Melissa "Shock" May
Persistence; Courage; Overcoming Adversity; Contingency Planning; Mutual Support/Teamwork; Work/Life Balance; Leadership; Succeeding in a Place Where You Stand Out; Service Before Self
I share personal stories of a little bit of luck, hard work, persistence, courage, adversity, determination, combat action, and near-death experiences, all the while keeping a light-hearted sense of humor. Being one of the first women in many different fighter squadrons, believe me: I have seen and heard it all - and I absolutely loved every minute of it! From flying my F-16 into Baghdad the first night of “SHOCK and AWE” during Operation Iraqi Freedom to dropping bombs in Libya by day and changing diapers by night, I’ve had some unique experiences that most girls (or boys, for that matter!) from Utah don’t end up having. Maintaining a sense of humor, having a thick skin, surrounding myself with positive people, and always being genuine to myself were keys to my success and joy throughout my 20-year career. Although I was young and naïve when I first became an officer, my service in the Air Force taught me about what it truly means to serve a purpose bigger than myself. Having a purpose that is bigger than ourselves is what makes the difference between self-serving and service before self. That purpose is often what helps us make the hard decisions and take the courageous actions in a selfless way. It helps us dig deep into our character to become our best selves.
There is no better time – or more urgent time – to learn what you’re made of, than when you are taking off and flying over hostile territory, missiles shooting up around you because people are trying to shoot you from the sky. Life throws challenges and curveballs at all of us. Although it may not be flying in combat and getting shot at, figuring out and deciding how we will handle situations and learning how to reach deep within ourselves is no different. Purpose, decision, and attitude will make all the difference in the world.
As one of only a handful of women who have earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, Melissa “SHOCK” May, a career Air Force F-16 pilot, was also in the first wave of women to fly fighter aircraft straight from Undergraduate Pilot Training. Her Air Force career got its start because her outstanding abilities as a competitive swimmer. Melissa was recruited to swim on the US Air Force Academy (USAFA) Intercollegiate team, which ultimately culminated in her induction into the USAFA Athletic Hall of Fame. Until her junior year at USAFA, the Combat Exclusion Law was in effect and women were not allowed to fly Air Force fighter aircraft, so the plan of becoming a fighter pilot was not even on the table.
Upon graduation, she went on to pilot training in Del Rio, TX and she learned then that a fighter was a possibility, but she would have to finish high enough among her peers to earn one. Melissa graduated first in her class and earned the Distinguished Graduate Award, the Flying Training award and the Air Education and Training Commander’s Award. After pilot training she went on to fly the F-16 and her assignments included bases in Korea, Japan, Italy, and two assignments as an Instructor Pilot at the F-16 schoolhouse in Arizona. She also returned to the US Air Force Academy as a Commander of a Cadet Squadron.
Melissa earned her combat time in Iraq in Operations Southern Watch and Iraqi Freedom, and in Libya in Operations Unified Protector and Odyssey Dawn. Her Distinguished Flying Cross was awarded during a night mission over Baghdad where her flight of 4 was under heavy fire from anti-aircraft artillery and guided missiles. The weather was extremely poor and her flight was tasked to bomb missile sites that were actively targeting them. At her side that night was one of the youngest wingman in the squadron.
SHOCK was also a founding member of the Chick Fighter Pilot Association, a group she and a few fellow F-16 pilots started when they realized the importance of female friendship and mentorship in a male-dominated career.
SHOCK served in the Air Force for 20 years and upon retirement, she joined a major airline where she now flies Boeing 737’s based out of Denver. Her husband of 21 years, also a retired Air Force F-16 pilot, flies at a major airline as well. They have two children and they are striving for a balance of work and maximum family time. If she’s not flying the friendly skies and bouncing around a new city or country, you can find her on the golf course, a hiking trail, mountain biking, or snowboarding in the winter.