Cmdr. Meagan Flannigan, EAA 1223055, like many future fighter pilots who grew up in the 1980s, points to one iconic film as the inspiration for her career choice.
“I am not ashamed to admit that I saw Top Gun when I was 10 years old,” Meagan explained with a laugh. “I had never really given much thought at all to aviation or the military before that. I saw the movie and the next morning I declared to my parents that I was going to be a fighter pilot. Most of my counterparts will either admit to that or lie, but regardless, everyone has the same experience.”
Unlike her male counterparts, Meagan was aiming to enter a profession that wasn’t even open to women at the time. But she didn’t know that. She simply knew she’d have to work hard to achieve her goal. Meagan’s journey to becoming a U.S. Navy fighter pilot is an inspiring story for anyone considering a career in aviation or the military, and she will be sharing it on Thursday, November 16 as part of the EAA Aviation Museum’s Aviation Adventure Speaker Series.
A kid with a dream, Meagan had no idea that the U.S. military, due to the combat exclusion policy, did not allow women to be fighter pilots when she set that as her goal. She said the fact that a woman couldn’t do something that a man could wasn’t even a notion in her mind. Her parents made sure she remained ignorant to that fact, too.
“I was 10 (when I saw Top Gun), so it was 1990 and combat exclusion for women hadn’t been lifted and women couldn’t fly,” Meagan said. “I don’t know if my parents knew immediately or not, but they definitely didn’t tell me. They quickly identified that I could go to the Naval Academy to become a fighter pilot. I put my eye on that prize at the age of 10. I wouldn’t start high school for a few years and in the following years, combat exclusion would be lifted to allow women to go into combat aviation. … It never even crossed my mind, which I love. I think part of my upbringing was I never considered that ‘I’m a woman and women aren’t allowed to do that.’ It was ‘I want to do this, it’s going to be hard, here’s how I can make that happen.’ I was going to work really hard and set myself up for success.”
Once in the U.S. Naval Academy, Meagan was well aware that her peers were the best of the best. Her journey to becoming a fighter pilot was just beginning. When she entered flight school, it was the same. She’d need to beat out her peers if she wanted to fly jets. It was during this stretch in her life that Meagan said she developed a mantra that she preaches to this day.
“You’re competing against people that have been wanting this for their entire lives and are very driven. So you really can’t let up and you have to consistently stay focused on what your long-term goals are,” Meagan said. “I always tell people about short-term sacrifices to achieve long-term goals. It’s about knowing that I can’t go out and party because I have to study or I need to apply myself in this way or give a little on something that I currently want because I know maybe three years down the line, that’s going to get me where I want to be. I think that’s hard for some people to recognize at a young age.”
Her dedication paid off when she graduated from flight school and was one of the last four pilots to select the Grumman F-14 Tomcat, the same jet featured in Top Gun, prior to its retirement in 2006. As the airplane that inspired Meagan to pursue a career in military aviation, she was nearly in disbelief that she’d have the chance to fly it.
“I’d say it was almost surreal. When I was out of flight school, we were the very last four people that selected Tomcats. I was one of the last four. So I literally just snuck in there by the skin of my teeth,” she said. “I still remember when my commanding officer said that I was going to fly Tomcats and my jaw just dropped because I couldn’t believe it. At that point, I had written it off and thought I would be a Hornet pilot. … It definitely was worth all the work. Again, those short-term sacrifices to achieve the long-term goals. On that first flight I knew it was worth it.”
Meagan flew the Tomcat from the USS Theodore Roosevelt during the Iraq War in 2005-2006 and later transitioned to the F/A-18F Super Hornet. During her career, Meagan has been awarded the Strike/Flight Air Medal, the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medals, and the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals. She’s logged more than 1,250 hours in fighter jet aircraft, including more than 180 arrested landings on aircraft carriers.
As someone who entered a male-dominated field and thrived, Meagan knows what it takes to be successful in the face of what can seem like overwhelming odds.
“I think my first message first and foremost for anything you want to do regardless of if you’re a girl or a boy … you just dream big and you go for it,” she said. “A friend of mine said … if you want something bad enough with your heart, you figure out a way to make it happen with your brain. That’s what I did and that’s what a lot of my friends have done.”