Decorated Air Force pilot reflects on nearly 30 years of military service

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Amaani Lyle
  • Air Force District of Washington Command Information
After almost 30 years of active duty Air Force and Reserve military service, Col. Elizabeth Larson announced she is retiring … maybe.

And with good reason comes Larson’s tongue-in-cheek skepticism.

By the time the Air Force District of Washington Operations, Plans, and Requirements director takes her fini-flight aboard the UH-1N Huey helicopter here June 6, she’ll have said farewell to at least three different military aircraft to include the T-38 Talon, a two-seat supersonic jet trainer, and the U-2 R/S, a single-seat, high-altitude, reconnaissance plane.

Since World War II, Air Force aircrew members have often partaken in the time-honored traditional “fini-flight,” literally a final flight, the capstone celebration of an aviator who is leaving a unit, no longer flying a certain aircraft, or retiring from military service.

In light of an illustrious civilian and military aviation career of more than 3,500 flying hours, 496 of those hours in combat, and the bragging rights of being only the third woman to ever fly in the 60-year old male-dominated U-2 Dragon Lady program, Larson didn’t mince words about her “final” fini-flight.

“I don’t believe it,” she exclaimed with a hearty laugh. “I’ll be back, you can’t get rid of me!”

The road from Air Force ROTC at the University of South Florida, Fla., in 1989 to primary advisor and planner for all operational matters and contingency events in the National Capital Region was windy, but Larson remained focused on her goals.

“At the time, women didn’t fly in combat,” Larson recounted. “Of the entire Air Force inventory of aircraft, I was only eligible to fly about 16 of those aircraft.”

One of just 11 women across the country selected for undergraduate pilot training, Larson wanted to fly fighter jets, but gender restrictions redirected her focus to the T-38 and the U-2, each in which she became an instructor and evaluator pilot.

“I chose the U-2 because it was single seat and it was operational,” Larson said. “I wanted to go do a mission after I’d been training for so long.”

Her assignments have run the gamut, from an Air Force Reserve instructor stint at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, to remote Air Force Academy admissions liaison officer based in North Dakota, to director of operations at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., before embarking on what she called her “baby tour.”

Larson briefly hit pause on her military service and commercial aviation to avoid a geographical separation from her husband and start a family. “The plan was to go back to the airlines when my son turned 2, but then 9/11 happened.”

The world changed, as did Larson’s career path.

Responding to the Air Force’s critical manning needs, Larson said she returned to active duty and the U2 community as a major and in 2004 completed both her master’s degree and Air Command and Staff College to ensure timely promotion.

As a lieutenant colonel, Larson continued to excel in leadership positions, notably as 1st Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron commander in Akrotiri, Cyprus.

“It was wonderful; we were supporting [U.S. European Command] and [U.S. Central Command], flying combat sorties in two theaters and leading people,” Larson said of her time with the 1st ERS. “And I was leading not just pilots, but maintainers, personnel specialists, finance, logistics, Guard, Reserve, and contractors.”

Larson continued in the Air Force with tours at Air Combat Command, Headquarters Air Force, Defense Intelligence Agency, and U.S. Strategic Command before her time at AFDW.

“Probably the best perk is that when I got here I got to fly again,” Larson said.

And as the world continues to change, Larson said she hopes to one day see an Air Force and a society as a whole in which diversity is so commonplace that categories are no longer necessary.

“People ask me, ‘hey, were you the first woman to fly U2s?’ … and I’m like, ‘well no, I was the third,’ but I want to get to a point where people don’t ask that question; where you weren’t the first woman to do this or the first African-American to do this, or the first whatever, you’re just a person who does that,” Larson said. “If ten years from now the Air Force is completely diverse to the point that we don’t see gender, sexual preference, skin color, and you’re just a maintenance officer, you’re just a ‘1 Charlie 3,’ I think that would be fantastic.”

Her words of advice for the next generation of Airmen were simple: speak truth to power, do the right thing, and find a way to get to yes.
“I’ve had great bosses who, when I told them I think it’s a bad idea, they appreciated it and they valued my opinion,” Larson explained.

Of doing the right thing, she notes, “I think we overthink stuff sometimes, especially the hard decisions. From disciplinary actions, to what to pursue workwise … instead of worrying about the ramifications, just go ‘Is this the right thing to do?’ I’ve always slept well because of that.”

Larson contends it’s easy to say “no” in a leadership position, but there’s always a way to get to “yes.”

“You’re a better contributor to the team and to the Air Force if you can find solutions instead of obstacles,” she said.

As her friends and family prepare to follow tradition and douse her with water at the end of her fini-flight with her friend and colleague, Lt. Col. Abbe Warren of the 1st Helicopter Operations Support Squadron, Larson predicts the event will be “melancholy.”

“Flying around D.C. at 200 feet is a hoot; it’s a bucket list item many people don’t get to do,” Larson said. “When I land for that last time, I think probably the eyes will get a little foggy, but it helps going back to the airlines so I know I’ll be flying again … my days in the skies are not over.”