Women in Flight: From cook to pilot, a 12th TRS flight commander’s story

  • Published
  • By Benjamin Faske
  • 12th Flying Training Wing Public Affairs

In 1987, Congress passed Public Law 100-9, which designated the month of March as “Women’s History Month.”

Since then, each president has issued a proclamation to celebrate the contributions women have made in the United States. The 12th Flying Training Wing is highlighting one female pilot each week by having them answer a series of questions about their Air Force careers.

This week highlights Capt. Ilma Vallee,12th Training Squadron flight commander, a 2013 U.S. Air Force Academy graduate who immigrated from Lithuania with her mother when she was 11 years old. She is a former enlisted cook and KC-135 pilot who also serves as an instructor at the 558th Flying Training Squadron.

Where are you from originally?

I was born and raised in Eastern Europe in a small country called Lithuania. I immigrated to United States when I was 11 with my mother. She wanted a better life and opportunity for both of us.

Any interesting stories to share growing up?

My grandparents didn’t have running water or a bathroom. When I stayed with them in the summer, we used an outhouse and newspaper for toilet paper. We also had to heat water over the fireplace to use for bathing.

What piqued your interest in the Air Force and how did you become a cook?

My step-dad had been enlisted in the Air Force when he was younger and told me about the opportunities and the G.I. Bill. I enlisted to get on my feet and get out of the house after high school. I had strict parents, no phone, no car and no money for college. I worked as a bagger at a grocery store, so I knew I wanted a better life. The plan was to enlist for four years and use my G.I. Bill. After basic training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, I started my services Air Force Specialty Code at Travis Air Force Base, California, and worked midnight chow as a cook.

How did you get to the Air Force Academy?

My commander suggested I put in paperwork to attend the Air Force Academy through the Leaders Encouraging Airman Development, or LEAD, program. I attended the Air Force Academy Prepatory School for a year and then went to the Academy. I completed three boot camps in three summers in a row. I was encouraged to apply for a rated pilot slot, not thinking I would get one because of my class ranking. I graduated and got my slot and headed off to Del Rio, Texas, for undergraduate pilot training.  I went on to fly KC-135’s at MacDill Air Force Base at Tampa, Florida.


What were some challenges you had to overcome to be an Air Force pilot?

The biggest challenge for me was confidence. As a female and having English as my second language, I doubted myself and did not think that I belonged in the community. I felt very out of place because I looked, spoke and carried myself differently. Also, in my culture, we were raised to be small and showing confidence was looked down upon. As a pilot, I had to learn to find my own confidence. My unique background has allowed me to be a better officer and view problems with a different perspective.

Any cool hobbies we should know about?

At the Academy, I ran on the marathon team and got into hiking, climbing and snowboarding. I recently finished my master’s degree in video editing, so I love to film and edit my adventures. I also run, swim and bike for triathlon preparation. I’ve run 12 marathons, including the Air Force half-marathon and represented Air Education and Training Command for the major command challenge in 2018 and 2019.

What are your future plans?

This summer I am planning to hike Mount Denali; it’s the highest peak in North America at 20,310 feet. For my next assignment I hope to fly the newest tanker, the KC-46. 

You want to hike Mount Denali?

I was big into hiking 14’ers (14,000-foot mountains) in Colorado, but I wanted to do something more challenging. Mountaineering is a physical, mental and spiritual journey. It has tested me and challenged me in many ways and has allowed me to use my leadership skills I learned in the Air Force. To date, I have topped Mount Blanc, France (15,000 feet); Pico de Orizaba, Mexico (18,000 feet);  and Chimborazo, Ecuador (20,000 feet).

Where do you think your “can- do” attitude comes from?  

I grew up dreaming about a better life, traveling, and having better opportunities. All of us in Lithuania dreamed about being the people we see on American television shows, magazines and commercials. I watched my mom learn English, move us to America, and go to the University of Southern California and earn her degree with honors. Her hard work ethic has helped me grind through USAFA and UPT and take every opportunity given to me. Sitting on a couch and dreaming about a better life is not an option for me. Everything I dreamed about, is right here in front of me … from being an athlete, to a pilot, to making film, to coaching, teaching, giving speeches, to climbing mountains. I hear David Goggin’s telling me to do better every day. To keep growing. To be the best version of yourself. To be excellent. AIM HIGH Airmen!