By Kristina Wong - 05/06/15 10:33 PM EDT
The Air Force announced Wednesday it has crossed a new milestone for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter this week — its first female pilot.
Lt. Col. Christine Mau, deputy commander of the 33rd Fighter Wing Operations, completed her first training flight in the fifth-generation fighter jet Tuesday, according to an official Air Force report.
"I had a chase aircraft, but there was no weapons system officer or instructor pilot sitting behind me and no one in my ear like in simulators," she said.
It was Mau's first flight after 14 virtual training missions in a simulator. She is the Air Force's 88th F-35 pilot to be trained over the last four years at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.
Although women have flown in combat since the 1990s — including Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), the first woman to fly in combat — the Air Force called Mau the "first woman in the Air Force's premier fighter."
The announcement comes as the military services are prepared to open all combat jobs and units by Jan. 1, unless the Defense secretary approves exceptions.
Mau joked that the only difference between her and her male counterparts is her "extra-small" G-suit and face mask.
"Flying is a great equalizer," said Mau. "The plane doesn't know or care about your gender as a pilot, nor do the ground troops who need your support. You just have to perform.
"That's all anyone cares about when you're up there — that you can do your job, and that you do it exceptionally well," she said.
Mau was also part of the first all-female combat sortie while deployed to Afghanistan in 2011 with the 389 Expeditionary Fighter Squadron.
The mission provided air support to coalition and Afghan forces, and was performed by female F-15E pilots, weapons systems officers, mission planners and maintainers.
Col. Todd Canterbury, the 33rd Fighter Wing commander, said the Air Force was nearly a year out from declaring Initial Operational Capability with the F-35.
"We need battle-tested pilots to help us put the F-35A through its paces and ensure we have a trained and ready force of F-35 pilots to feed into our combat air forces," he said.
The first training flight is designed to allow pilots to experience the physical difference between flying the F-35 and other platforms, including the F-15E Strike Eagle, F-15C Eagle, F-16 Falcon, A-10 Warthog or F-22 Raptor.
"It felt great to get airborne. The jet flies like a dream, and seeing the systems interact is impressive. Flying with the Helmet Mounted Display takes some adjusting, but it's an easy adjustment," Mau said.