172nd Airlift Wing Selects First Female African American Student Pilot Candidate

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jared Bounds
  • 172nd Airlift Wing

The 172nd Airlift Wing in Jackson, Mississippi, has selected its first African American female student pilot candidate
chosen from within the ranks. Tech. Sgt. Asia Clay, an aircrew flight equipment technician, was selected to take part in
the grueling, years-long training program that will eventually put her in the seat of a C-17 Globemaster III.

Clay’s military service began simply as a means to a paycheck. “I just needed a direction for where I was going,” she said. “School wasn’t working out, and I needed to provide for my son.” However, her career would be propelled further than she ever expected. She credited her grandparents with her will to succeed. “My grandmother gifted me with resilience, humility and a voice big enough to fill a room,” said Clay. Her grandfather, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, was able to impart 25 years’ worth of military guidance and experience.

As an aircrew flight equipment technician for the 172nd, Clay’s mission was supporting the wing’s aircraft and aircrews. “That introduced me to those beautifully-maintained C-17s on the flight line,” Clay said. A quiet desire to test her limits stirred within her. With spiritual and financial support from family and coworkers, Clay stepped out of her comfort zone and began taking pilot lessons at a local flight school. As she took the controls during her very first flight, surveying the world beneath her, the passion for flying suddenly bloomed in her heart. “Exposure to various types of people and careers truly makes a difference in what we strive to become,” she said.

Clay’s experience with supporting C-17s, as well as her thriving love of flight, made her stand out to the student pilot selection board. “Tech. Sgt. Clay was able to convey all of the characteristics that we look for in a pilot,” said Maj. Ryan O’Quinn, chief pilot, 183rd Airlift Squadron. Attention to detail, level-headedness and strong interpersonal skills are important, said O’Quinn, but there is one essential factor they must have: the heart of a flyer. “If their heart isn’t there, it will not work out,” he said.

Selecting a new pilot candidate is a year-long, hyper-competitive process. Candidates must do more than just check the boxes. “A high college G.P.A. is nice, but I’d prefer a 3.0 student that worked a job over an A
student with no job,” said O’Quinn. Team activities and group hobbies also separate a candidate from the pack. “This is important because it shows me that they understand what it takes to have a team mentality,” O’Quinn
said. Only two to five candidates are selected from a field of more than 100. The time from selection to complete training can be three years, so it takes a fierce will to achieve. “My desire, matched with the nourishing atmosphere of the 172nd, has placed me where I am today: on the starting line of my aviation career,” said Clay.

Clay’s selection is not only significant on an individual level, but for the 172nd Airlift Wing and the Mississippi Air National Guard. “We are extremely lucky to have members like Tech. Sgt. Clay,” said O’Quinn. Clay
believes her impact will also influence future pilots, especially young girls. “Seeing is believing,” said Clay. “Becoming another link in the chain of female aviators will inspire future airmen to aim high!”