Top Guns

They are sky-high achievers.Their objective: not to be the first black or the only woman, but to be the best–period.

They are fighting fires and fighting wars, uncovering beauty and unearthing science. Their accomplishments reflect the powerful combination of proficiency and passion–with a little perspiration. Although we suspect that these women really do sweat, they do it ever so discretely. To the extent that their career choices are extraordinary, so, too, has been the level of their performance. And though they have faced racism and sexism, those obstacles were never the focus.
“If you get fixed on the ignorance of others then they win,” offers neuroscientist Yasmin Hurd, Ph.D. “And then what do you have?”

The women featured here–a fighter pilot, a fire chief, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon, a neuroscientist, and our nation’s national security advisor–talk about drive, determination, and not just believing in your dreams, but living them. “The zero tolerance that I had for certain [negative] behaviors created a positive environment for me,” concedes Fire Chief Rosemary R. Cloud. “My goal was to get them off of me, to create a boundary–a space where I could succeed–and that’s what I did.”

SHAWNA ROCHELLE NG-A-QUIU.S. Air Force Fighter Pilot
CAREER AT A GLANCE
AGE: 26
SALARY: Base pay of $24,000 (lieutenant) — $144,000 (four-star general), plus additional monetary allowances based on the assignment.
GOALS: “I’m starting the upgrade to a two-ship flight lead, and want to eventually become a four-ship flight lead and then become an instructor to teach all positions.”
CHALLENGES: “Handling a three-dimensional environment and having to deal with weather and changing factors in your mission, particularly in a volatile situation where you never know what the other person is going to do.”
MARITAL STATUS: Single

“It’s a thrill,” says Capt. Ng-A-Qui (pronounced nick-a-key) of her first operational assignment in Sept. 2000 at the Misawa Air Base in Misawa, Japan, and of flying the F-16 Fighting Falcon.

“I hit the fourth grade, and for no particular reason, I knew I wanted to fly fighters and be a pilot for the Air Force,” explains Ng-A-Qui, whose last name has Chinese origins. Both her parents are originally from Guyana. Ng-A-Qui grew up in Parker, Colorado.

The youngest of four children, Ng-A-Qui had no previous exposure to military life. Joining the Civil Air Patrol (a civilian auxiliary of the Air Force) in high school introduced her to basic aerospace training and education. Majoring in engineering, she attended the very competitive Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and graduated in 1998. Then it was off to pilot training at Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, Texas, where instructions included academics and simulator training. “It was a pretty intense year,” she says.

Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals, a three-month program where pilots learn to employ a jet as a weapon, is the next and most-advanced phase. “Then it was off to Luke [Air Force Base in Phoenix] to begin fighter training,” she explains.

Ng-A-Qui’s first combat mission was Operation Northern Watch–enforcing the no-fly zone over Northern Iraq in 2001, before the Sept. 11 attacks. “It’s pretty shocking the first time you realize that people are actually shooting at you,” she says. “But it’s nothing

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