37 AS pilot physician paves way for women in aviation

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Madelyn Keech
  • 86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany – Not unlike many other service members, U.S. Air Force Maj. Sandra Salzman, 37th Airlift Squadron pilot-physician, comes from a military family. This led her to begin her journey in the Wisconsin Air National Guard in January 2001 as an enlisted aerospace propulsion specialist, eventually becoming the only woman of the current 10 pilot-physicians in the Air Force. 

As a young girl, Salzman grew up living on bases heavily populated with pilots, which first ignited her interest in aviation. Salzman’s mother arranged many field trips to an aircraft simulator for her Girl Scout troop. As an adult, her husband also took her to one of his flying lessons, cementing her passion in flying. 

“I realized I could do that and I would prefer to pilot than be a passenger,” Salzman said.

For one month, Salzman flew for two hours after work to obtain her private flying license. Then, she commissioned as an officer and retrained as a pilot. After completing pilot training, she applied to fly with her home station where she was ultimately denied a flying position. 

Getting the answer “No” for flying was a familiar situation to Salzman and her family, she said.

Her mother, retired U.S. Air Force Col. Lesa Juday, commissioned through the Reserves Officers’ Training Corps in 1977 and attempted to pursue a career flying helicopters. However, she was also turned away. 

Instead of letting it deter Juday from becoming a service member, she overcame the rejection to become a judge advocate general, or a military lawyer, and persisted in pursuit of her dreams while fighting for gender equality for women in the military. 

Salzman used the same tenacity learned from her mother to keep pushing to accomplish her dreams and applied to three other Air National Guard units. She was accepted by all three, and chose to work with the 133rd Airlift Wing Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., to fly Lockheed C-130 Hercules aircraft.

Once she arrived, Salzman learned she was the only female pilot in her unit, although there were female loadmasters and crew chiefs.

Salzman said the flying culture in the Air Force at the time was very different than today. Many women felt there was a mindset that being pregnant meant they didn't want to fly. Because of this, Salzman said women in her unit were hiding their pregnancies until they were unable to. 

Although many of the women were healthy, some, including Salzman, struggled with high-risk pregnancies and wondered if it was related to flying while pregnant. 

When Salzman’s oldest child was born, he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and Malignant Myopia, a medical condition affecting a person’s nervous system and eyesight. She wanted answers and decided to pursue a medical degree and study pediatrics. 

“Mom guilt is real,” Salzman said. “When my son [was diagnosed], I didn’t know if I caused it and that was scary.”

Salzman said the diagnoses brought on many questions, most of which went unanswered.

“You want to know: Should I feel guilty or not?” Salzman said. “I went to medical school to answer that question, and to figure out how to raise my child properly because I felt like I had no idea how to do that either.”

Before she could pursue her medical career, Salzman used her G.I. bill to pay for pre-med classes she hadn’t taken with her undergraduate degree in psychology. 

It took a year of struggling to balance her family, work and school, but Salzman continued taking classes during her lunch break and studying for an hour after she tucked her kids in at night. Finally, she earned all the necessary credits to start medical school.

“My personal goals were to continue to be a good mom and wife, be predictable in my schedule, and make time for my family every day – just like I scheduled time for homework,” she said. “I would sometimes pick up my oldest son, who was five years old at the time, and bring him with me to the lunchtime class.”

To continue making time for her growing family during schooling, Salzman made sure to schedule weekly dates with her husband and have face-to-face time with him each night. 

“I wanted to make sure my family was not lost in the pursuit of my dream,” Salzman said.

By 2013, Salzman transitioned to active duty after attending the Uniformed Services University School of Medicine. Like all military training, USU is free of charge to its students. Before graduation, Salzman changed paths from pediatrics to study flight medicine and became a flight surgeon, adding another skill to her arsenal.

After earning her doctorate, Salzman worked with the Defense Health Agency to develop The Air Force Autism Navigator, a resource clinic for military families with children who have autism. The Autism Navigator is part of the Exceptional Family Member Program. It provides permanent change of station resources, and aims to reduce the amount of time children wait for medical care between duty stations. 

Salzman deployed in 2021 to the 435th Air Ground Operations Wing at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, where she felt another calling after making connections with Airmen assigned to the 37th Airlift Squadron. This time, it was to pursue a pilot-physician career through the Air Force Pilot-Physician Program.

The Pilot-Physician Program takes Air Force officers qualified as both flight surgeons and pilots, and places them in units who specifically request a pilot-physician. 

Salzman was approved by U.S. Air Forces in Europe – Air Forces Africa to be stationed with the 37th AS in 2022, and is now one of 10 pilot-physicians in the Air Force. Out of those 10, she is the only woman. 

With her expertise as a pilot-physician, Salzman can make recommendations to commanders and policymakers regarding aerospace medicine and implementing human considerations and human factor mitigation across the Air Force to help ensure the safety of aircrew. Currently, she is acting as the operational subject matter expert in the Air Force working group considering policy on pregnancy in aviation.

“If you have multiple interests, you can pursue multiple things,” she said. “My mother’s message was always to follow your dream. You don’t have to pick one thing, you just have to decide what you’ll do next. The things you’ve done before can add together to make you more valuable.” 

Whether on or off duty, Salzman follows the example set for her by her mother — continuing the family legacy of paving the way for women in the military.