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Air Commando pursues dream of flying on AFSOC airframes

Air Commando pursues dream of flying on AFSOC airframes

U.S Air Force Capt. Holly Mapel is a combat systems officer and operational flight test director with the 18th Flight Test Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Florida. Mapel is an MC-130J Commando II aircrew member and regularly flies on other aircraft in order to test equipment and weapon systems used to accomplish Air Force Special Operations Command and U. S. Special Operations Command missions. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Andrea Posey)

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. --

As a child, she sat in front of the TV watching the “Top Gun” movie over and over again and listening to Tom Cruise proclaim, “I feel the need – the need for speed!” Watching the aircraft soar across the screen made it clear to her that she wanted to fly when she grew up.

The actor’s words weren’t the only reason U.S. Air Force Capt. Holly Mapel was inspired to join the military. She already had a sense of familiarity with the armed forces due to her family’s deep connection to it. 

“I knew I wanted to join the Air Force for as long as I can remember,” said Mapel, a combat systems officer and operational flight test director with the 18th Flight Test Squadron at Hurlburt. “Being an Air Force brat, I have been surrounded by the military my entire life – it is all I’ve ever really known. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of my dad, and multiple other family members, [to] serve in the military and fly.”

Mapel joined six months after graduating high school in 2001 and began her career as an enlisted aircrew flight equipment technician at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico.

“I spent seven years maintaining flight equipment that was used by Air Force Special Operations Command aircrew,” she said. “It was there where my desire to do something more with my career started.”

This aspiration led Mapel to enroll in school to earn her degree and commission. 

Although attending school and working a full time job can be difficult to do at the same time, Mapel felt she had enough support and time to accomplish these goals.

“I had some very supportive supervisors, both enlisted and officers, that encouraged going to school,” she said. “Being in Air Education and Training Command allowed me to have a pretty stable and consistent schedule that facilitated going to school.”

After receiving her degree and changing duty stations, Mapel arrived at Hurburt, where she applied for Officer Training School.

“OTS wasn’t anything that I had expected or planned for,” she said. “There were many nights the first couple of weeks that I was second guessing my decision to commission, but you lean on those that are going through it with you and think about why you wanted to do it in the first place and persevere.”

After commissioning, Mapel became a CSO with a specialization as an electronic warfare officer on the MC-130H Combat Talon II. A CSO is responsible for planning and executing low-level navigation and terrain clearance so personnel and equipment can be delivered to hostile areas. Additionally, CSOs operate and manage the aircraft’s defensive systems and airborne communication systems.

“I spent two years at the 15th Special Operations Squadron where I learned a lot but also [decided] I still wanted more,” Mapel said.

This need to expand her knowledge led Mapel to request a change of air frames, and it was the MC-130J Commando II that she had in her sights.

“I chose [the MC-130J] platform mainly because it was an easy transition of what I was already doing on the Talon IIs, but also because I love the mission of special operations forces mobility,” she said. 

The Commando II is flown in covert refueling missions for helicopters and tiltrotor aircraft, and conducts infiltration, exfiltration, and resupply of Special Forces by airdrop or air-land. Its secondary mission includes the airdrop of leaflets for informational counter terrorism methods.

After completing her mission qualification training, Mapel was assigned to the 9th Special Operations Squadron at Cannon AFB, New Mexico.

“I can honestly say that my time spent at the 9th Special Operations Squadron has been the best part of my career thus far,” she said. “As one of AFSOC’s specialized air mobility platforms, the MC-130J executes missions directed by higher authorities to ensure the theater commander’s strategic vision and objectives are accomplished.”

In 2018, Mapel certified as an operational flight test director and came to the 18th FLTS to further contribute to the mission.

Mapel now leads a team of officers, enlisted Airmen and civilians through the planning, execution and reporting phases of a test. The team tests new or updated equipment on AFSOC aircraft and weapons systems, advising senior-level decision makers on a system’s performance and deficiencies.

“Test directors ensure whatever gadget or software being tested is what the warfighter wants and needs,” she said. “It could be something that helps them execute their job more efficiently or save their lives. By testing and fielding new technology, we are keeping AFSOC relevant on an ever-changing battlefield.”

Mapel enjoys her current duties because it still allows her to fulfill her childhood dream.

“I love to fly and with both jobs, that’s what I get to do,” she said. “Whether I am performing crew duties as a CSO on an MC-130J or executing a test on another AFSOC platform, I get to do what I love.”

The commander of the 18th FLTS, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Rafael Bosch, believes Mapel embodies the three tenets of the Air Commando mission – Ready Today, Relevant Tomorrow, Resilient Always.

“Capt. Mapel is at the leading edge of the AFSOC and SOF mission,” Bosch said. “Her MC-130H background is absolutely invaluable as we move forward [with] the MC-130J [because] it is at the forefront of what AFSOC will be and is currently. She has been key to ensuring the squadron, as a whole, receives the correct training so we can all take care of each other when the time comes.”

Bosch added that Mapel is also one of only a handful of CSOs [in the Air Force] that has training on the new MC Terrain-Following radar system – a $480 million acquisition program. 

“This new radar will make the MC-130J a viable replacement for the MC-130H,” Bosch said. “Her role in the testing of this system will directly impact the future of AFSOC for generations to come.”

Mapel is able to see the direct impact she has on the bigger Air Force picture and that makes the job more enjoyable for her.

“AFSOC is vital to our nation’s security,” she said. “[We] provide specialized airpower and ground forces that are utilized by sister service’s special operations forces to conduct missions in contested environments. We work together as a team to accomplish our nation’s objectives.”

Mapel has a sense of pride being part of the AFSOC team because she is entrusted with carrying out some of the nation’s most important global endeavors.

“Every day I’m reminded of what it took to become a part of this family, which while small in comparison to other commands, is an incredible pool of specialized talent,” she said. “It is truly a commitment rather than an assignment and I’m proud to be committed to this team that is committed to me and my own family.”