By 2nd Lt. Alyssa Letts, 71st Flying Training Wing Public Affairs
/ Published October 20, 2020
2nd Lt. Rachel Vander Kolk is the first female pilot training graduate at Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma, selected to fly the F-35 Lightning II. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Senior Airman Taylor Crul)
VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- If the Air Force was casting for another Marvel movie, their lead is right here at Vance -- 2nd Lt. Rachel Vander Kolk.
On May 1, Vander Kolk graduated from the Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training program and became the first woman selected here to fly the F-35 Lightning II -- the jet of the future.
The F-35 requires the best that the Air Force has to offer - which is where Vander Kolk steps in.
The selectee comes from the University of Virginia with a degree in Aerospace Engineering. She played collegiate level lacrosse all four years of college.
She wanted to be in the Air Force and found her way in through the one-year program that UVA temporarily offered for ROTC students.
“I basically did a crash course in ROTC, went to Field Training, commissioned and then came here,” said Vander Kolk.
Once she got to Vance, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to fly, but she took the same go-getter attitude from college to the flight line.
“When I got here, I just wanted to be in the air,” said Vander Kolk.
She was open to the needs of the Air Force but gradually, she began to hone in on the F-35. Vander Kolk liked the idea of being in a jet that was good in all aspects of air combat.
Vander Kolk didn’t know she would be a first for Vance if she got what she wanted. She was focusing on celebrating the success of her class at drop night - the tradition every pilot goes through when they find out what assignment and aircraft they will get.
She flew that morning, so she didn’t have a lot of time to anticipate what she would drop. There was noticeable electricity in the air for all the student pilots.
And when the assignments dropped, Vander Kolk made history for Vance.
“There’s not a lot of words to describe the feeling I had when I found out,” said Vander Kolk.
After working so hard for her goal of F-35 selection, it took time to process what she achieved both for herself and women at Vance.
She attributed her success to teamwork. “Everybody’s mission is important,” said Vander Kolk. “Looking out for my team is what lifts me up.”
The F-35 selectee encouraged everyone pursuing ambitious goals to work hard at everything they do to open as many doors as possible.
“I didn’t always know I wanted to be a pilot, but I wanted to be the best at what I tried,” said Vander Kolk.
Captain Marvel would certainly approve.