VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- With each step on the flight line at Naval Air Station Oceana, Lieutenant Michelle Espinal walks a path few like her have traveled.
"Growing up, there's nothing I ever thought that I couldn't do, because I was a female," she recalls. "It's just not how the world was when I was born."
But she doesn't walk alone. Espinal is one of five female pilots in the same squadron. For these women, the cockpit of a fighter jet never seemed out of reach.
"That sounded like the most exciting, best thing I could possibly do," adds Lieutenant Amber Soma.
Meet the women of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 213, The Fighting Blacklions: Lieutenants Espinal, Somma, Rebecca Ryan, Mikayla Sakach and Natalie Sava.
"It's pretty epic, the job that we're doing," Sava says. "I think sometimes we get really wrapped up in the tactics and all that sort of stuff. But it's cool to take a step back and be like, wow, like, this is pretty rare."
Rare, even after almost 50 years. The Navy was the first branch of the U.S. Military to welcome female aviators. That was in 1974.
But it wasn't until nearly two decades later, 1993, when the military finally allowed women to fly combat missions.
Today, women make up about 12% of all Navy pilots.
The pace of progress can seem slow.
"There are some squadrons that still don't have very many women, especially not aircrew side," notes Lieutenant Rebecca Ryan. "But it's awesome, seeing more and more women out there on the flight line."
Though that doesn't diminish what these women — and those who flew before them -- have accomplished in the air and with each other.
"It's even cooler to be with each other and have such a great female support system that we do in the command," says Lieutenant Mikayla Sakach.
"We have a lot of mentors, a lot of role models that they didn't. They didn't have that in the past," Lieutenant Natalie Sava adds.
Role models like Commander Erin Flint, who works in a nearby hangar at NAS Oceana. As the commanding officer of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 131, The Wildcats, she leads more than 200 women and men each day.
"I want to do the best at my job, and I want to be the best at my job," Flint says.
Commander Flint didn't see many women in leadership roles when she started her Navy career, about 20 years ago. Today, she's the face of change.
"It is awesome when you speak to younger girls who look up to you. It's amazing to be in that position. And I just hope that I do it justice," she adds.
As the five women of VFA 213 soar to new heights above Virginia Beach, they become the role models for the next generation of Navy pilots. Back on the flight line, Lieutenant Espinal says to just go for it.
"Don't let anyone tell you that you can't do something — for any reason."