Special Ops RPA pilot returns to Academy, mentors cadets

  • Published
  • By Jennifer Spradlin
  • U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. – Captain Cristina Kellenbence didn’t grow up wanting to become a pilot; she came to the Air Force Academy looking for a quality education.

No one in her immediate family served in the military, and she had no idea what to expect from the Academy or what career to pursue after graduation. Kellenbence said she chose aviation after her close friend convinced her of its merits.

“Fear is something that holds a lot of people back from trying. I was super scared to go to pilot training, and I am so grateful that I did because it became something I enjoy and love,” she said.

Kellenbence, a 2010 graduate, is a remotely piloted aircraft pilot for Air Force Special Operations Command. She was a pilot instructor at Columbus Air Force Base,  Mississippi, before transitioning to unmanned aircraft. 

“I would say RPAs have been fantastic; this community is growing. It is the way the Air Force is going,” she said.  “It has been so rewarding being able to fight the fight downrange and still be able to come home to my family at night.”

Earlier this year the Academy reached out to Kellenbence to join its new Rated Mentor Program. The program was launched in support of the National Defense Strategy and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s Rated Diversity Initiative to increase engagement with underrepresented groups. 

“Our Air Force's rated talent has primarily been sourced from a narrow candidate field,” said Jesse Johnson, senior diversity and inclusion analyst for the Academy’s Culture, Climate and Diversity office. “Complex global challenges require creative solutions, and diversity tends to increased innovation and creativity.”

Kellenbence’s parents are Ecuadorian and Argentinian; she identifies as Hispanic. She welcomed the opportunity to mentor cadets and have frank conversations about her mistakes and successes.

“I have zero regrets about going to the Academy because it taught me to make the best of every situation I have been in since,” she said. “I know I am exactly where I am supposed to be, and I’m happy to share that with cadets as someone who went through what they’re going through not so long ago.”

Kellenbence and other RAMPs are projected to attend major Academy events such as the National Character & Leadership Symposium, class reunions and athletic and affinity club events – in addition to mentoring individual cadets throughout the year.

Program leaders are also working to have cadets participate in Air Education and Training Command-sponsored "Fly-Ins” to increase their exposure to aviation.