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Female commander mentors USAFA cadet candidates during Women's History Month

  • Published
  • By Laura Fitzmorris
  • 302nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs

A mentor, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is someone who acts as a trusted counselor or guide. For 24-year Air Force veteran and commander, Col. DeAnna Franks, it means even more than that – it means inspiring the next generation of Airmen from the very beginning.

During Women’s History Month, Franks headed to the U.S. Air Force Academy’s Preparatory School in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to act as a mentor to and speak with cadet candidates March 20, 2023.

“With them just getting started, I had to think how I wanted to motivate them today to want to commission, graduate and do their five or ten years because they would start to think beyond that,” said Franks, 302nd Operations Group commander at Peterson Space Force Base. “They might think ‘maybe this isn’t for me’ and I would say how do you know until you’ve experienced it?”

Franks knew from the time she was in second or third grade that she wanted to be an Air Force officer, just like her dad. She enjoyed the experience of an overseas assignment when her father was stationed at Yokota Air Base, Japan, and always wanted to share a similar experience with her own daughter, Haylee.

“I didn’t know I wanted to fly or necessarily what I wanted to do in the Air Force, but I wanted to follow in my dad’s footsteps,” said Franks. “I used to ask him to find the shortest, smallest person he knew and borrow their flight suit for me to wear on Halloween.”


Left: 2nd Lt. DeAnna Haylett (Franks), U.S. Air Force Academy graduate Class of ‘99, pictured with her father, Lt. Col. (ret) Dean Haylett, USAFA graduate Class of ’73, during the graduation ceremony June 30, 1999. (Courtesy Photo)
Right: Cadet First Class DeAnna Haylett (Franks) poses for a photo at the Mountain West Conference swimming championships in February, 1999. Haylett, now Col. DeAnna Franks, 302nd Operations Group commander, was a four-year letter winner swimmer with the U.S. Air Force Academy. (Courtesy Photo)

Her dream was fulfilled when Franks got into the USAFA on a swim scholarship. After graduating in 1999, she went to pilot training in Columbus, Mississippi, where her instructor pilot recommended she pursue a career with the C-130 airframe.

“While you’re at the academy, you really feel the pressure to fly fighters,” said Franks. “But I love the idea of the crew concept, I like to work with a team. I knew the C-130 would be my best bet.”

Franks shared a few stories with the cadet candidates about what it is like to be a female in a predominantly male military. Her graduating class in 1999 was made up of approximately 18% females while the 2022 graduating class had 25%. During pilot training, Franks said she tended to be one of two females in a 25 to 30-person class.

“I’ve been to many meetings and trainings where I am the only female sitting at the table,” said Franks. “But throughout my career, I’ve never felt that was awkward or uncomfortable. Since my time at the Academy, which I’m thankful for, all the other guys are my brothers, teammates, and support network. We work together to get things done. I never felt any major conflict or competition because the competition was within myself. I always want to be the best pilot I can be, the best leader and commander. I’m not the ‘only female’ here, I’m the person here that needs to get the job done.”

I never felt any major conflict or competition because the competition was within myself. I always want to be the best pilot I can be, the best leader and commander.

- Col. DeAnna Franks

While there are still challenges for females in the Air Force, such as height restrictions for pilots, Franks feels the force is moving in the right direction to be more inclusive. Currently, an individual must be 5 feet, 4 inches tall to meet the height requirement and cannot surpass 6 feet, 6 inches.

“Waivers and adjustments have been made to things like the flight deck, cockpit and the seat itself – seat height, seat cushion – so those women struggling to meet that height requirement can get there,” said Franks. “The Air Force has also made a lot of uniform changes and accommodations, such as body armor, maternity clothes and modified ‘G-suits’ that have really helped remove barriers for females.”


Left: Col. DeAnna Franks, 302nd Operations Group commander, answers questions from cadet candidates after a mentorship brief, U.S. Air Force Academy’s Preparatory School, Colorado Springs, Colorado, March 20, 2023. (Courtesy Photo)
Right: 2nd Lt. DeAnna Haylett (Franks) poses with a T-37 aircraft during undergraduate pilot training, Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi, January 2000. (Courtesy Photo)

Franks also focuses on educating the male cadets in class, feeling it’s beneficial for them to understand comradery with teammates regardless of gender.

“Because the percentage of females is still fairly low in the military, I want the male cadets to understand the teamwork concept with their fellow female cadets,” said Franks “It’s important that they also look to help them grow as Airmen and understand we’re on the same side.”

Even though Franks said she takes extreme pride in the experiences she’s had pioneering new feats as the ‘first female to,’ she thinks it is important that women in the military move toward overall mission equality.

“With the growth we’re seeing of females joining the military, especially in command and leadership roles, we’re starting to see the last of the ‘firsts,’ which is important,” said Franks. “I’ve had a few of those throughout my career and I’ll always be so proud of those experiences. It’s also important to move past that and focus on the mission.”

During her brief, Franks pulled up a slide and asked if anyone in the crowd recognized the individual pictured beside her. Football recruit cadet candidate Arden Jenkins raised his hand and informed everyone that it was his mom, Lt. Col., retired, Naviere Walkewicz and 2019's Ms. Veteran America. Walkewicz spent 23 years in the Air Force before retiring, seven as active duty and 16 in the AF Reserve.

"Col. Franks and I were roommates at the Academy," said Walkewicz during an interview. "DeAnna, as I knew her, was destined for all the things she has proven true, with the sky being the limit for this Air Force leader! I remember her being such a strong academic, military and athletic superstar, and I looked up to her."

The two experienced many adventures together, according to Walkewicz, including surviving basic training, academic challenges and having to cut their hair short. 

"There was a moment when DeAnna and I were together, standing in front of our mirror in our newly allowed civilian clothing," said Walkewicz. "We were pinning our hair back in it's awful grow-out stage with bobby pins and I remember thinking - we're going to make it here."

Walkewicz said she faced a number of challenges throughout her career, but she saw them as opportunities. Specifically, she remembers there being a lack of female representation in the transportation and logistics career fields where she served.

"Noticeably less female officer leaders and role models to learn from and, in general, less consideration for some of our basic needs like nursing stations for new mothers," said Walkewicz. "I have absolutely seen changes since then and like to believe that my peers and I are part of that transformation and will continue to support ongoing efforts of recruiting more incredible female leaders." 

Now serving in the Association of Graduates at the Academy, Walkewicz gets to see Franks from time-to-time, especially in her mentorship role.

"I think she's always been gifted in this way - seen as someone who's perspective you immediately valued," said Walkewicz. "DeAnna mentored her peers, me included, to be our best. And now, I've seen her mentoring young men and women who will soon take their journey at the Academy."


Left: Col. DeAnna Franks, 302nd Operations Group commander, poses with her mentee, Brianna "Bella" Borris, Class of '27, U.S. Air Force Academy Preparatory School, in front of a C-130 belonging to the 302nd Airlift Wing at the Colorado Springs Pikes Peak Regional Airshow, September, 2022. (Courtesy Photo)
Right: Col. DeAnna Franks, 302nd Operations Group commander, stands beside Brianna "Bella" Norris, Class of '27, at the U.S. Air Force Academy's Preparatory School, August, 2022. (Courtesy Photo)

As Franks moves toward more mentorship opportunities in the future, she shared a few closing words of advice.

“When in your current job or role in the Air Force, work to be the best technical expert in your field and then allow yourself capability to grow in leadership and professional development by being open and available to learn from other Airmen in their specific fields,” said Franks. “Our Air Force provides so many incredible opportunities, it's a matter of seeking out those desires and then being willing to explore, experiment and, ultimately, broaden your own Air Force career. The sky is the limit!”


Left: Col. DeAnna Franks, Class of ’99 and current Air Force Reserve’s 302nd Operations Group commander, Peterson Space Force Base, Colorado, pictured with her father, Lt. Col. (ret) Dean Haylett, Class of ’73, and her younger brother, Col. Marshal Haylett, Class of ’02 and now Air National Guard’s 145th Operations Group commander, Charlotte, N.C. (Courtesy Photo)
Right: 15-year-old Haylee Franks poses for a photo with her mom, Col. DeAnna Franks, 302nd Operations Group commander, Peterson Space Force Base, Colorado. (Courtesy Photo)