Cleared for Takeoff

updated 05/17/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/17/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

PAT FLYNN ADMITS SHE'S GOT A PHOBIA about flying. And it makes no difference that her daughter Jeannie has just been named to be the first woman to train as a fighter pilot for the United States Air Force; Pat's adamant. "I told her, 'I love you, but I won't fly with you,' " the 68-year-old clerk-typist says. "Jeannie always tells me that you can get hurt in a car accident. I know accidents can happen—but when they happen in an airplane, you're a lot further up."

It's no mere accident of fate that Jeannie Flynn, 26, will soon find herself in the cockpit of an F-15E Strike Eagle. one of the most sophisticated combat planes in the Air Force arsenal. On April 28, when Defense Secretary Les Aspin ordered the military to lift its ban on women flying combat missions, Flynn, who graduated head of her flight-training class at Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, Tex., last January, was already waiting in the wings. She had applied for combat training the month before.

"I know that my life will be put under a microscope," she said after the Pentagon announcement. "But I'm just going to be the best damn fighter pilot that I can be."

That kind of determination runs through her life like a slipstream. A native of St. Louis, she is the third of four daughters born to Pat Flynn and her husband, James, now 74, who worked as a warehouseman for the Air National Guard until his retirement. As a teenager, Flynn dreamed of becoming a veterinarian and bought an Appaloosa stallion she named Smokie, paying for his upkeep with the money she earned working at a car wash and at the stables where she kept him. She trained the horse herself and won dozens of medals in local competitions. Bui during her last year as an honors student at Bishop DeBourg High School in St. Louis, Flynn's fancy took to flight when, going to visit an uncle in New Mexico, she made her first plane trip. "On takeoff I thought, 'This isn't scary,' " says Flynn. "Then I was consumed with a passion to know how it worked, what kept the plane in the air."

Her inquisitiveness led to a degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas, where she joined a two-year Air Force ROTC program. In the summer of 1989 she was introduced to fighter planes as part of her training. "I got backseat rides in some very high-performance aircraft," she says. "It just made me want to fly a fighter all the more." A second lieutenant when she graduated in 1990, she earned a master's degree in aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University the following year before going on to flight school—with Smokie in tow. "I've always considered Jeannie to be a free spirit," says Pat. "I think she considered that stallion to be kind of a free spirit. And I think that's why she likes flying."

That may also be why, last Dec. 7, the 5'9" Flynn summoned up the pluck to fly in the face of regulations banning women from flying combat aircraft and select the F-15E as her aircraft of choice. "I had to stand up and ask for it," she said at the time. "Things could change, and if they do, then I'm on record."

Flynn's colleagues at Laughlin, including the 29 men she worked with, supported her stance. "She's exceptionally intelligent, very sharp, and very quick," says Lt. Col. Mike Mosier, who was her wing commander. "I really respect her for what she wants and how she has conducted herself." As she expected, her request for the F-15E was denied, and as her second choice she elected to train on a KC-10A refueling aircraft.

But since the Defense Department's about-face on women piloting combat aircraft (which may have come sooner rather than later, observers say, to offset the damage of the Navy's shocking report on the abuse of women personnel at the notorious 1991 Tailhook convention), Jeannie has been flying high. Her nine classmates at Randolph AFB in San Antonio, where Flynn began a flight instructor training course in mid-April, presented her with a framed picture of an F-15E, which they all signed. And her parents and sisters (Loretta, 30, Patti, 29, and Mary Jo, 24) seem practically airborne themselves—though Pat traveled the 800 miles to Jeannie's flight school graduation by train. "I can't even gel her into a flight simulator," Jeannie says with a laugh.

Yet Jeannie's mother wouldn't dream of trying to dissuade her daughter from going after what she wants, even if that involves putting her at physical risk. "There are dangers involved in everything," says Pat. "And if there is danger in what you want to do and you'd be happier doing that than being safe all the time, then you should do it."

Flynn's combat training begins May 19 at Holloman AFB in New Mexico, where she will spend eight weeks learning basic fighter maneuvers before going on to Luke AFB in Arizona to start flying the F-15E. And not a moment too soon. Says Jeannie: "I'll be happy to get away from the cameras and interviews and get back into the cockpit."

BOB STEWART in Son Antonio

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