As a little girl growing up on a dairy farm at Kenyon, Minnesota, Tammi dreamed of becoming an astronaut.
“I would sleep outside without a tent so I could look up at the stars,” she said.
After high school, Tammi enrolled at University of Minnesota Duluth. She joined the Air Force ROTC and changed her life’s goal to becoming a pilot.
“Getting a pilot training slot depends on your GPA and how much you participate in ROTC activities,” Tammi said. “My GPA wasn’t the best, so I participated as much as I could.”
Tammi graduated from college and received her officer’s commission on the same day. The autumn of 1999 found Tammi in undergraduate pilot training (UPT) in Oklahoma.
“UPT was 52 weeks of drinking from a fire hose,” Tammi recalled. “It was tough. The typical day was 12 hours long. There were 20 people in my class, and I was the only female.”
After earning her wings, Tammi was sent to combat and water survival school.
“We had to learn water and wilderness survival techniques. My teammate and I spent a night out in the woods during the winter. We made a cave under a tree root. It was extremely cold sleeping in the snow, but we survived.”
Tammi was assigned to fly the C-21, the military version of the Learjet 35A.
“We would fly high ranking military and other civic leaders to wherever they needed to be. One time we flew a C-21 all the way to Qatar. That is a long haul for a Learjet!”
Tammi’s next assignment was to McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma, Washington, to fly the colossal C-17 cargo jet.
“That was another challenge because of the mission capabilities of the airplane — air refueling, low level flying, assault landings, and night vision goggle operations,” said Tammi. “I was never a copilot in the C-17; it was very daunting to be in command from day one.”
At age 27, Tammi was deemed mission ready as an aircraft commander on the C-17. She was soon flying missions into places like Kabul and Baghdad. Air refueling over the Black Sea was frequently done at night. Tammi’s aircraft hauled anything from equipment to food to troops. The president’s helicopter, Marine One, has traveled in the belly of her plane. She flew several medevac missions out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Tammi has also had the sad duty of taking fallen soldiers on their final journeys home.
One of Tammi’s many aviation adventures involved flying supply missions to the National Science Foundation’s research station in Antarctica.
“We land on a runway made of six feet of sea ice,” she said. “The C-17 can sink inches into the snow while it’s being unloaded, so it takes extra thrust to get it rolling.”
In 2007, Tammi separated from active duty and joined the Air Force Reserve. She still flies the same C-17’s she flew on active duty. She remains ready to deploy anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice.
“I was hired into the Reserve in July of 2007,” Tammi said. “Many of my Reserve colleagues were flying for Alaska Airlines, so I applied for a job with them. The timing was impeccable. I was interviewed and hired by the airline in August. It’s been a juggling act of flying two different airplanes ever since!”
I asked Tammi if there are any major contrasts between hauling freight and hauling people.
“There are big differences in the handling characteristics of the aircraft,” she said. “You control the C-17 with fingertip pressure. The 737 is much more physical. And I don’t mind it if the air is a little bit bumpy. But I’m accustomed to making evasive maneuvers during takeoffs and landings or flying over the tops of thunderstorms at 40,000 feet.”
Despite big advances in gender equity, only 7% of airline pilots are women.
“Even today, as I walk through an airport, people will ask me if I’m a pilot,” Tammi said. “When I tell them that I am, they will say that they’ve never met a female pilot. We are a rarity.
“Some years ago, another female pilot and I flew a C-21 to an airshow in Texas. We were chatting about the aircraft with a young family when the father said ‘Wow, you’re really good at this. Have you ever thought about becoming an Air Force pilot?’ He was embarrassed when I pointed out that I already was. He had assumed that I was a flight nurse.”
Flying for Alaska Airlines has opened up new vistas for Tammi.
“I’ve seen some of the prettiest landscapes in the world, places like Juneau and Ketchikan and Kodiak. I’ve even flown into Prudhoe Bay, where it was -70.”
Due to slowdowns in the airline industry, Tammi is taking time off to motor to Minnesota with her husband and their 5-year-old son. They plan to visit relatives and perhaps, on a warm summer’s night, sit beneath the prairie sky and look up at the stars.