Editor’s note: This feature originally appeared in the Summer 2022 edition of STATE Magazine, a publication of the South Dakota State University Alumni Association.
Aimee Fiedler didn’t grow up in a military family and no one in her family was a pilot, but by sixth grade the South Texan knew she wanted to be a military pilot.
Now a U.S. Air Force F-16 Viper Demo Team pilot, the 2013 South Dakota State University grad will be back in the state this summer as the team’s commander, demonstrating the combat capabilities of F-16 fighter jets at the Sioux Falls Airshow, July 29-30.
Fiedler credits her aviation interest to a T-38 military pilot who attended the Fiedlers’ church. The pilot’s sons enrolled in service academies. That influenced the sixth grader to set a life goal of attending the U.S. Air Force Academy and becoming a military pilot.
By high school, she had become a soccer standout. While she did visit the Air Force Academy, Fiedler decided not to attend. A second cousin, Ashley Odegaard ’15 of Brookings, asked her, “Why don’t you come to South Dakota State? They have a really good soccer team. They just qualified for the national tournament.”
Fiedler decided to visit, and “as soon as I showed up, it felt like home. I walked on campus, and it was the perfect size. It was cool to have extended family there. After meeting (the coach) and the team, I just loved the team,” said Fiedler, who today is stationed at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumpter, South Carolina.
But in spring 2009, Fiedler was planning a prelaw track. “I didn’t even know SDSU had an aviation program,” she said.
Soccer and aviation: The ideal combo
Former SDSU soccer coach Lang Wedemeyer noticed on her resume that she had received an aviation scholarship in high school. He referred her to SDSU Aviation Program faculty to learn more about aviation opportunities at SDSU. “I can fly and play soccer? Sign me up,” said Fiedler, now suddenly thrilled about living in South Dakota.
She dropped soccer after two years to give her more time to fly. She started instructing other students prior to her 2013 graduation and then spent another year instructing.
The next stop was Navy Flight Center, instructing midshipmen at Annapolis, Maryland, a civilian position. The middies would ask her, “If you like flying, why aren’t you flying for the military?” Fiedler said, “Once I decided not to go to the Air Force, I thought my military pilot options were gone.” What Fiedler didn’t know about was Officer Training School.
When the future naval officers told her about Officer Training School, she applied, beginning an eight-month process that included placement tests, medical screenings and being ranked versus other applicants.
So, at age 25, she began Officer Training School in summer 2016 at Montgomery, Alabama. She was commissioned as a second lieutenant in September 2016 and sent to flight school at Columbus (Mississippi) Air Force Base. The first six months are spent learning to fly the T-6, a basic training plane. The 27 class members were then ranked.
Fiedler was one of seven chosen to be trained as a fighter pilot. The others would learn to fly cargo planes.
Selected for F-16
Her group trained on the T-38, and then the pilots were matched with their future aircraft.
“When I was going through, F-16 (pilot slots) were backlogged. It just happened, the night before my assignment night, the next class started getting F-16 assignments,” said Fiedler, who was one of two chosen for the F-16.
That was 2018 and “once you’ve gained your Air Force wings, you owe the Air Force 10 years,” she said. The pilot also is matched with the aircraft for duration.
Selection was followed by a month of survivor’s school—wilderness school and prisoner-of-war training—and 12 more weeks on the T-38 to be introduced to fighter jet fundamentals. In January 2019, nearly a year after being selected to fly F-16s, Fiedler actually began to train on F-16s. That nine-month course includes six weeks on how to fly the F-16 and the remainder on how to engage the F-16 in combat.
In November 2019 she began her first mission, serving as a wingman for one year at Kunsan Air Base 2 ½ hours south of Seoul, South Korea.
Becomes part of Viper team
Next stop was Shaw Air Force Base, where she learned about the Viper demo team. Viper is the F-16 moniker. The demonstration team performs 21 air shows per year. The lead pilot is the only officer. Seven enlisted personnel provide ground support. The previous demo pilot was in Fiedler’s squadron and invited her as an observer.
She spent July-December 2021 in that role knowing she would become lead pilot when the current pilot’s assignment changed.
On March 5, 2022, Fiedler’s new role was certified by a four-star general, and now she is the public face of the F-16.
On board with NFL legend
But a month earlier she got to perform F-16 acrobatics with NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner. The Feb. 6, 2022, Super Bowl pitted the Los Angeles Rams vs. the Cincinnati Bengals. Warner was the Rams quarterback when the Rams last won a Super Bowl in 2000. The Air Force conducted a five-plane flyover prior to last year’s game in L.A.
On Feb. 3, 2022, NFL Films and Warner came to Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos, California, to let Warner experience the F-16.
Warner was airborne for about an hour and taken on various climbs, rolls and dives as Capt. Fielder showed her piloting prowess and the capabilities of the long-revered F-16 Falcon. Upon landing, Warner disembarked and showed his appreciation for both his pilot’s skills and being back on the ground without having to “use the bag.”
Not for the faint of heart
Flying an F-16, especially in an air show, “is very G intensive. I am pulling 6 to 9 G’s the entire time. It’s very violent. It really hurts your body,” Fiedler said.
“When you pull high G’s, the capillaries under your skin will burst. You will look like you have a blood rash on you. It feels like fire ants crawling on you. The blood wants to drain from your brain with the gravity forces so our whole breathing technique is to keep our blood in our brain and keep our lungs inflated so they don’t collapse under the weight.
“Newcomers will say, ‘This hurts. Why do you do it?’ Now it’s more of an instinct (for me). You get used to it,” Fielder said.
‘It is not about the fact I’m a girl’
She also has gotten used to the spotlight that comes with being the lead Viper demo pilot.
Fiedler is only the second female demo pilot, so inevitably questions broach the topic of being a female standard bearer.
“It is not about the fact I’m a girl that’s doing a job. The most important thing to realize is if you can meet the standard, you can do the job. It doesn’t matter what you look like. It doesn’t matter how old or young you are. If you can do the job, you can do the job,” Fiedler said.
“In going through pilot training, I saw a lot of men not meet the standard. I saw a lot of women not meet the standard. I saw a lot of men exceed the standard. I saw a lot of women exceed the standard. The jet is a great equalizer. The jet doesn’t care who you are.”