Capt. Kari Armstrong, an F-15E Strike Eagle weapon systems officer with the 389th Fighter Squadron, received more than a diploma from the U.S. Air Force Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, June 27. Armstrong also became the first female F-15E weapons system officer and the second female student in a fighter platform — after Col. Jeannie Leavitt in June 1998 — to complete the graduate-level school.
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While she appreciates the historical aspect of her experience, Armstrong said her vision for the future goes beyond her gender. Her ultimate goals are to be the best instructor she can be and to inspire others to excel in the same way her mentors did. Those goals motivated her to apply to the weapons school in the first place.
Armstrong did not have to put herself through weapons school — a rigorous school that selects only the top 3 percent of F-15E aircrew, with an elimination rate of 10 percent per class. However, Armstrong had observed and admired the graduates — also known as “Patches” — at her unit for some time.
“I realized that the people I wanted to emulate the most happened to be Patches,” Armstrong said. “They really summed up the ‘humble, approachable, credible’ motto of the weapons school. To me, a Patch means being very proficient at your job, but also being willing and available to help those around you.”
Her skills and teaching acumen resulted in her selection to the 17th Weapons Squadron’s F-15E Weapons Instructor Course on her first application to the weapons school. After arriving, Armstrong soon realized she might be the first female weapons system officer to graduate from the fighter weapons instructor course; however, she could not allow herself to think about that. She had to focus on the 260 academic hours, 28 flying missions and a course designed to contain the toughest operational conditions most students ever see.
“Going through the course, I didn’t feel singled out,” Armstrong said. “At the end of the day, (gender) doesn’t matter in the briefing rooms. All that matters is the quality of your brief, execution and debrief.”
The 17th WPS leadership echoed that sentiment. “Captain Armstrong’s accomplishments are notable simply because of her ability,” said Lt. Col. James Blanton, the 17th WPS commander. “She’s a very good aviator and instructor. Regardless of gender, all of our students will be excellent leaders for the (U.S. Air Force).”
Her fellow classmates were essential to Armstrong’s success. She advised potential weapons school students to “stay positive and lean on your classmates for support — look for the little wins.”
Small successes during the course are important. They help counter the challenging hours of training and the constructive feedback from instructors.
As she returns to the 389th FS and Mountain Home Air Force Base, Armstrong said she hopes to encourage other weapons system officers to apply for the school. She wants them to know becoming a Patch is an attainable goal; however, “It is not a goal you can complete overnight; it is something you have to work hard at every single day.
“(The weapons school) is challenging, but it’s also the best flying I’ve ever had the opportunity to participate in,” Armstrong continued. “Unless you go to a Red Flag, you won’t typically see how all the platforms work together. Getting outside your own bubble helps you see the bigger picture of how we all play a role in the overall mission.”