Meet the Pilot: Capt. Aimee 'Rebel' Fiedler

Sep 01, 2022

Capt. Aimee “Rebel” Fielder assumed the role of F-16 Demonstration pilot during the 2022 Heritage Flight Training Conference, but her journey to command was far from ordinary.

 Before joining the Air Force, Fiedler was a collegiate athlete at South Dakota State University and a civilian flight instructor with hundreds of hours in the cockpit. She transitioned from instruction to military service in 2016, graduating from the Air Force’s Officer Training School. Since completing her fighter training 2018, she has served in Korea and with the 20th Fighter Wing at Shaw Air Force Base.

As the commander of the demonstration team, Fiedler showcases the combat capabilities of one of the Air Force’s premier multi-role fighter aircraft: the F-16 Fighting Falcon, also known as the “Viper.” She is currently stationed at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, S.C., where she leads the eight-member team at more than 20 air shows annually.

We sat down with “Rebel” to learn more about her path from civilian pilot to commander as she prepares to showcase the F-16 next month at the Cleveland National Air Show.

Q: What first sparked your passion for flying? When did you realize you wanted to fly for the military?

A: I was introduced to aviation early on growing up close to Randolph Air Force Base in Texas, so airplanes were always flying overhead. It wasn’t a foreign concept to meet pilots or know pilots. We had a close friend who attended our church and was a T-38 pilot – one of his sons went to the Naval Academy – one went to the Air Force Academy, so we were close with them and would always talk about flying. I was always interested in being an astronaut, so I had been doing research as a child and I remembered reading that military pilots have a good shot of becoming astronauts. I took that information and decided I wanted to be an Air Force pilot around sixth grade. I didn’t end up going to an academy, but I was able to major in aviation at South Dakota State University and became a flight instructor. After I graduated, I moved out to Annapolis to work at the Naval Academy and that’s what reinvigorated my dream of flying for the military. I had reached a point in my civilian career where I was going to either step into an airline or corporate role or I could spend my time giving back to serve my country while doing what I loved. Once I realized I had that opportunity I was full speed ahead.

Q: What lessons did you learn as a college athlete that have helped you in your current career?

A: As a collegiate student-athlete, you go from being a big fish in a small pond – where you’re the most talented or hard-working person – and you go to the Division I program and all of a sudden you’re surrounded by a group of the most talented and hard-working players. I was working so hard my freshman year and putting in a ton of time, but I wasn’t playing. I realized that if you’re really on a team and you want your team to win, it doesn’t matter if it’s you on the field. I wasn’t the one who was going to produce the results on the field the coach wanted, and I learned the best person for the team should play. All these concepts directly relate to how a fighter community works. On the Viper Demo team, everyone is talented but it’s about who is the best for the job at that time.

Q: What sparked your interest and passion for aviation education? Have you always wanted to teach others?

A: I actually started out as a pre-law major and then an aviation management major. Teaching was not always on my mind, and I didn’t know I’d have a passion for it. There were two tracks in the major, and you could do management or education. My parents are both engineers and they were adamant on taking the technical route, so I chose management. By my junior year there were only two people in the management program, so the school ended up absorbing us into the education track, as you become an instructor regardless. I didn’t know I would love teaching, but once I started, I fell in love with it. I remember those lightbulb moments where things seemed foggy, and all of a sudden, the lightbulb turns on and you get it. I wanted to help other people find those lightbulb moments and ended up teaching for almost five years before joining the military.

Q: Between flight instruction and piloting, which do you find to be more rewarding and why?

A: As a civilian, the teaching side of it was really what motivated me every day because you’re giving so much to your students. On the military side, you find so many things to motivate you. Military aviation culture, more specifically fighter pilot culture, is that you’re never done and are always working towards something. I do miss teaching and it’s something I’ll eventually get back to, but I wouldn’t say one is more rewarding than the other because both are extremely gratifying.

Q: Can you talk about the differences between pilot and fighter training?

A: Pilot training is a different type of stress. Some people have dreamed of flying since they were 2 years old. Everyone is trying to outwork each other, and they’re worried about their class rank and all of that. It is very stressful and then you add on having to learn things you’ve never done before, like instrument flying. Once you get to your specific airframe, the mindset changes because now you can breathe a sigh of relief that you know what plane you’ll be flying for the military. You can put all your time and energy into being the best at the one jet you’re assigned to. With fighter training, none of this competition goes away, but it’s still the team concept. You want to be the one put in the game, but you still must make sure you’re elevating those around you.

Q: You have a unique background in general aviation/civilian flying prior to your career with the Air Force. How did this better prepare you for your current role with the Viper Demo Team?

A: I owe a lot of my success on Viper Demo to my civilian career. I had 10 years of learning and I gained a lot of airmanship, and a lot of those skills directly transferred to my success throughout pilot training. Some things actually held me back, since the Air Force operates under a very different mindset versus a civilian pilot. I had to learn a completely different set of rules and I had to even unlearn some habits to establish new ones. The demo team gave me the opportunity to get back to my roots a bit and use all the skills I originally learned, like planning my own flights and fuel paths.

Q: Tell us about the moment you learned you were the new Viper Demo Team pilot.

A: My hands were very sweaty. There was so much anticipation leading up to it. I knew that if I got it, it would change both my career and my personal life. I had hoped I was going to get it because of the existing relationship I had formed with the team in my time as a Safety Observer last season. After 24 hours I finally got called into our previous wing commander’s office and he told me I got it. We had previously served together in Korea, so it was a full circle moment to get the news from him. It felt surreal.

Q: Can you walk us through the process of being certified for the Viper Demo Team and the Air Force Heritage Flight program?

A: The syllabus for my upgrade was 17 total flights. You spend the first two in the backseat, and the next nine or 10 with another pilot in the backseat. I struggled at first with the flying because it’s very different than what we do in the tactical world. It was difficult because we were so high up and executing maneuvers was challenging. After returning from Christmas break I had that lightbulb moment where it just clicked. My maneuvers started looking good and it kept getting better. Heritage Flight team training was fun, honestly. It was one of the most exhausting weeks of my life because you’re flying up to three times a day, which is very physically taxing. Flying with the heritage aircraft was a very nostalgic, emotional and surreal feeling. You read about them as a kid and you see them at airshows, but to fly in a formation with them is one of the coolest things I’ll ever get the privilege to do.

Q: Have you ever flown in a Warbird? Is there one on your bucket list?

A: I got a backseat ride in the P-51 Mustang at Heritage Flight training – that was a bucket list moment for me. It was truly amazing.

Q: As the newest Viper Demo Team pilot, what advice have you received from the other Demo pilots? What would your advice be to young women hoping to become a pilot?

A: It’s really a balancing act. The job used to be long hours at the squadron, but you come home and you’re home. Demo team is different because now you have a presence on social media, people want to talk to you at airshows on the weekends, and it’s much more public visibility, which is not typical as a fighter pilot. A lot of the advice I’ve received from current Demo team pilots has been around navigating people, and recognizing that if people come up to you and they’re rude (especially about me being a female pilot), they are truly not worth your time.

Becoming a pilot has nothing to do with being a girl – the jet doesn’t care who you are, what you look like or how young you are. The people you work with don’t care about that either, because they respect you for what you can do and what you can bring to the table. I’ve never had anyone question me for being a woman because I show up to work, do my job, work hard and am prepared. I don’t want girls to come in with the mindset that they have to jump extra hurdles just because of their gender. It’s always about being as qualified and as prepared as you can be. You should always work hard to set yourself up for any kind of success you’re pursuing in life.

Q: You were able to take former NFL star Kurt Warner on an incentive flight in the F-16 ahead of this year’s Super Bowl. Any notable anecdotes from that flight you can share?

A: I candidly have never been so scared in an F-16. We took off and were only 3,000 feet above the ground in Los Angeles air space, which is extremely complicated. My special guest was way too large to be in the backseat of an F-16, and his knee was resting against the control stick, so we flipped completely inverted out of nowhere and I had to quickly yell, “Put your knees together.” He soon did and we went back upright, but it was truly an unexpected surprise. Then we were out in the airspace doing flips and tricks, which isn’t for the faint of heart, but he didn’t want to end the experience despite not feeling 100 percent because he knew it was such a cool opportunity. I ended up burning down the fuel so we wrapped a bit early.

Q: If you could bring anyone in the world on an incentive flight (celebrity, family, athlete), who would it be and why?

A: I would take Peloton instructor Alex Toussaint – he is motivation embodied in a human. He can always get me to work out. I wish I could have a quarter of the energy he has.

Q: What historical aviator do you look up to most, and why?

A: My obvious answer is Robin Olds. We can get really bogged down in the rules and red tape, but all his stories inspire us to keep fighting back on what makes sense and how to solve problems. It’s important to follow the rule book, but he showed that sometimes it’s okay to challenge and build upon the status quo.

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