By Senior Airman C. Todd Lopez
INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey (Sept. 21, 2001) -- Career aspirations can change a dozen times through grade school, high school and college. Some want to be a doctor, or a fireman, or a policeman, or a rock'n'roll star.
But 1st Lt. Shawna Ng-A-Qui, now an F-16 pilot, didn't have any of that confusion about what she wanted to do as a kid.
1st Lt. Shawna Ng-A-Qui, an F-16 pilot with the 13th Fighter Squadron at Misawa Air Base, Japan, recently completed her first operational tour at Operation Northern Watch. The Manside Tester in the foreground is used by life support personnel to test oxygen equipment on pilots' flight helmets. Photo by Senior Airman Ashley Sorrels.
"I have always wanted to be a fighter pilot," confirmed Ng-A-Qui, "ever since I was in fourth grade, it's something I always wanted to do."
Ng-A-Qui, a Midwesterner with South American roots, says that while she had no specific heroes or role models in mind when she chose her career as a pilot, she did look to all fighter pilots and astronauts as examples of what she would like to become.
In high school, Ng-A-Qui served as a member of the Civil Air Patrol and achieved the rank of Cadet Lt. Col., perhaps an indicator of her role as an adult. She remembers, as a freshman, the onset of the Persian Gulf War, which eventually spurred operations such as Operation Northern Watch.
"I have been hearing about Iraq for about ten years," said Ng-A-Qui. "I was a freshman in high school then. But that was a conflict we kind of thought would end."
Besides the CAP, Ng-A-Qui spent time running track, playing soccer and volleyball, and working to get into the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
By 1998, Ng-A-Qui graduated from the Academy with a degree in engineering. Her first assignment as an Air Force pilot took her to Misawa AB at the northern tip of Japan. Her unit of F-16CJ fighter aircraft recently spent three months at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, as part of Aerospace Expeditionary Force 5.
AEF 5 at ONW was her first "real world" assignment, and she has been targeted by hostile fire. "It's not really as scary as you think it might be," said Ng-A-Qui of the experience.
"The first time you see it though, it is an eye-opener," confides Ng-A-Qui. "But I haven't had anything real close to me."
Ng-A-Qui gives U.S. military hardware partial credit for her successful evasion of anti-aircraft fire.
"I feel really safe in the jet," she says of her aircraft. "It has great capabilities and self-protection systems."
Ng-A-Qui's commander credits mostly her.
"She performed magnificently," said Lt. Col. Joel Malone, 13th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron commander. "She is the first female pilot to fly a combat mission for Misawa's 35th Fighter Wing. This was her first real world, she was fired upon, and she fired back. She certainly did her job."
Ng-A-Qui is a wingman in her squadron but looks forward to advancing.
"While I am a wingman, I would like to be that person that people want to have on their wing. I would eventually like to become a flight lead, though, and then maybe go to weapons school," said Ng-A-Qui.
As a flight lead, Ng-A-Qui would move from being a follower amongst her fellow pilots to being a leader. But for now, she works on crafting her skill as a pilot and at being a member of a team she has great respect for.
"We are such a team here," said Ng-A-Qui, "I think the people that I respect the most, those that have been pilots a lot longer than me, are the people that don't have to say they are good. They are the people that, when you fly with them, they know they are good, they know the weapons system, they know the threat and they know how to fly. When you fly with them, you are in awe."