America's First Female African American Combat Pilot


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America's First Female African American Combat Pilot

By Chelsea Flowers 

When Capt. Vernice Armour became a Marine in 1998, she also became America's first female African American combat pilot. Armour deployed twice during her time in the Corps, protecting the men and women on the ground as an AH1 W SuperCobra attack helicopter pilot. Ever since she was young, Capt. Vernice Armour wanted to be a cop. But more than that, she wanted to speak and be a role model. It wasn’t until she became America’s first female African American combat pilot in the Marine Corps that those dreams began to come true. 

Armour comes from a Marine family. Her grandfather, William Holman, was a Montford Point Marine who enlisted in 1942 and served in World War II. Her stepdad, Clarence Jackson, served three Vietnam tours as a sergeant. Armour first became interested in the military while in college when she joined the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. “While in ROTC, I saw a woman in a flight suit,” Armour said. “After that I became very interested in aviation.” 


Armour, however, didn’t seriously consider joining until she had graduated from Middle Tennessee State University and became a Nashville police officer. “I realized I could always be a cop,” she said. “But I didn’t always have the chance to be a combat pilot.” The Marine Corps was at the top of Armour’s list. “I only wanted to be in the Marine Corps,” she said. “For me, it was the toughest. It was the biggest challenge.” When Armour spoke with an Officer Selection Officer, he told her she would be the first female African American combat pilot, not just in the Marine Corps, but in all military branches. “I said, ‘What? Are you serious?’” Armour said. 

Armour would be going where few women, and most certainly no other black woman, had ever been before. This worried Jackson, her stepdad. He had seen the way women were treated in the Corps while he served and didn’t want Armour to experience any discrimination. But Armour knew what she had to do. “I said, ‘Dad, if I don’t do it, who will? At some point, somebody has to step up to pave the way for everyone to move forward,’” Armour said. Armour was aware of possible discrimination and challenges, but she was determined. 

“I knew a lot would be riding on my shoulders,” Armour said. “I knew it would be hard. I knew there was a potential that there could be biases out there as well about whether women deserve to be in the Marine Corps, or combat and flying in that platform.” Regardless, in October 1998, Armour started her historic journey at Officer Candidate School on Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. Following OCS in 2001, Armour earned her gold wings and was stationed at Camp Pendleton with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 169 as a AH1 W SuperCobra pilot. Although prepared to face prejudice, Armour said she didn’t notice any real discrimination. 

“There is friction all the time in different places,” Armour said. “Friction is natural. When I had friction with someone it could’ve been because I had short hair, I smiled in the morning, I could bench press more than them, I rode a motorcycle, or because I’m a woman, or because I’m black. But honestly, I didn’t care because my number one goal was to focus on the mission and be the best pilot I could be.”  

After Sept. 11, 2001, Armour and other combat pilots prepared for deployment. “I knew right then my life had changed,” Armour said. “We all knew we would be going somewhere – and soon.” For Armour, her first deployment would be in February 2003. As Armour crossed the border from Kuwait into Iraq, the reality of the situation began to sink in.  


“It was so surreal because you’re not shooting at cardboard; you’re not shooting at tires and wood,” Armour said. “There were people on the ground, trying to take us out of the sky to kill us. It was a huge reality check. All the training came into laser-sharp focus.” 

Suddenly gender and race didn’t seem to matter. All that mattered was accomplishing the mission. “My number one goal was to be the best pilot I could be up there in the air to protect and serve my brothers and sisters on the ground,” Armour said. 

There were times during that deployment when Armour wondered how she and her comrades would make it out of certain situations, but they never doubted that they would give it their all. “Marines don’t settle,” Armour said. “Failure’s just not an option for us.” 

Armour returned from her first deployment with her new title as the first female African American combat pilot. She was deployed again to Al Asad, Iraq in 2004 with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit before separating from the Marine Corps in 2007. 

The experiences Armour gained while in the Marine Corps now allow her to pursue her dream of being a role model and a motivational speaker. “The Marine Corps prepared the platform for my purpose,” Armour said. She has since published a book, Zero to Breakthrough, and is a traveling speaker. Her role as the first female African American combat pilot most certainly has inspired and will continue to inspire future generations of Marines, African Americans and women to greatness.



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