- Associated Press - Friday, November 18, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - When Jessi McCormick was a child, if you would have told her what she would be doing in 2016, she would have never believed it.

“I never, ever as a kid would have ever thought I’d be an Apache pilot,” she said. “It’s the greatest feeling.”

The Boeing AH-64 Apache is the most advanced multi-role combat helicopter for the U.S. Army and a growing number of international defense forces.

The 31-year-old Olive Branch resident, now a warrant officer, is the first female Apache helicopter pilot in the Mississippi National Guard. She started out as a Marine, joining in 2003 as a military police officer. After four years and two deployments, she left the Marines, but joined the National Guard a year later.

McCormick was an MP with the Clinton unit for a while, deploying again in 2009-2010, and moved to the public affairs unit out of Jackson. While she was deployed to Afghanistan in 2013, the urge to fly hit her.

“When I was in Afghanistan, I was flying around a lot, and one day I was flying in a Blackhawk looking out the side of it and I thought, ‘I kinda want to fly,’” she said. “That was one of those things I hadn’t tried and I figured it would keep me interested. So I decided to inquire about the path to flight school.”

There were a lot of steps to get there, McCormick found out, including corrective eye surgery. There was also an interview with a flight board, made up of the pilots she would be flying with were she to pass.

“They do an interview to see what kind of person you are,” she said. “For the National Guard, since we’re all local, we’re all family, they want to make sure you’re good for the unit.”

While there’s a lot of emphasis put on McCormick’s benchmark as the first female Apache pilot, she said her gender didn’t even cross her mind as a possible obstacle. Being a woman in a man’s profession was nothing new to her.

“I had heard they’d never had a female in this unit, but coming from the Marine Corps and doing jobs there weren’t a lot of females in, I knew they wouldn’t discriminate against me because they’d never had one,” she said. “They’d just never had anyone want to be here and fight to be here. I just happened to be the first one.”

When she was given her assignment, it was a testament to the respect her fellow pilots had for her ability to hold her own, too.

“They said, ‘Well, they say you’re a gunslinger, so you’re going to fly Apaches,’” she said.

It’s not the first time it’s been clear that McCormick was a warrior at heart. A few days before her unit deployed to Afghanistan in 2013, she was in Memphis with some friends and someone stole her wallet out of her purse.

“I chased him down for five blocks and beat my wallet out of him,” she said, laughing. “The news came and interviewed me.”

It was instinct, she said.

“I don’t know if that’s just the way I’m wired, but I honestly didn’t think twice about it. Maybe it’s growing up as a tomboy, but I also did beauty pageants and I played all the sports,” she said. “I also had good parents.”

A self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie, McCormick said she’s done a lot in her short life because she likes new challenges and adventures.

“I knew flying would be one of those things that would keep me interested. There’s always something new that you’re studying with everything you do in this job,” she said, adding she also loves flying itself. “It’s not like when you get on a commercial airplane. The feeling you get in your stomach, imagine that multiplied times 1,000. And you can make it do amazing things, especially the Apache with all its weapons systems. I can go straight up, I can stop in midair. I love everything about it.”

To other women who aspire to do jobs people traditionally assign to men, and to the little girl who might want to fly Apaches as well, McCormick says not to let anything hold you back. But that’s her advice to anyone with a dream, regardless of gender.

“We always talk about women gaining our equality, but we have it,” she said. “Never let anyone tell you you can’t. Never let anyone tell you you’re not strong enough. Fulfill your dreams. If you have a dream, make it a reality.”

McCormick is finishing a psychology degree from the University of Mississippi, and she wants to use that degree to be a counselor for veterans. She’d also like to fly for law enforcement, and “for the Guard for as long as they’ll let me, until they kick me out.”

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Information from: The Clarion-Ledger, https://www.clarionledger.com

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