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First female active-duty fighter pilot retires

Lt. Col. Sharon Preszler, 20th Fighter Wing staff director and Commander's Action Group director, prepares for her fini flight Thursday at Shaw. Col. Preszler was the first female active-duty fighter pilot. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Josef Cole III)

Lt. Col. Sharon Preszler, 20th Fighter Wing staff director and Commander's Action Group director, prepares for her fini flight Thursday at Shaw. Col. Preszler was the first female active-duty fighter pilot. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Josef Cole III)

Lt. Col. Sharon Preszler, 20th Fighter Wing staff director and Commander's Action Group director, shares a few words with her fellow fighter pilots Thursday in the 79th Fighter Squadron prior to her fini flight. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Josef Cole III)

Lt. Col. Sharon Preszler, 20th Fighter Wing staff director and Commander's Action Group director, shares a few words with her fellow fighter pilots Thursday in the 79th Fighter Squadron prior to her fini flight. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Josef Cole III)

Lt. Col. Sharon Preszler, 20th Fighter Wing staff director and Commander's Action Group director, and Lt. Col. Scott Manning, 79th Fighter Squadron commander, walk out to their jets Thursday for Col. Prezsler's fini flight. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Josef Cole III)

Lt. Col. Sharon Preszler, 20th Fighter Wing staff director and Commander's Action Group director, and Lt. Col. Scott Manning, 79th Fighter Squadron commander, walk out to their jets Thursday for Col. Prezsler's fini flight. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Josef Cole III)

Lt. Col. Sharon Preszler, 20th Fighter Wing staff director and Commander's Action Group director, prepares to take off on her fini flight Thursday from the 79th Fighter Squadron. Col. Preszler was the first female active-duty fighter pilot in the Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Josef Cole III)

Lt. Col. Sharon Preszler, 20th Fighter Wing staff director and Commander's Action Group director, prepares to take off on her fini flight Thursday from the 79th Fighter Squadron. Col. Preszler was the first female active-duty fighter pilot in the Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Josef Cole III)

SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. -- What a difference a day makes. In one day, Lt. Col. Sharon Preszler, 20th Fighter Wing staff director and Commander's Action Group director, became the first female active-duty fighter pilot. Today, after 20 years of service, she hangs up her flight suit and transitions back into civilian life.

Col. Preszler said she developed a love for flight when she was four years. She said she wanted to be a flight attendant when she grew up. Her mom asked her why and she said she wanted to fly. Her mother asked her why she would want to ride when she could be a pilot and fly the plane. From that moment one, Col. Preszler said she wanted to be a pilot.

She received her commission through the Reserve Officer's Training Corps in 1986. Even though she wanted to be a pilot, Col. Preszler said she became a navigator, but then she went on to pilot a C-21.

Then, in 1993, when Col. Preszler said she was given an opportunity that would change her life forever -- the opportunity to become a fighter pilot.

"They asked me 'Do you want to do this?' I said yes and the next day I was at the Pentagon. Although we (the small group of women selected) all wondered how it would be received, no one wanted to be the one to say it. We had the attitude we needed to start this positively. We went into it with the idea that yeah, fighter pilots care how other pilots fly. I'm going to fly and it's not going to be a big deal. It's a performance-based industry. We just want the best qualified people doing the job," Col. Preszler said.

Gen. Merrill McPeak, now retired, then Air Force Chief of Staff, said during the initial press conference, as of April 28, 1993, the Air Force would begin accepting women as fighter pilots and fighter pilot instructors, based solely on merit and performance. He also said women who were top performers, such as then Capt. Preszler, would be targeted to become fighter pilots.

Col. Preszler said it was rough at first and there were a small few who did not want women to fly fighters. The majority of fighter pilots just cared how she flew.

During pilot training, she said she experienced a malfunction that had never before happened to an F-16. The malfunction caused her to lose her radios, her brakes and her arresting system hook and led her to punch out of the F-16.

"I landed with no radios to talk to anyone. I tried the brakes -- they didn't work. Then I tried to drop the hook and catch the cable. That didn't work either. I went off the runway traveling at about 70 to 75 knots. (In an F-16), you're taught if you're departing the runway at anything greater than taxing speed -- depart the aircraft. So I punched out and landed in the dirt," Col. Preszler said.

The first duty station for Col. Preszler was Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. While there, Col. Preszler said she deployed and flew sorties over Iraq as part of Operation Northern Watch.

Through her years as an Air Force officer, Col. Preszler said she has been affected by many people at different times. She said the person that stands out most is her mother because she encouraged her to find a career that she would enjoy.

After retirement, Col. Preszler plans on settling in the Phoenix area with her husband, James, and their son, Colin.

When asked what career advice she would give to those who asked, she said, "Don't volunteer for the things you don't want to do just because they will help you with your career. Find things you want to do and do them well."