24-year-old Female Pilot to Be the First Woman to Fly Stealth F-35 for the Marines

August 9, 2019 Updated: August 9, 2019

She will be the first female Marine to fly in the U.S. Navy’s F-35C fleet replacement squadron.

Lt. Catherine Stark just earned her wings in a ceremony last Friday after graduating from flight school. On top of that, the 24-year-old, from Eire, Pennsylvania, was chosen, along with one of her classmates, to fly the new F-35C fighter jets joining the military’s arsenal.

The F-35C Lightning II is a high-tech, 5th-generation fighter with stealth capabilities, designed and built by Lockheed Martin. One of three F-35 models, the F-35C is designed for takeoff and landing on aircraft carriers. It will replace the Navy and Marines’ aging F-18s and the Air Force’s stealthy F-22s.

It’s unusual that pilots plucked right out of flight school with no experience were chosen to fly the new fighters.

Catch the wire!An F-35C of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 125 prepares to make an arrested landing on USS Carl Vinson…

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190201-N-FC670-771EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. (Feb. 1, 2019) An F-35C Lightning II attached to the “Argonauts” of Strike…

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“Up until now they were only taking F-18 pilots that were already out in the fleet, someone with a lot of experience, and they were sending them back to school for six months and then transitioning them to the F-35,” Lt. Stark said via Task & Purpose.

“But recently, they’ve been picking people right out of flight school (for the F-35). That’s been the special thing. Up until now, people fresh out of flight school with no fleet experience—like myself; I haven’t been to a squadron yet because I just finished flight school—we didn’t have the opportunity to select the F-35.”

For Lt. Stark, the F-35C is a far cry from what she started out training in during her 18 months in flight school, training in Beechcraft T-6 Texan IIs for the first six months before advancing to McDonnell Douglas T-45 Goshawks, which they flew for a year.

As the F-35C becomes officially deemed “operational” and “ready for war," the Navy is adding weapons, sensors and…

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©U.S. Navy | Anne Owens

They flew two flights per day when they were training, which can be grueling, she said. The Lightning II will present some significant differences, as neither the F-6 nor the F-45 involved weapon systems, radar, or military flight strategies.

“Looking back, something I thought would be so hard is almost a joke now compared to the new challenge,” she said.

But it’s precisely the challenge that Lt. Stark loves the most about it.

“The most enjoyable thing is it’s such an amazing challenge,” she says. “It’s mental. You have to know your stuff. It’s intellectual.

“You have to apply your brain to this job, but it’s also so physical because we’re strapped in this tiny jet and you’re undergoing G’s and it’s smoking hot in Texas. It wipes you out physically.

“It’s spiritual, too, in the sense that you have to have a bit of feistiness and not give up.”

©U.S. Navy | Anne Owens

Lt. Stark’s parents, Bud and Beata Stark, also from Erie, expressed admiration and pride in their daughter’s accomplishment.

“It’s incredible,” said Bud Stark via Task & Purpose. “She’s just an amazing girl. She’s got all areas covered.”

Beata adds, “She was evaluated by merit, not by gender. She had to meet the same standards to pass as everyone else. So, we’re proud, we’re grateful.”

Lt. Stark is the fourth child of eight in her family, and one of three siblings serving in the military. She graduated from Mercyhurst Preparatory in 2012 and earned a degree in aerospace engineering from the U.S. Naval Academy, where her sister Zofia Stark also attended, and became a Marine officer in 2016.

To celebrate her achievement, Mercyhurst Preparatory posted on Twitter a video of Lt. Stark taking off from an aircraft carrier.

“She’s quite an accomplished young lady,” said Marcia Gensheimer, the school’s director of alumni and public relations.

Meanwhile, Lt. Stark remains modest.

“I’ve been blessed to get picked up for the F-35 Charlie,” she said. “I don’t want to downplay it, but I don’t think it’s that big of a deal.”


We're very proud as MPS 2012 grad Marine 1st Lt. Catherine Stark just became the first female joint strike fighter pilot in Marine Corps history. She will be flying the F 35 carrier variant of the Lightning II Lockheed Martin jet! #iamalaker

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