Lt. Calli Zimmerman’s tenure with the U.S. Navy has taken her to many locations. During her last deployment, she landed her F-18 fighter jet aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in places like Spain, Oman, and Bahrain. But touching down for landing in those areas could never compare to what she will feel as her jet descends upon the runway when she flies in for the Truckee Tahoe Air Show & Family Festival this Saturday.
“It’s going to be pretty cool to basically land in my most favorite place in the world with the people that I love watching,” said Zimmerman, 33, who spent her childhood splitting time between the Bay Area and her parents’ second home in Truckee. “I’ve got my family — my mom, my dad, my sister — that are going to be coming to watch me fly in. And that’s always a special moment when they get to see me actually do what I do after talking to them every single day about [it].”
As a retired C-130 pilot of the U.S. Air Force, her father likely has a pretty good handle on what it is she does day after day. Zimmerman credits her dad, Paul Zimmerman, for introducing her to the world of aeronautics, taking her for her first flight in his own small airplane. While that was all it took for her to get hooked on flying, it was witnessing high-speed aerobatics at air shows that really piqued her interest in flying for the military.
“I would say the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds, going to air shows, really solidified that path to actually go into the fighter community,” she said.
Zimmerman enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 2013 and over the past nine years has worked her way up through the ranks. Not an easy road for anyone, but especially not for a woman in a heavily male-dominated field.
“In this business, being a woman, you have to really keep your head down and stay in the books and also just be good [at what you do],” she said. “There’s really no room for error when it comes to being in a male-dominated field. I would say keeping at it and keeping yourself in the jet and keeping your studies sharp is what’s going to break you out amongst the rest.”
Just as Zimmerman herself was once a young girl with big dreams, she encourages today’s younger generation to pursue their dreams and find the right people that know the information to get you where you need to go.
Currently stationed in Southern California at Naval Air Station Lemoore, Zimmerman works as a flight instructor to instill these traits in all her students — her “kids” as she jokingly calls them. She spends about a year teaching the newbies coming through to fly the F-18. After graduating, they are sent off for fleet readiness training, in which they will spend around three years completing a sea tour.
Zimmerman said it’s hard to pinpoint the best part of her journey so far as each new chapter brings with it something exciting.
“It depends on the stage of my career,” she said. “I would say [while] going through training as a student, the favorite part was just meeting the people and learning the airplane. Once I got to the actual fleet … my favorite part was developing my skills as a pilot but also becoming what we call landing signal officer … Once I got to an instructor phase, which I’m at right now … I think the most rewarding part is taking them to the ship and teaching them to land on the ship and seeing that light bulb come on when they make a successful arrestment [rapid deceleration of an aircraft] on the ship. It’s very rewarding.”
On the big screen, movies like this summer’s blockbuster hit, Top Gun: Maverick — which had scenes filmed above the Sierra Nevada around Lake Tahoe as well as at Moffett Federal Airfield in Mountain View — tend to sensationalize the experience of going through the military and putting in the endless hours of hard work and dedication it takes to nab the coveted position of a fighter pilot. But it’s not all glamorized. At least when it comes to the flying, much of what moviegoers saw was the real deal, Zimmerman said. This she can say with certainty because a number of pilots from her squadron were the ones at the yoke.
“We had a lot of instructors in my squadron who were part of that movie, and they actually did the flying. So, what you’re seeing with an airplane at 30 feet above the ground, that’s actually happening,” Zimmerman said. “Of course, there’s some that is for theatrics and very glamorized for the action of the movie, but for the most part, the low-level … which is flying very close to the ground, all that is real. They did a very good job portraying the flying in that movie.”
While she wasn’t part of the excitement for Top Gun, Zimmerman will be a local celebrity in her own right when she comes to town for the July 23 Truckee Tahoe Air Show and Family Festival. After all, it’s not every day that an F-18 fighter jet flies into the Truckee Tahoe Airport.
Zimmerman sees the coming air show as a great way for people to connect not only with the airport itself but also with the surrounding community.
“I think it’s super important because I think people need to realize that it’s not just a vacation destination spot. People actually live there, and people work there, and people go to school there,” she said. “I think it’s important people realize that and … to have that kind of interaction is pretty important when it comes to Truckee having an air show.”