Tuskegee grad makes history as first black female pilot in Alabama National Guard

Tuskegee grad makes history as first black female pilot in Alabama National Guard
2nd Lt. Kayla Freeman, the first black female pilot in the Alabama National Guard, stands at the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence at Fort Rucker after her graduation from the aviation school. (1st Lt. Jermaine Thurston/U.S. Army)

When 2nd Lt. Kayla Freeman wore her wings for the first time on the stage of Fort Rucker’s Army Aviation school, she didn’t consider how historic the moment was.

Freeman’s June 21 graduation made her the first black female pilot in the Alabama National Guard. She graduated from Tuskegee University in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in aerospace science engineering.

Retired Col. Christine Knighton pins aviator wings on 2nd Lt. Kayla Freeman at Freeman’s graduation from the Army Aviation school. (1st Lt. Jermaine Thurston/U.S. Army)

“I didn’t think about making history when I started this journey. I just wanted to do the best that I could do and hopefully inspire a few people along the way,” she said.

Freeman said she was honored to have her wings pinned by a longtime hero and fellow history-maker, retired Col. Christine “Nickey” Knighton.

Knighton was the second black woman in the Department of Defense to earn her aviator wings, the first from Georgia, and also the first woman in the U.S. Army to command a tactical combat arms battalion.

“Col. Knighton has been an inspiration to me since college,” Freeman said. “I felt that it was only right to have her pin me.”

Freeman lists Knighton as one of her main role models, along with her own grandfather and the pioneering female Tuskegee Airmen, such as Mildred Carter.

Like Knighton before her, Freeman’s inspirations led her to attend Tuskegee University and enroll in the historic institute’s ROTC program. Freeman knew since childhood she wanted to fly, and said it was discipline, perseverance and faith that helped her achieve that goal.

2nd Lt. Kayla Freeman says she has known since she was a child that she wanted to fly. Now she has her wings. (1st Lt. Jermaine Thurston/U.S. Army)


“You can’t let mistakes and setbacks keep you down,” she said. “Learn from them and continue moving forward. Most importantly, keep God first and he will direct your path.”

Maj. Gen. Sheryl Gordon applauded Freeman’s historic accomplishment. Gordon is the first female general officer in the Alabama National Guard and is now the first female to serve as its adjutant general.

“We take the ideals of equal opportunity very seriously,” Gordon said, “and we’re extremely proud of 2nd Lt. Freeman’s achievements. She is further proof that we don’t see race or gender in the Alabama Guard — we see soldiers and airmen and their potential.

“She has worked very hard to earn those wings, and that’s a great example for all of us.”

Currently at Fort Hood preparing to deploy to the Middle East as a platoon leader in the Alabama National Guard’s 1-169th Aviation Battalion, Freeman’s mind is on the mission. After that, she said, her plans are simple: Keep going.

“I just plan to continue to develop my skills as an officer and aviator, as well as mentoring others.”

In her civilian career, Freeman is an aerospace engineer at U.S. Army Aviation Development Test Activity at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville.

This story appeared on The Birmingham Times’ website.

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