SPEARFISH, S.D.— A Spearfish native is well on her way to becoming a fighter pilot for the Navy.
In five or six months Jessica Parrett, a 2007 Spearfish High School graduate, will join the ranks of the Navy's Hornet pilots.
Currently Parrett is in Kingsville, Texas, in flight school where she is flying a T-45C training jet.
"It's a training jet, so it's a baby jet, but it is still pretty fast," Parrett said.
But with a top speed of Mach 1.04 it pales in comparison to the F/A-18 Hornet she will eventually fly which has a top speed of more than Mach 1.7, or nearly twice the speed of sound.
Halfway through her training before moving to the Hornet, Parrett is a long way from where she thought she would be growing up.
"I was pretty girly in high school," she said. "I wanted to be a dancer and a fashion designer or a model. If you would have told me I would be a fighter pilot when I was in high school I would have said 'what in the world.' It was a pretty big change of plans, but I am 100 percent happy with where I am now."
Upon graduating high school Parrett headed to Miami where she began school to become an architect. She "hated it." While trying to figure out what to do with her life, a friend, who was also trying to become a Navy pilot, told Parrett that she would be a good fit for the Navy's fighter pilot program.
"I looked into it, and the more people I talked to I decided it was what I wanted to do," she said.
Parrett enrolled at West Minster College in Salt Lake City where she studied flight operations. At the same time she enrolled in the University of Utah for Reserve Officer Training Corps and earned her commission in 2011.
"I got all of my pilot licenses through college and loved (flying) ever since," she said.
In the Navy she headed to Pensacola in July, 2011 for ground school and water survival training. She then transitioned to the T-34, a single engine turbo prop, tandem seat, acrobatic plane. Now she is on the T-45C jet trainer and has to conduct weapons and carrier qualifications before earning her wings and transitioning to the Hornet.
The F/A-18 Hornet, an all-weather plane, is used as an attack aircraft as well as a fighter. In its fighter mode, the F/A-18 is used primarily as a fighter escort and for fleet air defense; in its attack mode, it is used for force projection, interdiction and close and deep air support. The first model of the plane entered service in 1978. Currently there are five models of the plane, each costing about $29 million.
"I'm looking forward to helping the guys overseas and to actually be in combat. A lot of women can't be on the ground in combat, and I am pretty lucky to be able to do it from the air," Parrett said.
Once she graduates from flight school she will don the gold wings of Navy pilots and join the very small ranks of female fighter pilots.
The first female fighter pilot for the Navy took to air in 1993. Parrett was unsure how many there are now, but in her squadron of about 100 students and instructors, she is the only female. Another squadron in her training program has two female trainees.
"It's not because they can't do it, but most women are drawn to helicopter or multi engine planes because it is an easier lifestyle, and you get more time at home with family. As a Hornet pilot you are constantly gone and deployed."
"It will always be different - after all there's one woman to 100 men - but the training is all the same. I've never had a flight where I thought I was given worse grades for being a female."
She said guys will still joke around with her, but they have also developed a high respect for all students, male and female, who have made it as far in their training as they all have.
Once she becomes a Hornet pilot she will fly one of the most advanced combat planes in the world.
"A lot of people don't have the technology to fight against us in a high and fast environment. We don't dogfight anymore. It's a lot more air to ground support," Parrett said.
She encouraged people who are interested in becoming fighter pilots to study hard, get good grades and get involved in extra curricular activities.
"If you have the urge to do it, you need to have a strong backbone and some thick skin. It's a long and tough road," she said. "Even if you are the best in what you are doing, sometimes the Navy or the Air Force, for that matter, don't need you for that platform."
Information from: Black Hills Pioneer, http://www.bhpioneer.com