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.
"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.