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All in the family: the Reserve's first woman B-52 pilot comas from a long line of bomber drivers.

The fact that 2nd Lt. Heather Pearson is the Air Force Reserve's first woman B-52 pilot should come as no surprise; she has three generations of bomber pilot blood running through her veins.

Lieutenant Pearson's father, retired Air Force Reserve Lt. Col. Keith Pearson, flew the "big ugly" early in his career and was a T-38 instructor pilot. In addition, he flew the A-10 while stationed at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., the same place his 24-year-old daughter is piloting the old, but reliable, B-52 Stratofortress.

The third link in the chain is the lieutenant's grandfather, retired Maj. Clem Pearson, who flew B-26 and B-57 bombers, in addition to HH-43 helicopters, during his 20-year Air Force career, which included two tours in Southeast Asia.

With those kinds of bloodlines, one might think the decision to fly came easy for Lieutenant Pearson or that she made it at an early age. Not true.

"I decided I wanted to fly in the summer of '98," she said. "I was studying to be a physical therapist, but my sister, who was a speech therapist, talked me out of wanting to do that. We happened to notice my dad lounging in the pool one day, and my sister said I needed a job like his. So I went to my dad (an American Airlines pilot) and told him I might be interested in flying. He put me in lessons the next day, and I loved it!"

For the next three years, Lieutenant Pearson would take her summers off from Louisiana State University and go back home to Keller, Texas, to resume her flying lessons in Dallas.

"I never pushed her," Keith said, "but once she knew what she wanted to do, I gave her all the assets she needed to accomplish her goals."

Lieutenant Pearson obtained her private pilot license in 1998. The next summer she earned her instrument rating and in 2000 received her multi-engine rating. At that time, she started looking at different Reserve and Guard units for a flying slot, a decision her grandfather questioned at first.

"I was leery at first," Clem said. "I didn't want her to go into fighters. Then one day she told me she couldn't imagine doing anything else for the rest of her life except flying. That's when I knew she was hooked."

"He thought it was great that I wanted to fly but wasn't sure if the military was the way to go," Lieutenant Pearson said. "But he's very proud of me now. He calls and e-mails me all the time."

When it came to choosing a unit, the lieutenant wanted to find a mission that suited her interests and career plans.

"I knew I didn't want to fly fighters, but I did want to drop bombs," she said. "I thought it (flying bombers) would be a cool mission and good experience for flying commercial airliners one day."

She ended up at the same place where her father once served, flying the aircraft he had flown earlier in his career.

"I got hired by the 93rd Bomb Squadron (at Barksdale AFB) my senior year at LSU," Lieutenant Pearson said. "My dad was the biggest influence as far as whether to go active duty or Reserve. I grew up around the Reserve while my dad was flying A-10s. I think it's definitely the better deal."

After graduating from college in May 2001, she entered Officer Training School. Once she finished OTS and pilot training school, she was ready to train on the B-52.

"My first flight in a B-52, on May 12, 2003, was an eye-opening experience," Lieutenant Pearson said. "It was like driving a bus. It was a lot bigger than anything I was used to. I was used to one-hour flights, and now I had to get used to 10-hour flights.

"It was different than anything else I had ever flown, but I have to say I felt pretty powerful the first time I ever landed. It still amazes me that I can get that big beast into the air and manage to land it without hurting anyone or anything."

Although the B-52 has been piloted by females since the late '90s, Lieutenant Pearson is the first Reservist to fly the aircraft. The H-model planes at Barksdale were built back in the early 1960s, before she was born. Her father said three of the planes he flew at Grand Forks AFB, N.D., more than 25 years ago are now in the inventory with the 93rd BS at Barksdale.

Even though the B-52 has been around for a long time, Lieutenant Pearson said it's a very dependable aircraft. It has proven to be such an important part of America's arsenal that, despite its age, Air Force officials are planning on keeping it in the inventory for another 35 to 45 years.

"It was old when my dad flew it, so I guess it's ancient now, but reliable," she said. "It gets the job done."

"Physically it's more challenging than most airplanes," said Maj. Rene Gonzalez, 93rd BS instructor pilot. "It's very mechanical, and you have to move it around physically. She does a very good job of learning her position in the airplane and integrating with the rest of the crew.

"She's mature enough to be able to handle most of the situations that arise. She has a great attitude."

Although Lieutenant Pearson doesn't make a big deal out of being the first woman in the Reserve to fly the B-52, she is well aware of the significance of her achievement and the potential impact that someone in her position can have on others.

"I feel like I need to be a role model," she said. "I've done some recruiting among high school students for the Reserve and LSU. I definitely recommend it (the Reserve) to anyone who's interested in flying, but it takes a lot of hard work and dedication."

She also knows that a big part of her being a role model involves giving advice to other young ladies who aspire to follow her path into the cockpit.

"I tell other females to go for it, if that's what they want to do," she said. "I know several female fliers, and they all seem to love it, including myself. I will say there are probably other airframes out there that are slightly more female friendly than the B-52, but as for flying itself ... it's awesome!

"I also tell them to stick with it no matter how bad things may get during training, because it definitely gets better and is well worth it. Nothing compares to earning your wings. There is nothing more rewarding."

In addition to bringing her a lot of personal and professional satisfaction, Lieutenant Pearson said being a bomber pilot creates a special bond with her father and grandfather.

"I feel like I have a connection with them that the other grandchildren and children don't have," she said. "I feel like all we talk about is flying at all the family functions."

"All she wants to talk about is flying," Clem said. "We get into war tales and talk about flying an awful lot. We have bonded differently. I hope to spend some time with her and go fly with her one day."

Both Clem and Keith said they are never nervous about Lieutenant Pearson flying.

"I feel very secure in the quality of the unit and the people there," Keith said. "It isn't as much the aircraft as the unit. I never turned down one plane on preflight (while stationed at Barksdale). Many of the same maintenance and support personnel who were there during my 10 years with the 917th Wing are still with the unit today. I told her she's going to be well taken care of.

"I told her she'll never get that kind of flying experience anywhere else."

Although Lieutenant Pearson may have been motivated to learn to fly when she saw her father lounging out at the pool, she has since learned that her new career is quite demanding.

"It was a lot harder than I thought it would be," she said. "You don't get to lie around in the pool until after 20 years."

(Sergeant Babin is assigned to the 926th Fighter Wing public affairs office, Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base New Orleans, La. He wrote this article while on a temporary duty assignment to Barksdale AFB for Citizen Airman magazine.)
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Author:Babin, Chance C.
Publication:Citizen Airman
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Aug 1, 2004
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