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Making their mark in the skies and history books

First female squadron commanders talk challenges, triumphs
Dec 26,2019
Lt. Col. Jang Se-jin, left, of the 5th Air Mobility Wing inspects an aerial refueling tanker. Lt. Col. Park Ji-yeon, center, of the 16th Fighter Wing signals from an FA-50 light combat aircraft. Lt. Col. Pyeon Bo-ra, right, of the 3rd Flying Training Wing in a KT-1 basic training aircraft used to instruct novice pilots. Together, the three women became the first female squadron commanders in Korean history. [KOREAN AIR FORCE]
In the warm southern air of Gimhae, South Gyeongsang, the JoongAng Ilbo met with a pioneer of many sorts, Lieutenant Colonel Jang Se-jin of the 5th Air Mobility Wing.

Jang, 40, along with fellow Lt. Col. Pyeon Bo-ra and Park Ji-yeon, became the first female squadron commanders in Korean history. All three graduated in the same class at the Korea Air Force Academy in Cheongju, North Chungcheong. Out of them, Jang, who is in charge of aerial refueling tanker operations, was the first to enter office on Dec. 3.

Pyeon commands a flight training squadron at the 3rd Flying Training Wing in Sacheon, South Gyeongsang, teaching novice pilots with the KT-1 basic training aircraft, while Park is in charge of operations with FA-50 light combat aircraft at the 16th Fighter Wing in Yecheon, North Gyeongsang.

The JoongAng Ilbo met with Jang in Gimhae on Dec. 9 and conducted separate interviews with Pyeon and Park through emails and over the phone.

Below are edited excerpts of the three commanders’ interviews.

Q. How does it feel to become the first female squadron commanders in the Air Force’s history?

A. Jang
: I feel great responsibility in fulfilling my duties perfectly. I had many concerns about becoming a squadron commander since it is an opportunity you only get once in your life. The first was accumulating the skills necessary for actual combat flights and the competence to carry out operations, effectively maintaining the highest level of military preparedness possible. Therefore I think it is important to be mentally armed rather than getting stressed about trivial matters.

Park: Combat flight squadron commanders represent the core combat power of edge forces, and I am honored to be able to serve such a position. Regardless of gender, I will do my best as a combat pilot.

Pyeon: I will communicate and socialize with members of my squadron without hesitation, with the goal of producing more elite pilots.

What role do aerial refueling tankers play in Air Force operations?

: They significantly advance the nature of Air Force operations. Up to now, there was much difficulty for our Air Force’s main combat planes [F-16 and F-15 fighters] in performing prolonged operations over the Dokdo and Ieodo islets. But if these jets are refueled by tankers mid-air, this gives them an additional hour for operations. Aerial refueling also allows us to perform operations in the entirety of Korea’s Air Defense Identification Zone without severe time constraints, thus greatly expanding our capacity to perform strategic operations. The Air Force currently owns four KC-330 aerial refueling tankers. Just one of these planes is capable of fueling 20 F-16s or 10 F-15s. They can also carry troops to any part of the world.

What role does the FA-50 fighter jet squadron serve?

: The FA-50 is Korea’s first multipurpose fighter jet developed from the domestically built T-50 training aircraft. Its nickname is the Fighting Eagle. It can perform air-to-land attacks as well as aerial surveillance operations. A unit was created with these jets in 2014, but regular operations only began from late 2015, so it is still a new squadron. We therefore need consistent training to maximize our performance with the FA-50. We need to repeat training necessary for operations, and most of all, we need to perfectly perform operations and safe flights on the basis of trust.

What challenges have you faced as a female pilot?

: Our aerial refueling tanker squadron is composed of around 40 officers and non-commissioned officers. Out of these there are only two women, myself included. But even since when I was a cadet 20 years ago, I’ve never experienced difficulty working with men. While most of our members are men, I’ve had no difficulty with command.

Pyeon: I feel greater responsibility in the role of a squadron commander rather than as the first female squadron commander. I feel a deep desire to perform the best as a commander.

Park: I worry that emphasizing that we are women could damage our ability to naturally serve our role. It is important to maintain a proper preparedness both in times of war and peace.

So is there a duty in being the first? As in, the first female cadet or female pilot?

: When I first entered the Air Force Academy, many journalists came to cover the event. At first I thought there was a celebrity among the cadets, but then I was surprised to learn we, as female cadets, were the subject of the media scrutiny. It wasn’t easy being the first female cadet. Since there was no prior data on female cadets, we received more precise evaluations and closer attention. So I used to think it would have been better to be the second, not first class of female cadets at the academy. But when more women began to enter the academy as underclassmen, I felt greater responsibility. It was difficult, but meaningful, so I felt rewarded.

Pyeon: It was a great honor to be given so much individual attention by those around you. But for me and my colleagues it was a great burden. Actions that would be clear duties as soldiers were further scrutinized since we were women, and so we were often the subject of talk among our male colleagues. To overcome such psychological difficulties, I vowed to live honestly. But I am thankful for the great prestige given to me.

When was the most difficult time for you throughout your two-decade-long military career?

: For me it was when I returned to the flight squad 10 months after giving birth to my child. In the Air Force there were proposals that I return after a year over concerns that there may be complications. But I worried that doing so would only set a precedent for future female pilots, so I insisted on returning to the squadron. The process wasn’t easy. If a man transfers to a non-flying unit then returns to the flight squad he can easily return to regular piloting operations after conducting a single instrument flight and search and rescue mission. But as a female pilot I had to go through these procedures various times, since we were marked as personnel of special interest. Thankfully that practice was only applied to one more class of female pilots after us.

Pyeon: While in the squadron, I felt all parts of my life, like marriage and childbirth, came under scrutiny. But with the passage of time and experience, these concerns faded. A mindset of harmoniously adapting to the organization and putting my responsibilities first especially helped. Thanks to the colleagues who I went through the process together with, I felt great fulfillment.

Were there difficulties being a working mom and a pilot?

: When I first became a pilot, I had many concerns about whether to have a child. There were rumors that female pilots had to sign a written contract if they wanted to have children. But my fears ranged from whether I could fly pregnant to whether it would be hard to fly after having a child, given that some women have memory issues after childbirth. I also worried that my career would fall behind my male colleagues if I went through the process of pregnancy and childbirth.

This is something that applies to all working mothers, but balancing childcare and work is no easy task. It is like hitting two birds with one stone. I had much difficulty working in the squadron until my child reached the age of 1. The baby would cry all night, but I had to wake up the next day, plan out my flight schedule and command my flight formation. Pilots are also expected to wait on staff in the squadron, but the problem was when I was summoned for an emergency takeoff. When the Cheonan battleship sank, [in March 2010], my husband was returning home from Daegu and my mother-in-law was in Gwangju, but I was ordered to take off. While my duty comes before my child, I felt terrible at the time. But nonetheless having a child made me happier. Work at my squadron is filled with tension due to flight duties and orders, but I felt that stress melt away when I came home, laughed and ate with my children. The balance was maintained. When my first child was hospitalized immediately after birth due to jaundice, I cried for the first time in my life.

Your husband also used to be an Air Force pilot. Tell us more about that.

: My husband was a colleague at the Air Force Academy, and we got married after seven years but had to live life apart for a long time. My husband was an F-15K fighter pilot who worked in Daegu, so we could not meet during work. The worst part was that if both of us became squadron commanders there would be no possibility of living together, since commanders cannot leave their workplace. So we had to think about our future. While it would be right for my family if I were the one to leave the military, since it is important for children to be with their mother, I was satisfied with my life as a pilot, which relieved my stress. So in the end my husband gave in and became a civilian pilot after 15 years in the military. I felt really sorry for my husband at the time.

What are your plans for the future?

: I hope to build our preparedness so that we can use the aerial refueling tankers introduced to the Air Force in January for regular operations as early as next July.

Park: I hope for a culture of fair organization and safe piloting settles into our workplace, and I hope to safeguard our lives [while mid-air] and successfully carry out our operations.

BY KIM MIN-SEOK, SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]