For naval aviator LTJG Suzelle Thomas ’14, leadership has always come naturally — from serving as head monitor at EHS her senior year to being named to the Commodore’s List in flight training. Now, in her newest role as the first female naval aviator to be selected to fly the F-35C Lightning II aircraft straight from flight school, Thomas is again charting her own path and leading the way for future female pilots.
“It’s such an honor to be a female pilot,” Thomas says, “and it’s pretty special to be a part of that small group and pave the way for female empowerment at large. It’s a testament to the females who have come before me that I have been able to have this experience.”
After graduating from EHS, Thomas attended the Naval Academy, where she earned a B.S. in political science and played on the women’s lacrosse team. In her final year at the Academy, Thomas service selected naval aviation, and went on to earn a master’s degree in security studies from the Naval Postgraduate School before attending flight school in Pensacola, Fla.
From there, Thomas attended primary flight training in Milton, Fla., where she trained on the T-6 Bravo aircraft. While in primary training, pilots are graded on practice flights, take tests in the classroom, and gain around 50 flight hours. Their grades are combined into a composite score, and, based on that score, they select which aircraft they will fly for the remainder of their careers in the Navy. Thomas selected jets as her aircraft, and moved to Training Squadron Seven in Meridian, Miss., where she flew the T-45 Goshawk jet for a year. While there, she carrier qualified on board the USS George H. W. Bush in September where she earned the Top Hook award for the best performance in her squadron. In October, Thomas earned her Wings of Gold, designating her as a naval aviator. She was awarded the Golden Stick award for achieving the highest scores of the jet pilots in her class.
With the guidance of her mentors, Thomas was selected to fly the F-35C Lightning II, making her the first female student naval aviator to be selected for that aircraft straight from flight school, and one of only three female pilots currently serving in the Navy to fly that aircraft. Thomas says, “I hadn’t considered the F-35 while going through training because there are so few who do. I didn’t think it would be an option, but my mentors explained that the F-35 is the future of aviation in the navy jet community.”
The F-35 is a single-seat, fifth-generation strike fighter aircraft, which, according to Thomas, “brings the fight to the next level… and it is what a lot of our naval aviation strategy is focusing on right now.”
Thomas is now set to move to the Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS) in VFA-125 where she will train in the F-35 for a year. Once training is complete, she will be ready to deploy and be stationed on an aircraft carrier, where she will fly missions for the U.S. Navy.
“Every phase of training gets harder and harder,” says Thomas. “But we’re all there for one goal: to protect our country and train everyday to be the best we can be.”