Flying solo in a U-2 in 2004 was not the first solo flight for me. As a student pilot, you do your first solo early on, but I think for me the U-2 was just more memorable. It’s just a different aircraft because you have to wear pressure suits. A pressure suit is basically a NASA space suit that’s modified slightly. You’re flying an aircraft that flies very well up altitudes so probably above 50,000 feet, but it’s not the most cooperative aircraft. It’s quite a challenge to land it.

My first solo into space was great for me. It’s quiet, because you don’t have an instructor. You can hear the breathing in the spacesuit, the sounds in the aircraft and the aircraft engines. It’s nice to have that quietness. You hear the hum of the engine. As you’re getting higher up above 50,000 to 60,000 feet, the air is kind of settling out.

[Flying a U-2 spy plane] is kind of a freeing feeling. Emotionally you feel this sense of, “I’m in charge,” “Everything is at my fingertips,” and “I control this.” It’s exhilarating. We just solo’d our 1,000th person, which tells you that not a lot of people can do this job. I always joke and say you have to not be quite right to do this job, because it is not for the faint of heart. You put your body through a lot of stress and pressure.

I think of Betsy Coleman and what she had to go through to fly in the United States. Flying for her, I believe was a passion. It is a passion for me. It has always been something exhilarating about being in control of this multi-million dollar aircraft. Being entrusted with the systems and the knowledge to do that. In the United States we take it for granted, but there are things that women can’t do to this day because there’s this perception that woman are not as capable. For me to be able to fly a U-2 says women can do whatever they want. We are strong. We have children. We can have careers. We can fly aircraft. We can fly a spy plane. We can do it all. We can have it all.

I’m honored that people take notice and I’d like to use that for the advantage of letting people out there know there’s other choices you can make that provide a better outcome. A lot of people growing up, especially young kids think they are set on one track in life and that’s not the case. I hope I can serve as an inspiration and model that there are other things you can do. You can always shoot for the stars and keep challenging yourself to be better. I hope that my story reflects that.

— As told to Shantell E. Jamison