Lt. Col. Jennifer Avery was just a child when she realized she wanted to fly. A trip from her hometown of Miami to visit a relative at a South Carolina Air Force base left a lasting impression after her uncle took her for a spin in a flight simulator.
“That stuck with me, even to this day," she said in an Air Force release. "I thought flying was incredible.”
At about the same time, almost 3,000 miles away, in Great Falls, Montana, a young John Avery would routinely watch the Air Force’s F-16 Fighting Falcons flying overhead near Malmstrom Air Force Base, igniting a spark that would eventually flame into a passion for flight.
“I really wanted to fly,” Lt. Col. John Avery said. “And I joined the Air Force because I wanted to fly cool planes. I knew being a military pilot, I would be serving my country and have a pretty incredible day-to-day job at the same time.”
Years later, the married couple who made history as the first husband-wife duo to pilot the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, sat together at their Sept. 7 joint retirement ceremony at Whiteman AFB as Col. Jared Kennish, the best man at their wedding 13 years ago, addressed families and friends in attendance.
“It’s an honor to speak as John and Jennifer Avery retire from the Air Force, just as it was to speak at their wedding,” Kennish said. “This couple has made history.”
Different paths brought the history-making couple together, a journey that began back in the mid-1990s.
Jennifer graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1995 and was subsequently commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Air Force. John, meanwhile, finished an economics degree at Carleton College in Minnesota before being commissioned in 1999.
Both saw their childhood dreams become reality when Jennifer and John earned their pilot wings in 1997 and 2000, respectively.
By the time John reported to South Dakota’s Ellsworth AFB in 2000 to fly the B-1 Lancer, Jennifer was already a seasoned pilot who had made history in 1999 in Kosovo when she became the first female to fly the B-1 in combat.
John’s arrival piqued Jennifer’s interest.
“Who’s the new pilot?” she remembered thinking the first time she saw John. It wasn’t long before the two started dating.
But as the military has the tendency to do, dreams of romance were interrupted when, less than six months later, Jennifer left South Dakota to pursue a dream job of flying the B-2 stealth bomber.
“I was drawn to the challenge of flying this unique aircraft that has a mission so vital to deterrence and global safety,” she said. “To be one of the few pilots to fly this aircraft that is the backbone of nuclear security was an amazing prospect.”
Not long after being accepted into the B-2 program, Jennifer made history as the first woman to ever fly the aircraft. And in March 2003, she became the first woman — and remains the only one — to pilot the B-2 in combat, when she flew a mission in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“Jen is a trailblazer,” said Kennish. “Her career has been nothing short of spectacular. And the same can certainly be said for John, who chased Jen from South Dakota all the way to Missouri.”
John, as it turns out, wasn’t ready to let the life of a pilot interrupt a relationship that was quickly blossoming, so he applied to fly the same aircraft, something he said he never would have done had it not been for Jennifer.
“I wanted to fly the B-2 because that was the plane my future wife was going to fly,” he said. “That, and it’s without a doubt the world’s most elite aircraft. As a pilot, there’s nothing more rewarding. Knowing your job is to protect our country, while deterring enemies really is an amazing job to have.”
Accepted into the B-2 program, John soon found himself stationed with Jennifer and the two resumed dating. After marrying in Colorado in 2005, military life rapidly caught back up, as deployments and training assignments threw a wrench into harmonious matrimony.
Jennifer decided in 2007 to leave the feverish demands and high stress of active-duty, a difficult choice but one she felt necessary now that two young children were in the picture.
“That was the hardest day,” Jennifer remembers. “That drive to work was emotional. But, I felt in good conscience it was the right decision. At the same time, a lot of people believed in me. I’d had so much support along the way, including from John. ... More than anything, I just want my kids to be proud of their mom.”
She resumed flying the B-2 for the Missouri Air National Guard shortly after leaving active-duty. John, unsurprisingly, decided to join her, a move that led to his becoming the first guardsman to pilot the B-2 in combat when he flew a mission over Libya in 2011.
The couple combined for more than 4,000 career flying hours between them — Jennifer finished with over 1,600 and John with more than 2,500.
With the joint retirement ceremony drawing to a close, the two took a moment to reflect on their careers, their marriage and their accomplishments in both.
“We were able to support each other and fully appreciate the other’s successes and failures because we knew exactly what the other person was going through,” John said. “Yes, it was hard. There was a lot of give and take on both sides. We look back though, and have the best memories.”
“We’re a team,” Jennifer said. “We did it. All the way through. Together.”
Jon Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.