Skimming the surface of southern Afghanistan's red desert in a small helicopter, Natalie Mallicoat quickly pauses, angles the nose downwards, blasts a missile, then banks hard right as a cloud of smoke erupts over the mountainside target.
It's become a familiar procedure for the U.S. Army captain who was so excited the first time she shot from her Kiowa that she forgot to aim.
"It was just really, really cool," she said, blue eyes sparkling and mouth breaking into a smile as she recounts the experience. "After I got over the fact that I shot rockets, it was, 'Okay I totally missed the target, now I've got to concentrate on making sure the rockets hit the target.'"
Mallicoat, 26, is one of only seven females in Afghanistan piloting the small OH 58 – or Kiowa – helicopter, a one-engine craft which darts just feet above the earth to support ground troops, often on reconnaissance missions and searching for roadside bombs. She served in Iraq before arriving in Afghanistan last spring with the 82nd Airborne.
Women in the military have been allowed to fly attack helicopters for little more than a decade and since then a small but growing number of female soldiers have chosen this path – one of the few that allows them to engage in direct combat.
For Mallicoat, who is based out of Ft. Bragg in North Carolina, the decision to join the military was made at a young age. Her father, a school teacher, encouraged both her and her brother, who is also in the military, to serve their country.
The desire to fly came from her fascination with seeing the world from a different perspective – and knowing the impact World War II pilots had from above.
As she progressed through flight school, instructors told her to choose the aircraft which best suited her temperament. (Plus her father hoped she'd choose an airframe one with guns.) The Kiowa was a perfect fit.
Unarmed Helicopter Pilots Called "Vegetarians"
"We have a pretty intimate relationship with the ground commander and being their eyes and ears in the sky before they go out, while they're out conducting their mission, and after they leave," she said. "I wanted to have more impact on the battlefield than some of the other aircraft I thought offered."
Pilots are a competitive breed and the rivalry between each aircraft is intense. Blackhawk aviators make fun of the Kiowa for having less power and little protective armor, something at which Mallicoat scoffs.
"Vegetarians!" she says, using the phrase that refers to helicopters without weapons systems.
Mallicoat's husband is a soldier who will soon deploy to Afghanistan. It's something, she admits, that worries her.
"There's a lot of ground units that we do support and a lot of guys that have given their life, so when you're overhead of those guys it kind of makes it hard for me to want my husband to come over here, even though he's going to totally, you know, kinda-sorta disregard what I'm saying," she said.
"I try to warn him, too. 'Oh you need to start thinking about this and thinking about that. Oh what would you do with this? He's like Natalie, I got it. I got it Natalie. I'm good to go. I got it.' It's kind of funny, I'm like the worrying mom here."
If Mallicoat faces discrimination, it has more to do with jokes about her hair color – long, blonde and belonging on a television commercial for shampoo – or her height. Her colleagues complain about having to adjust the foot pedals after her 5'3" frame flies.
"If she could see over the dash it would be better," one pilot joked, then quickly added a simple, but high compliment, "But she's an all right stick."
Since Lt. Col. Carey Wagen began flying in the early 1990s, the situation for female pilots has changed tremendously.
Wagen, 40, is the first female battalion commander in the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade. Her role as Task Force Commander of Task Force Corsair is one she has looked forward to her entire career.
Female Combat Aviators Finding Credibility
"Commanding an aviation battalion, just being in charge of 400 people, 20-plus aircraft, and it's just what I came into the army for," she said. "Leading soldiers, leading in the cockpit, and leading the task force into combat."
Today, Wagen has four female aviators under her command flying assault and attack helicopters, plus a female crew chief and door gunner. For her, attitudes regarding gender have changed a great deal.
"I always felt like you didn't have instant credibility when walking into a room with peers of equal experience," she said. "You always had to, as a woman, prove yourself a little bit more than your male counterparts. Nowadays I feel like I'm right on par with my peers and male counterparts, but it wasn't like that when I first got in. I felt it required me to do twice as much work."
As the only U.S. rotary wing aviator in Afghanistan commanding a battalion, Wagen balances her responsibilities as both a commander and a Blackhawk pilot – a role in which she excels. On a recent mission when she picked up U.S. Special Forces from the side of a mountain, the praise came quickly from the usually tight-lipped soldiers.
"Ma'am that was an awesome landing!" one gushed into the headset.
For the current generation of female aviators who join the military during war time, engagement with the enemy is expected. They are at risk of being hit by enemy fire and are expected to shoot the enemy.
Sgt. Jacqueline Bayer, 22, is the only female helicopter crew chief in her company. In that role, Bayer maintains the Blackhawk helicopter as well as controls one of the two machine guns on the aircraft.
"During missions our job to keep the aircrew safe," she said. "If we do get fired at or we are cleared to engage a target, we take that target. That usually includes gunfire, so you get shot at while you're shooting at them."
Bayer said besides gunfire, she routinely gets razzed, but says she came to expect the jokes and comments about her being a woman in the male-dominated position.
"To be honest, when you join the Army, you're already a misfit because you're a female," she said. "But when you work with the guys you don't even realize it anymore."
Women Pilots Protecting the Troops on the Ground
The Beach Haven, N.J., native said her mother cried when she told her she was joining the military, but her father was jealous "because I was doing something cooler than he did in his lifetime," she said. For Bayer, who was in Iraq in 2006-2007, the job has been everything she hoped for.
"I have always been obsessed with aviation. The physics that goes into rotary and the mechanics, it's just ridiculous. It's awesome," she said. "I was always attracted to that. I've always wanted to travel. To travel and do a cool job and get paid for that and go explore the world. I graduated from high school and just did it."
When asked about a recent engagement in which she shot missiles at insurgents planting roadside bombs, Capt. Alicia Stahlberg, an Apache pilot, said her training kicked in.
"You know if you don't do it, tomorrow they're going to blow up a coalition convoy," she said.
She said there is no difference between her and her male colleagues except perhaps her voice sounds different on the radio. That's something not lost on the ground guys.
One female Apache pilot said she was once engaged with a group of insurgents when she noticed "Marry Me" signs held by admiring soldiers on the ground.
And a male soldier recalled a recent military engagement when his commander called for close air support and a female pilot's voice was heard on the radio.
"'She sounds hot!'" the soldier said his friends said. "She did some crazy maneuver and they made the craziest, rudest comments I'd prefer not to repeat!"