The jet-set life

Juneau-Douglas High School graduate now flies F-16 fighter jet

Posted: Thursday, July 13, 2006

Shannon Schneider does what most people only dream about - flying up to Mach 2 in a U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter jet for a living.

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The 1993 Juneau-Douglas High School graduate, home on leave from her station in northern Japan, said there are still far fewer women than men flying fighter jets. But Schneider says when flying nearly 600 mph in a $40 million piece of machinery, it comes down to ability.

"You're just another person in the squadron," Schneider said. "They take you based off of your skill and how you do, not based off your sex."

But she said they have come a long way since women began flying warplanes in 1992.

"They did a pretty amazing job paving the way," she said.

Schneider's father, Don Cary, said he wouldn't have guessed that his daughter would become a fighter pilot, but said he isn't surprised because of her abilities.

"She's always just been a very calm, just a dedicated, persistent kind of person," he said. "She wanted to fly and she pursued her goal."

Cary said having a daughter who is a fighter pilot is pretty special.

"She's our big bragging piece," he said. "We all get excited when we talk about the things that she's accomplished."

Schneider said she found a passion for aeronautics in Juneau while learning how to fly with family friends. Still, she didn't anticipate becoming a fighter pilot when entering the Air Force Academy after graduating high school.

"I didn't know at that point what I wanted. I just knew I liked to fly," she said.

After graduating from the academy in 1997, Schneider learned to fly gliders and later became an instructor. Then she moved to Oklahoma to begin pilot training, later moving up to the F-16.

Schneider said the schedule of a fighter pilot is demanding. She said it generally takes six to 12 hours of mission planning for a 112- to two-hour flight. And after each flight - she averages about three a week - she said there is a debriefing to see how they can improve.

"It's pretty intense," Schneider said. "We work, on average, 12-hour days, Monday through Friday."

She said she has racked up more than 2,000 flying hours in her career, 600 of which have been spent in the fighter jets. Schneider has seen many places in that amount of time, including flight exercises in Singapore and India.

"They've never seen a female fighter pilot," she said of India. "They were trying to figure out how I played into the whole thing and could I pull as many (G forces) as the guys and perform at the same level. Of course I can."

Like the Goose and Maverick call signs made famous in the major motion picture "Top Gun," Schneider also has a commanding call sign.

"My Alaska heritage shines through on this one - they call me Grizz," she said. It's painted on the side of her jet. "Most people don't know my real name. They just know me as Grizz."

Schneider said her squadron remains vigilant in a time of war. She said it continues to study Iraq and that knowledge has enabled them to become a smarter and sharper fighting force.

"On a daily basis we make sure we are ready to go - anywhere," she said.

Schneider said it is possible for other local kids to follow in her jet stream if they work hard in school and reach for their goals.

"The best advice I can give anyone while they're in middle school or high school is set yourself up for success," she said. "Get to a point where when you have to make a choice on a career path, you've put yourself in such a position that you can make a choice."

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