April 15, 2024

Jeannie Leavitt in flight suit with fighter jet in background
Photo Credit: SSGT Ryan Sanders/U.S. Air Force

Retired Maj. Gen. Jeannie M. Leavitt, the U.S. Air Force’s first female fighter pilot and a 1990 graduate of The University of Texas at Austin, will deliver the keynote address at UT’s 141st Spring Commencement on May 11. The ceremony is expected to draw more than 50,000 attendees and will be held at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.

During her 31 years of service, Leavitt logged more than 3,000 hours of flight time, including over 300 hours of combat flying in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Maj. Gen. Leavitt broke much more than the sound barrier when she first took to the skies as a fighter pilot. She set an example of great persistence in pursuing her dreams, resilience in the face of disappointment, and being prepared for unforeseen opportunities,” said President Jay Hartzell. “In many ways she represents this year’s graduates, who entered UT physically detached from our campus at the start of the pandemic and adapted so they could succeed. I am incredibly proud that Maj. Gen. Leavitt blazed her remarkable trail as a Longhorn.”

RELATED: 'Captain Cockrell' Jeannie Leavitt set a course for future generations of female fighter pilots, including members of the Marvel Universe.

An alumna of the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, Leavitt went to pilot training at Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio. She was the top graduate of her class. By 1992, Congress had changed the law to allow women in combat aviation, but the Department of Defense still prohibited women in any combat roles. Figuring the Department of Defense could not ignore Congress forever, she went against her leadership’s advice and requested the F-15E Strike Eagle. She was told she was not eligible for that assignment and directed to make another selection.

In April 1993, Leavitt was training to become an instructor pilot in the T-38 Talon trainer aircraft when her career took a dramatic turn. The Department of Defense changed its policy, and the Air Force remembered her request to fly the Strike Eagle. She was flown to Washington, D.C., for a press conference at the Pentagon, where the Air Force announced that she would be their first female fighter pilot. In 1998, Leavitt became the first female pilot to graduate from Weapons School, the Air Force equivalent of the Navy’s Top Gun.

Leavitt grew up in St. Louis and came to UT because she wanted to study aerospace engineering. Though she never flew as a child because of her mother’s fear of flying, she wanted to be a pilot, and at UT joined Air Force ROTC. When she achieved her goal, Leavitt remembers that most of her peer pilots accepted her, but many from the prior generation did not. Leavitt says that her own experience with loneliness in her efforts to become a fighter pilot gives her empathy with this year’s graduates, who persisted through the loneliness of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I am honored to join the class of 2024 for their commencement ceremony,” Leavitt said. “These graduates showed incredible grit as they persevered through the pandemic. Rather than focus on how their lives were impacted by COVID, they focused on actions they could control and excelled in their endeavors at UT. With courage, compassion and commitment, the Longhorn class of 2024 will change the world.”

Leavitt consulted with Marvel Studios during the filming of the 2019 movie “Captain Marvel.” Wanting it to be an authentic representation of a female fighter pilot, she put her heart and soul into working with actor Brie Larson.

“I think that a lot of the tenacity and the spunk and the attitude of ‘Captain Marvel’ really was based off of Gen. Leavitt,” said retired Lt. Col. Caroline Jensen in Leavitt’s tribute video when Leavitt received the Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2023 from the Texas Exes.

“One of her great hallmarks is how she made any team she was a part of better,” said retired Lt. Gen. Steve Kwast in the same tribute. “She would uplift the condition of the entire team with the way she approached the human piece of this very difficult job of putting your life at risk, fighting another human being that can be equally as good, and always finding a way to win and to bring your team home alive.”

After a long list of service, including a return to Weapons School as an instructor, Leavitt retired from the Air Force in 2023. Her awards and decorations for heroism and meritorious service include the Distinguished Service Medal, the Defense Superior Service Medal, the Legion of Merit with oak leaf cluster, and the Bronze Star. Leavitt now lives in New Braunfels with her husband and children.