both grandfathers, as her inspiration.

"… Family taught me about service, they taught me about sacrifice, and they also taught me about being part of something that's bigger than myself,” Goodwin told the Shreveport Times in 2014. “They've been my role models. They've been the embodiment of patriotism, and also have taught me what it means to sacrifice for our nation."

As a child, Goodwin has said she dreamed of flying planes in the Air Force. She graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1993 and went on to fly the C-130, B-52, B-2 and trainer jets, accumulating thousands of hours as a pilot. She also became a prominent leader – and an inspiration.

According to the Barksdale AFB archives, an Airman who worked with Goodwin said in 2016, “You have also shown us that it is possible to be a mother, spouse and respected professional. That example is something that will stay with me and continue to inspire me to push forward in my aspirations as an Airman, mother and spouse – to create balance in a world that is full of pressure and stress. If Col. Goodwin can do it, so can I!”

 

Lt. Col. (ret.) Jennifer Jeffords, No. 3, Spirit Number 326

The first pilot Jennifer Jeffords ever knew was her dad.

He had his private pilot’s license and she often flew as a passenger in a Cessna. As a child, Jeffords watched him in awe as he maneuvered the skies “like a bird up there, gliding.”

“The idea of exploring and being part of the world above the ground – I knew I would go make that happen.”

Years later, their roles would reverse.

Jeffords – determined since elementary school – first piloted a glider plane at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Not long after, she and her dad were back in the cockpit together. This time, Jeffords was the pilot and he was the passenger.

“He was so proud,” Jeffords says of her dad, who has since died. “Both my parents were so supportive, always encouraging.”

Her childhood dream was materializing after years of unwavering determination and “keeping my nose to the grindstone.” Jeffords faced obstacles, including a year-long delay to enter the academy due to a knee-replacement surgery, but always remained focused on becoming a pilot.

After she graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1998 and then pilot training in Texas a short time later, Jeffords first flew the Airborne Warning and Control System, more commonly called the AWACS, while stationed in Oklahoma.

In search of an Air Force mission that would allow her “to be up front in the fight,” Jeffords applied to the B-2.

In May of 2004, became the third woman to fly the $2.2 billion stealth bomber. Jeffords felt pressure, but because of the gravity of the task, not her gender.

“You’re not actually a female B-2 pilot, just a B-2 pilot. I’m just a pilot,” Jeffords says simply. Just like her dad.

 

Major (separated) Laura Maher, No. 4, Spirit Number 340

Everyone who pilots the B-2 Stealth Bomber receives a coin with an individual number on it. It signifies the graduation from a six-month grueling combination of classroom academics, exams, simulators and flying.

The number on the coin is not the “Spirit Number,” which tallies anyone who has ever been airborne in a B-2, such as non-pilot government officials, but an even lower digit – one that affirms that they are the newest members of a very small, elite group of aviators.

Today, 14 years after being handed her coin, Laura Maher still carries hers in her wallet. It has a spot next to her class ring from the U.S. Air Force Academy.

“I always wanted to be a pilot,” Maher says, recalling watching her dad fly F-14s for the Navy. “Always. And I always wanted to fly the B-2.”

Maher was the first woman to be assigned the B-2 straight out of the Air Force’s year-long undergraduate pilot training school – an incredibly rare decision at that time for any young pilot.

She had finished near the top of her pilot training class, pretty much guaranteeing her the aircraft of her choice. Maher wanted the B-2, which was almost always assigned to pilots after they were experienced in other airframes.

“Everybody thought it was a joke when they put up a picture of a B-2,” she remembers. “But it was true.”

Maher had proven herself as an aviator and in February of 2005, she became the fourth woman to pilot the B-2.

Her advice to young would-be aviators: “You can do it, too.”

 

Col. Beth Makros, No. 5, Spirit Number 399

Beth Makros regularly – and quite intentionally – brings her three daughters into her office on base. She’s done this at other bases she’s been stationed at since her first baby was born, just months before Makros started to train as a B-2 pilot at Whiteman AFB.

Makros likes to take her girls to the flightline, to promotion and graduation ceremonies, and even just down the hallways where official portraits of the base’s commanders hang. Her picture has been displayed on many of those walls.

The subtle, unspoken message to her daughters: “This is a normal thing for moms. You can do this, too.”

She, too, grew up with this kind of encouragement. Her dad, who was a navigator on C-141s and F-4s and later a test pilot for multiple aircraft, took her to work with him, Makros says, remembering, “I was out on the ramp a lot.”

By 8 years old, Makros knew she wanted to be a pilot, though she often heard that’s not something a girl can do.

Makros earned her wings in 2001. In 2007, she had become the fifth woman to pilot the B-2.

“Every day you feel different,” Makros says. “Every moment of every day, you notice it. It gets more evident as you get older and move up.”

First she tried to ignore it. Then she tried to fit in. Now she embraces it. It can be lonely, but it is also gratifying being part of such a small group.

What would Makros tell her three daughters?

“There should be a lot more of us.”

 

Lt. Col. Nicola Polidor, No. 6, Spirit Number 507

As a preteen girl, Nicky Polidor had hundreds of magazine cutouts taped all over the bedroom walls of her California home. But they weren’t pictures of boybands or heartthrobs from popular TV shows.

They were airplanes.

“All types – small, big, commercial, military,” Polidor remembers. “The fast, elusive military jets really captivated me.”

Soon, she went from a girl dreaming about planes to actually flying them. Her first lessons were in a Cessna and her instructor was a Finnish woman who was an Alaskan bush pilot by trade.

“She had a profound influence on me,” Polidor says. “I’ll never forget being able to solo a Cessna because of her guidance. The fact that she was a female, professional pilot, especially given her generation, was an unspoken, subtle inspiration that I could do anything I wanted.”

In 2011, Polidor became the sixth woman to pilot the B-2.

Being a female pilot occurs to her more now that she’s older, Polidor says. When she first began flying, she just tried to fit in. Today, she is treated like any other pilot, but Polidor is more aware of workforce dynamics and the role gender plays when it comes to policies, pay and retention.

“I am encouraged to think that society is evolving and one day soon the reaction to me saying, ‘I fly the B2’ isn’t ‘They let women do that?!’ anymore.”

 

Lt. Col. Jennie Swiechowicz, No. 7, Spirit Number 537

Like proud parents do, Jennie Swiechowicz’s mom and dad love to talk about her. Shoppers at the grocery store, customers at the bank and acquaintances around the neighborhood all hear about their daughter, the B-2 pilot.

There’s just one problem: “Nobody believes them,” Swiechowicz says.

“I don’t know if they think my parents got the name of the airplane wrong, or if it’s because I’m female. I want to think it’s the former,” she says with a laugh.

Swiechowicz knew she wanted to be a pilot since her first flight in a Cessna as a teen growing up in Virginia. She pursued Air Force ROTC in college and after being commissioned, began pilot training with just two other women among the men.

“We stuck out like sore thumbs,” she remembers. It was hard for her to find her place. She wasn’t exactly one of the guys, but didn’t quite fit in with their wives either, Swiechowicz says.

“It didn’t deter me. If anything, it made me want it more.”

Though lonely at times and definitely not always easy, Swiechowicz continued to pursue the dream she’d had since she was a child growing up in Virginia. First she flew the Airborne Warning and Control System – the AWACS – and then the B-2, where she faced an even smaller gender ratio, becoming the seventh female B-2 pilot in 2012.

Looking back, she says even if her gender mattered to other people, she didn’t let it matter to her.

“The airplane doesn’t care who’s flying it,” Swiechowicz says. “Flying is the great equalizer.”

 

Capt. Sarah Kociuba, No. 8, Spirit Number 648

When Sarah Kociuba was 11 years old, her family traveled from Ohio to Pasadena, California, for the Rose Bowl college football game. She remembers waking up early on that cold New Year’s Day to attend the traditional pre-game parade.

Kociuba was among the hundreds of thousands of spectators in attendance, watching the elaborate parade floats, massive marching bands and hundreds of horses. But, it was the flyover that captivated her.

“We heard it first – it has a very distinct engine sound – then we saw it. I didn’t know what kind of plane it was,” Kociuba remembers. “My dad told me, ‘That’s the B-2.’”

She knew she would someday fly the stealth bomber. In July of 2017, Kociuba became the eighth female B-2 pilot.

Kociuba grew up watching her dad and two uncles fly as private pilots. She saw military airplanes for the first time as a 6 year old in Cleveland at an air show and remembers thinking, “I want to do that.”

By the time she was a freshman at the University of Dayton, that changed to: “I actually think I can do this.”

With support and encouragement from her family – “It was never a thing that I was a girl and also wanted to fly” – Kociuba graduated from college, commissioned as an officer, completed pilot training and began her aviation career as a KC-10 pilot. All the while she maintained her ambitions to eventually fly the most unique airplane she’d ever seen.

When she arrived at Whiteman Air Force Base to start B-2 pilot training, she quickly realized she was unique, too. “I looked around and was like, ‘Where are all the girls?’”

Though sometimes isolating, Kociuba sees her gender as evidence for other females that they too can do things that have been historically male dominated. She knows some of her counterparts see her as “the girl,” but that’s not a bad thing.

Not long ago, she was piloting the B-2 and met up with a KC-10 to refuel in the air. Over the radio, the KC-10 pilot asked, “Sarah? Is that you in the B-2?”

How did he know? “He heard a female voice on the radio,” she said. “I really felt like I had made it.”

 

Capt. Lauren Kolod, No. 9, Spirit Number 688

It had never occurred to Lauren Kolod that she could be a pilot – even after she joined the U.S. Air Force.

It was her first year at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where a recruitment brochure filled with pictures of cadets doing cool-looking things had beckoned Kolod from the Pittsburgh area. Kolod’s new roommate introduced herself and told Kolod she was there to be a fighter pilot someday.

“I thought ‘oh wow,’ ” Kolod remembers. “I had never seen a female pilot – ever. There was Amelia Earhart, but I don’t remember every having seen another female pilot.”

What Kolod did see was an opportunity. And she took it. A few years later, in 2018, Kolod became the ninth woman to fly the B-2.

A lieutenant colonel at the Academy mentored Kolod and helped her get started on a path to becoming an aviator. He was also a B-2 pilot.

“All pilots love to talk about flying,” Kolod says. “And he loved talking about the B-2.”

After graduating from the Academy and pilot training, Kolod flew KC-135s, but let her commanders know from the start that she wanted to go fly the B-2 stealth bomber.

Never wavering from the goal, she found herself driving onto Whiteman Air Force Base in rural central Missouri on a dark rainy night. She would soon find out there was only one other female B-2 pilot there. “I thought, ‘What have I done?’” Kolod says with a laugh. “ ‘I really hope I’ve made the right decision.’ ”

The next morning, she saw a B-2 taxi and take off.

“I got chills,” Kolod remembers. “I was so excited about my job and to be a pilot.”

It’s a sentiment she wants other young girls to have.

“You need to see someone who looks like you to know you can do it,” Kolod says. “I never had, but that’s changing. When I put that helmet on, I become just another pilot, which is the best thing in the world. I so appreciate these women for paving the way and making it just a little easier for me.”

 

Capt. Lauren Kram, No. 10, Spirit Number 711

Lauren Kram didn’t realize she was No. 10.

In fact, it doesn’t really occur to her that she’s unique.

“I kind of forget about it most of the time,” Kram says. “I’m never reminded that I’m different.”

Barely acknowledged by her and those she serves alongside is that she’s a female pilot. Kram makes up the 6 percent of the female aviators in the Air Force and, having just graduated from the rigorous initial qualification training course in October 2019, is the 10th woman to pilot the B-2.

There are subtle hints of this difference, such as getting fitted for female-specific flightsuits, or when it comes time for official travel and her male counterparts are paired up to room together and she bunks alone.

“But it’s no big deal,” she says.

What is more surprising are the reactions she gets from strangers – little girls who catch a glimpse of her in uniform at the store, or at a remote airfield in eastern Europe and being told she was the only “lady pilot” the awestruck bystanders had ever seen.

Kram’s response to these situations: “There’s actually starting to be a lot of us!”

Prior to going to the U.S. Air Force Academy, Kram had never met a female pilot or even a female military member. But, she said, as a cadet everyone asks everyone else – regardless of their gender – if they’re going to pursue aviation after graduation. Upon receiving an incentive flight there, her answer was a resounding “yes.”

Kram first flew C-21s, which are used to transport cargo and passengers, including patients for aeromedical evacuation operations. She said her desire “to be at the tip of the spear” and the B-2’s mission of lethal global strike and its nuclear capabilities led her to Whiteman Air Force Base last year.

It was then that someone mentioned to her in passing, “Oh, you’re No. 10.”

Kram’s reaction: “OK, cool.”