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Alabama National Guard welcomes first black female pilot

When 2nd Lt. Kayla Freeman wore her wings for the first time on the stage of Fort Rucker’s Army Aviation school, she didn’t consider how historically impactful the moment was.

Freeman, whose June 21 graduation made her the first black female pilot in the Alabama National Guard, graduated from Tuskegee University in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in aerospace science engineering.

“I didn’t think about making history when I started this journey. I just wanted to do the best that I could do and hopefully inspire a few people along the way,” she says.

That’s a goal she has also accomplished, with Freeman being inundated with congratulations, well-wishes, and messages of appreciation in the few weeks after her achievement.

Freeman said she was honored to have her wings pinned by a longtime hero and fellow history-maker, retired Col. Christine “Nickey” Knighton.

Knighton was the second black woman in the Department of Defense to earn her aviator wings, the first from Georgia, and also the first woman in the U.S. Army to command a tactical combat arms battalion.

“Col. Knighton has been an inspiration to me since college,” Freeman says. “I felt that it was only right to have her pin me.”

Freeman also lists Knighton as one of her main role models, along with her own grandfather, and the pioneering female Tuskegee Airmen like Mildred Carter.

Like Knighton before her, Freeman’s inspirations led her to attend Tuskegee University and enroll in the historic institute’s ROTC program. She said she knew since she was a child that she wanted to fly, and said it was discipline, perseverance, and faith that helped her achieve that goal.

“You can’t let mistakes and setbacks keep you down,” she says. “Learn from them and continue moving forward. Most importantly keep God first and He will direct your path.”

Maj. Gen. Sheryl Gordon applauded Freeman’s historic accomplishment. Gordon is the first female general officer in the Alabama National Guard and is now the first female to serve as its adjutant general.

“We take the ideals of equal opportunity very seriously,” Gordon says, “and we’re extremely proud of 2nd Lt. Freeman’s achievements. She is further proof that we don’t see race or gender in the Alabama Guard – we see soldiers and airmen and their potential.

“She has worked very hard to earn those wings, and that’s a great example for all of us.”

Currently at Fort Hood preparing to deploy to the Middle East as a platoon leader in the Alabama National Guard’s 1-169th Aviation Battalion, Freeman’s mind is on the mission. After that, she said, her plans are simple: keep going.

“I just plan to continue to develop my skills as an officer and aviator, as well as mentoring others.”

In her civilian career, Freeman is an aerospace engineer at U.S. Army Aviation Development Test Activity at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville.