Military feature: Clovis grad beats odds as female pilot

2nd Lieutenant Alison Henderlite says you have to be “kind of a tomboy and kind of tough” to be a female Air Force pilot. (Courtesy photo)

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer

At 25 years old, Alison Henderlite has already achieved her No. 1 goal.

An Air Force pilot, the 2nd Lieutenant is a minority within an elite group. In July she will begin her first assignment as a KC-135 pilot at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla.
Approximately .02 percent of active duty in the Air Force, or 593 out of a total force of 337,780, are female pilots, according to data from the Air Force personnel center.

They are figures Henderlite knows all too well, having found herself the lone female in each class she has attended since beginning pilot training.

Looking back, the 2000 Clovis High School graduate, known as “Ali” to her friends, said she didn’t realize how few women there would be or how challenging being a woman in a male-dominated field would be.

“That’s one of the most difficult things about being a pilot even nowadays,” she said. “There are so few female pilots.”

Being surrounded by men, she said, is hard, since they converse and interact with each other much differently than women do.

“They’re not any harder on women,” Henderlite said. “It’s just more difficult for you as a person because you’re around men all day. You just have to seek out other female officers.”

“You feel like sometimes you have to prove yourself a little more.”

Feeling the gender divide was not something she anticipated when she was planning and working to reach her goals.

“For the most part my peers and people we grew up with are used to women in the workplace,” she said. “I thought that it’s the 21st century and in America, women have had equal rights for quite a long time now — I thought that I would never see or feel that.”

The University of Southern California graduate degree recipient isn’t about to let gender stand in her way, she said. In fact she’s glad to pursue a career where women are rare.

“Even though the Air Force opened its doors for women to do almost anything they want, a lot of women choose not to do the career that I’m doing,” she said. “You have to be kind of a tomboy and you have to be kind of tough.”

Whatever the gender, pilots need drive, according to Carl Armstrong, a retired F-111 pilot and teacher at Clovis High School.

“You just (have) to really want to fly and really apply yourself,” he said.

Henderlite was a student who showed the qualities needed in a pilot even in her teens, he said.

“She was extremely hard working, very disciplined and had a very high work ethic,” Armstrong said. “She was certainly an exceptional student, I’m glad to see that she did succeed — I’m not surprised,” he said.

It was examples set by teachers like Armstrong and the loving support of her parents Henderlite credits for helping her push forward.

“I really looked up to (Armstrong) and started on the road to applying to the academy because I looked up to him,” she said.

Her Korean-born mother always stressed how fortunate she was as an American to have a free education and so many opportunities available to her.

“It makes her proud that she raised me to be brave and to go after what I wanted in life,” Henderlite said.

Henderlite said her father raised her on a steady diet of Star Trek, Star Wars and other science fiction that created a burning desire in her to “do thing’s maybe man is not supposed to be able to do”.

All those things and more, created the drive in her, she said.

“I guess maybe in another lifetime I was a bird or something,” she said. “It’s just amazing when you get to fly the plane. You just can’t believe your doing that yourself.”

KC-135 Stratotanker
—Principal mission: Air refueling. It also provides aerial refueling support to Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps aircraft as well as aircraft of allied nations. The KC-135 is also capable of transporting litter and ambulatory patients using patient support pallets during aeromedical evacuations
—Primary Function: Aerial refueling and airlift
—Prime Contractor: The Boeing Company
—Thrust: KC-135R, 21,634 pounds each engine
—Wingspan: 130 feet, 10 inches
—Length: 136 feet, 3 inches
—Height: 41 feet, 8 inches
—Speed: 530 miles per hour at 30,000 feet
—Ceiling: 50,000 feet
—Range: 1,500 miles with 150,000 pounds of transfer fuel
—Maximum Cargo Capability: 83,000 pounds, 37 passengers
—Crew: Three: pilot, co-pilot and boom operator. Some KC-135 missions require the addition of a navigator.
—Aeromedical Evacuation Crew: A basic crew of five (two flight nurses and three medical technicians) is added for aeromedical evacuation missions. Medical crew may be altered as required by the needs of patients.
—Unit Cost: $39.6 million
—Inventory: Active duty, 195; Air National Guard, 251; Air Force Reserve, 84