If you happen to meet Captain Kim Brady in person, you would never expect her to be the type to recount flying missions into Afghanistan with the same nonchalance one might order a cup of hot coffee. You would likely notice her beautiful smile, easy laugh, and affable disposition. But don't let Captain Kim Brady fool you. Captain Brady is tough as nails. She was the only woman of 13 men in her class to graduate pilot training school in Enid, Oklahoma. In fact, only 24 percent of the class entering the Air Force Academy today are female.
Captain Kim Brady grew up a star athlete in the diverse community of New Rochelle, New York. Although no one close to her was in the military, as a child she declared her intention of defending America during times of war. After high school, Captain Brady decided to interview with her congressional representative for a nomination to the Air Force Academy in Colorado. Brady wanted to be a pilot, but she knew her poor vision would prevent her from flying. An email from the Air Force administration changed her whole life…
Did you always want a career in the military?
My neighbor always remembers me saying ‘If there’s a war, I’m going.’ I said that all the time when I was a little girl! I still feel like that. I was a tomboy, very active. I would play manhunt. During my senior year [of high school] my uncle mentioned the Air Force Academy to me. It’s free and it’s different. It was in Colorado, and that sounded cool to me.
When you graduate you’re guaranteed a job, which I thought would be a normal Air Force job because I had bad vision. I knew I couldn’t be a pilot at that point. I decided to apply and see what happens. You have to go through a lot of interviews and meet with a congressional representative and they can nominate you to go. You have two nominations per district. I was lucky. I was going to go to Villanova. I had already put a down payment on my dorm room for $400.
When you applied for the Air Force Academy, you already had an academic path you thought you were going to follow?
I know I wanted to be an engineer no matter what, and [Villanova] was a good engineering school. That was my goal. My dad always told me ‘become an engineer; get a masters’ in business and you’ll be well-off forever.’ That was my goal.
After I put a down payment on my dorm room, the [Air Force] academy called to tell me that I got in. Initially I didn’t, but there was only a week gap before the phone call. I didn’t realize I was upset about it until I went to a college fair where there was an Air Force recruiter. I went right to the principals’ office and started crying ‘I think I wanted to go there.’ I didn’t know I wanted it. But a week later they called and said ‘Sorry, you actually did get in.’
So Villanova didn’t happen, and I graduated high school on June 20th. On June 25th I cut off my hair. It was super-long. I donated it and left for basic training.
Why the Air Force as opposed to any other department of the military?
West Point was in New York. I had been there for track meets. It was too close to home. I don’t like being on boats, and so the Navy was out. The Air Force was cooler, and offered a better life.
Did you have any fears about flying planes?
I used to be crazy and fearless. There was nothing that could get in my way. Now that I’ve gotten older, I’ve developed a sense of fear. The thought of jumping out of an airplane scares me. My luck has been so great, and I’m more paranoid now that something could happen. I have to stay on my A-game now more than ever.
How nervous were you about going off to school?
I wasn’t nervous. I think I knew I’d be fine. I had a lot of attitude coming out of high school. I was a leader on the track team. I was always challenged.
So then I went and it was great. I loved it from basic training. It was destiny. It was really fun. The hard things were never really hard for me. It all came naturally to me. Do your work. Be a good student. Do your homework. Go to bed. It didn’t bother me.
I [studied] environmental engineering. You don’t even fly when you’re there at all. It’s just regular college with military life. We wore uniforms everyday there and you only have a certain number of passes to go out on the weekends. You had to be in your dorm every night. They check. It’s like a dream now, but it was fun. I don’t know why, but I really loved it. When you’re a freshman you go through all the rituals of getting yelled at. You’re treated like crap until you go through a process where you’re recognized as an upperclassman.
Captain Kim Brady (center) celebrates pilot training with her classmates. She was one female of 13 men in her class.
Are all of the students in the Air Force Academy training to be in the Air Force in some capacity?
Everyone who graduates is going to be commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. About 50 percent become pilots. The other jobs are engineers, and support roles like working at the gym or all the different support agencies on base. You could go to medical school or aircraft maintenance. When I was there about 1 of 9 students was female. I think it might be worse now. I just read an article on NPR about how the ratio is terrible for what it should be. I think girls are applying, but maybe they’re not.
My senior year at the academy, I got an email that said I had all the qualifications to be a pilot but I had bad vision. So they gave me eye surgery! They fixed my eyes. They did PRK, which is different than LASIK. I was 20/15 after.
So your first three years of college you never thought you could ever be a pilot?
Even going through it, I was thinking ‘is this real life?’ It’s strange thinking about it now.
I went to pilot training after I graduated. That was in Pensacola, Florida. Then I went to Oklahoma to finish it. Enid, Oklahoma. Worst place in the world. It’s in the middle of nowhere, god-awful. Exactly what you would picture a place called Enid, Oklahoma looked like. I hated it. It was a terrible time. I think I wore sweatpants for a year! It was so rough, but it kept me focused. There was crappy food, crappy bars. I never would want to live there again.
My pilot training took two years. You fly two different planes during that time. Then they have an assignment night when they tell you what plane you get. I got the plane I wanted. It’s the C17, a big cargo plane. I went to McGuire first, in NJ.
I could have been assigned other planes, or I could have been stuck in Enid as a teacher for the next kids, which I was terrified of [laughs]!
And you can’t get out of your assignment if you don’t like it, right?
Nope. That’s life. Isn’t it awful? I would have been devastated. But it didn’t happen. That’s how I fell in love with Philly. I moved here and deployed right away to Turkey, which was wonderful. I was there for three months. This was 09’, right before the New Year. I was staying with a friend in Fishtown, and when I got back from Turkey a bought a place in Fishtown.
I’ve done three deployments. One to Turkey, two to Kuwait. They’ve all been fine. Our job is to fly stuff back and forth to Afghanistan. People and equipment.
As a woman in the Air Force, you are in the minority.
It is what you make it. I feel fortunate that my personality suits the environment. I have always felt supported by my male counterparts. Overall, the Air Force has been a wonderful community to work in as a woman and by far the best treatment of any branch in the military.
No one has really helped me out along the way as a girl. I always think that no matter what, we are graded harder because you’re noticed more. There are only three of you and the eyes are on you.
You’re scrutinized. That’s life. There’s not a lot of support. It’s pretty sad. I’ve tried to help every girl I meet have a great career and do well. I’ve been very lucky and have had a great career in the Air Force.
Is there an environment of sexism?
Girls don’t have anyone to talk to about when they feel slighted or how to go after that position or award. How can I get there? It reminds me of the book Lean In. I’m always self critical about coming across as overconfident. I think there is a right way to attack things in the job, not burn bridges. That’s what I want to help girls do…make the right decisions for themselves and their career. Every girl who gets through pilot training has gone through a lot. I was the only girl with 13 guys. They were nice to me. They treated me like gold, and they put up with me when I was cranky [laughs]. They appreciated it.
Where else in the world have you been?
I’ve had the most time off in Turkey, Sicily, Germany, Diego Garcia, which is a small island in the Indian Ocean. I had a night off there. Hawaii, Guam, Japan, South Korea. All over.
I just went on my last mission. We knew we were going to go to Estonia because the president was there. But then right before we left, they said that right after Estonia we were going to Kiev in the Ukraine. It’s always an adventure. You never know what’s going to happen. I like that part. Going to new airports, even though it’s kind of creepy and scary, it’s still an adventure.
What are some of the challenges of the job?
Our day can be up to 24 hours long. And that’s if you have three pilots. That is brutal. You can have multiple days like that in a row. It’s funny, once you’re in that zone you kind of get through it. You build stamina to that life quick. Then you get somewhere and get right to bed. It sounds like death sometimes, but it’s not that bad.
What is it like to fly into zones where there is actual combat happening?
Flying into Iraq, that is scary. I’ve been on alert in several places in Afghanistan but you become immune to it. It’s sad but true. Once you it everyday, you just do it and get out of there. You’re not as afraid anymore. But when you’re home for a while and thinking about it you develop some fears and anxieties. It’s weird.
Captain Kim Brady deployed to Kuwait twice
Do your friends and family worry about you a lot?
Yes. They shouldn’t, but they definitely do. I don't think my parents wanted me to become a pilot. If they had a choice, I think they would have said ‘be an engineer. Less deployments, less risk.’
Do you encounter a lot of people who are against war or military?
I don’t think so. I’ve had a lot of people not believe that I’m in charge when we land somewhere. That’s annoying.
When we went to Estonia, one guy kept asking for the Captain. I had to keep telling him ‘I’m the Captain! I am the Captain, dude.’ It was killing me. It was pissing me off.
This last deployment I jumped on a crew with a nice, young girl who is at McGuire now. We took a mission into Saudi Arabia. It was a three-hour flight from Kuwait, but we knew that they would hate it, slash love it [laughs]. So we land, and there was an Air Force captain who was stationed there for a year. He’s been there for six months. He comes over to see if we need any support while we’re here, we were just dropping stuff off. He comes up to the cockpit and the look on his face when he saw us! He was an American Air Force Captain, but he hadn’t seen a woman in 6 months out of full garb. He told us, ‘do not get off the plane. You cannot get off the plane, they’ll go crazy.’ It was so strange.
They think that if a girl drives a car there, they get cancer. That’s what they think. Women can’t drive cars, and we drove this big-ass airplane in! And landed it. And took off. The next day my friends flew in there, and they said that when they landed the Saudi’s asked, ‘where’s the girl Captains?’ They were asking for us.
Is being in the Air Force hard on your marriage?
Right when we got married we had been dating for three years, and [between] my deployments and training trips I had been gone for a year of that. That’s not including my normal missions. Isn’t that crazy? We had only really been dating for two years.
Donny is amazing. He went to the Air Force academy too. I knew who he was, but he was a little older. My roommate had a crush on him. He was living in Philly, stationed at McGuire. He got out of the Air Force. He volunteered right after he graduated. I ran into him in Philly when I was at McGuire and that was it!
We got married last December right before I left. We got engaged around this time last year at Oktoberfest at Frankford Hall. I was deployed in January. We went to City Hall right before Christmas. It was a ghost town. Got the marriage license. I was joking around, asking everyone I saw to marry us. 'We just have to find a judge somewhere in this building.' I asked about four people in the elevator, they all said ‘no, no, try calling on Monday.’
I’m walking out of City Hall and an SUV pulls up. Donny looks in and says, ‘Kim, its Mayor Nutter.’ I said, ‘I’m asking him.’ I read somewhere that a Mayor can marry you. Donny was so embarrassed. So I’m waiting for him to come out. He knew right away what I was going to say. He was like, ‘you guys are glowing.’ I asked, ‘Mayor Nutter, do you have time to marry us?’ He asked us when we wanted to do it. I said, ‘anytime you’re free.’ We had to wait two days. He said, ‘How is Monday?’
Mayor Nutter married us that Monday! Being married while deployed was really great because I always felt bad when we were dating. I know you’re waiting for me but I don’t know what the future is. Now we know the future! Sorry you have to wait for me!
Kim and her husband Donny were married by Mayor Nutter last year.
You mentioned your last mission to Kiev. Are you leaving the Air Force?
There's a downsizing, and I volunteered to get out early. They accepted it, and they’re paying me to get out in December. I interviewed for a reserve job at Dover, and I got hired! I get to fly missions in the same plane for the next 30 years and be an old lady in a flight suit! Unless there is a big war and the unit gets activated I can fly when I want, and I get to do the same job. We just support the active duty. If I stayed in active duty, I would be in Enid, Oklahoma next, or somewhere worse. It would have been a rough next few years. In the reserves I pick my own schedule. It’s nice. At minimum, I work one weekend each month and then two weeks a year you do squadron training. I would love to make it my full time job.
What's next for you?
I’ve been interviewing for jobs. I’m looking for sales jobs because I want to make my own schedule and have a home office and try to build business around here. We want to stay in Philly. I went to a military recruiting company. There are a lot of military recruiting companies that help people in the military find jobs. I went to one of their conferences and I have two call back interviews!
It’s like playing a character to me, I’m so used to wearing my uniform every day and people know who I am. I don’t have to prove anything. Now I am dressed up as this, a person I have never been before, selling myself. I had to go buy a suit and grown up clothes.
I don’t know what I’m going to do in the real world. Maybe I will just get two outfits and alternate them [laughs].
What appeals to you most about sales?
Making your own business. Being able to start conversations with people and build relationships. I think that part will be really fun for me. It comes naturally. It will be a good learning experience, different everyday. I need to be out and about meeting and staying active.
Is readjusting to civilian life difficult for you?
It’s just nice to be home. I love it. It already seems like a dream that I was ever gone. This year I was gone from January through April. I can’t believe that now. I do remember I came back from a summer in Kuwait. It was 95 degrees here and everyone was just dying. It’s not that bad! It was 115 degrees in Kuwait! That’s normal. That is one funny memory I have.
What will you walk away from the Air Force with?
It definitely builds confidence. A lot of my jobs have always been ‘here’s what needs to get done, you figure it out’ so that part of making things happen will help in the real world a lot. Making decisions…sometimes I get home and can’t make another decision. I just made so many today. I don’t know if other people are asked to do that early in their careers. It’s nonstop.
Do you have a mantra?
Just do it now! My dad always used to make me say ‘I am smart!’ everyday. He always made me say that. My parents gave me self-belief that I could do anything. I like talking to girls about that and help them get there, feeling that way.
Captain Kim Brady poses with her parents after Air Force Academy Graduation.
What advice would you give to a girl who wants to be the next Captain Kim Brady?
Always go for it and keep your options open. Do the best you can so that you have the option to do whatever you want. That is how I have always done everything. The higher you are, the more you say you have.