KUNSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- It was a Saturday afternoon in the middle of summer when 1st Lt. Samantha Colombo was preparing for her first Northrop T-38 Talon formation solo flight as a pilot student. She took off into the clear blue sky with an instructor pilot flying alongside her. They glided three feet apart over the Great Plains of Oklahoma. She could clearly see the instructor pilot, and felt no fear. This was the first time Colombo felt she was built to be a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot.
Colombo’s fighter pilot journey truly started soaring over Oklahoma, but it was not the beginning of her military experience.
Colombo was raised in a military family. Her father, retired Col. John “JABBA” Colombo, former F-16 pilot, and mother, retired Col. Beth Colombo, former personnel officer, both influenced Samantha’s decision to join the U.S. Air Force.
“I refused to join the military my whole life, because I hated how much we moved,” said Colombo, 35th Fighter Squadron pilot. “Junior year of high school I had to start thinking of what the next step would be, and in reflecting, I realized I loved the military community, no matter where we moved to. The Air Force community is what really pushed me to join.”
Colombo was born in Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho. By the time she graduated high school she had moved 10 times in her life, eventually ending up in Panama City, Florida. There, she was accepted into the University of Florida in 2014.
“My journey started with small milestones,” Colombo said. “I try to keep my goals smaller, so they feel more obtainable. I applied for the ROTC program. I got in, I liked it. Sophomore year, I had to decide if I wanted to go rated or non-rated. I got the pilot slot. It’s been no looking back ever since.”
Colombo graduated with her Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering summer 2019. Upon graduation, Colombo commissioned into the U.S. Air Force, and reported for pilot training at Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma.
“I ended up doing very well in my class of eight, I finished top of my class,” Colombo said. “The path and the amount of work you have to put in as a female compared to males is the exact same - learning the aircraft and flying it is the same. The biggest difference is more social. The comments and stereotypes make it more difficult.”
At the end of basic flight training, Colombo was selected to fly the F-16 Fighting Falcon.
“Becoming an F-16 pilot is challenging, but also an honor to do it for the best Air Force in the world,” said Capt. Ian “SHAGGI” Vernon, 80th Fighter Squadron pilot. “It takes a lot of hard work to get there. I can only imagine that females have a different time going through formal Air Force pilot training. They are the minority in this community, and whenever you get grouped as the minority it’s just one extra thing you have to overcome, but the U.S. Air Force does a really good job in setting a standard to meet and exceed and everyone is treated equally. [Colombo] is a result of that.”
Colombo completed F-16 pilot training and received distinguished graduate honors.
“Sometimes you have to fight comments like ‘you only got that ‘cause you’re a girl,” Colombo said. “I know what I did to get here, and my peers know how hard I worked. It's usually the people outside the fighter community who will make those comments. I block that out.”
Negative comments or not, Colombo shared her confidence in knowing the Fighter Force is a place for women.
“Being a female fighter pilot is more feasible than a lot of girls think,” Colombo said. “I believe the issue with lack of female pilots is representation. Some girls know we exist, but may think it's not in the scope of something they can do. As we get more women, young girls will think it's very possible.
“My advice is to go after it because you can do it with the same amount of work as men do. Don’t let doubts or fears stop you,” she continued. “There will be times where it can sound or feel difficult, but those are the time you keep pushing, work hard, study hard - you can do it.”
Currently there are around 100 female fighter pilots in the U.S. Air Force, and women like them set the groundwork for Colombo's career. However, other great influences set the standard for her values and way of life.
“There are a couple big female fighter pilots out there like [Brig. Gen. Jeannie] Leavitt, the first Air force female fighter pilot, and [retired Col. Nicole “FiFi” Malachowski], the first female to be selected to fly in the Thunderbirds,” Colombo said. “Those females and a few other glass ceiling breakers, I appreciate what they did for women in aviation. But, my parents are my role models. My dad for flying and my mom for being a female officer, both combined is how I visualize the Airman I want to be.”
To fly the F-16 meant Colombo was following in her father’s footsteps; however, this was not the only time her family and military heritage have overlapped.
Colombo was assigned to her first operational base here at the 35th Fighter Squadron as a Panton Punk. Her father was also stationed in Kunsan for his first base, but in the 80th Fighter Squadron as a Juvat Punk. He later came back in 2002 as the 35th FSs Panton Lead 113.
A “Punk” is a term for a Kunsan AB first assignment F-16 pilot.
“Nowhere else do you get the Kunsan tradition,” said Colombo. “Other bases don’t have similar heritage. It’s an awesome experience to be a part of this history and to learn about the Pantons that came before me.”
Colombo, shortly after arriving, was given the call sign “FORCE” during a traditional pilot naming ceremony. Call signs, a time-honored tradition of celebrating a pilot's integration with their team, and individuality, can also sometimes tie-back to a member's heritage or family name.
“I was happy to get my call sign,” said Colombo. “I was even happier knowing my call sign was Star Wars related like my dad’s. Receiving my call sign made me feel like I made it as an F-16 pilot. This was something I was really looking forward to, and next is a dedicated F-16 with my name on it.”
FORCE is the only female pilot in the 8th Fighter Wing.
“I like to call it the little big deal,” Colombo said. “When I got my assignment to Kunsan, my leadership here reached out and told me I was the only female. The acknowledgment was nice, but I never want to make it a big deal, because I am a fighter pilot first.”
Colombo hopes to serve for 20 years and possibly get an assignment to recruit more fighter pilots and showcase the U.S. Air Force fighter and bomber airframes.
“She’s very gifted, intelligent and a great pilot,” Vernon said. “Her work ethic is extraordinary. She’s one of my role models, because I see how hard she works.
“I’m motivated by her and I would bet others are as well,” he continued. “Gender and rank doesn’t matter when being a role model, it’s about being a good person and doing the right thing and being great at everything you do, day in and day out. She’s a fighter pilot through and through, and that’s probably one of the best compliments anyone can get in the fighter pilot community.”