An Air Force Academy graduate and trainee pilot won the Miss America pageant Sunday, the first active duty service member to win the crown.

Air Force 2nd Lt. Madison Marsh won the title of Miss America 2024 on Sunday in Orlando, Florida. She competed at the pageant as Miss Colorado, a title she won last spring as a senior at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

Marsh graduated from the Academy as a 2nd Lt. in June with a pilot training slot. 

In December, the Air Force released videos of Marsh taking a familiarization flight in an F-16D, with the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron, at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. The F-16D is a training version of the F-16 fighter, with two seats rather than one. Familiarization flights are non-dedicated sorties that are separate from normal pilot training.

A series of Department of Defense public affairs’ videos show Marsh preparing for the flight. In one video, Marsh is sitting alongside other students for a briefing on the emergency equipment, practicing her parachute release and being measured for a helmet. She performs a pre-flight inspection of the plane in a second video and the final clip is of her during the flight.

The video captures the fighter whizzing through canyons and over desert landscapes at low altitudes. In an instagram post, Marsh said she flew with the squadron’s only female fighter pilot.

Marsh’s parents encouraged her love of science by sending her to Space Camp when she was 13 years old. Two years later she began flying lessons and earned her pilot’s license at 15. She went on to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy to become a pilot.

Air Force photo
Marsh holds up a certificate at the Air Force Academy that confirms her selection for pilot training after graduation. “12 year old Space Camp Madison would be crying… I know that because 21 year old Madison cried too✈️” she wrote on the post.

While at academy, Marsh studied physics and focused on astronomy. She interned with NASA to research gamma ray bursts and worked with the Etelman Observatory in the U.S. Virgin Islands to conduct limiting magnitude studies with the Virgin Islands Robotic Telescope.

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While at the academy, Marsh said she picked up pageants as an extracurricular activity.

“Pageants are changing and one of the ways is in what being physically fit means to women,” Marsh told the Air Force in a release.  “For me, it’s great because I need to stay physically fit and in the gym for the military, so it already coincides with pageant training.”

While not a typical pageant queen, Marsh has highlighted her military service in the competition’s talent portion. 

“I’m not conventionally talented. I cannot sing or dance,” Marsh said. “I gave a monologue about my very first solo flight at the age of 16 and how that shaped some of the fundamental leadership characteristics that I got to carry through into academy and then into my adult professional life.” 

Marsh is now working on her master’s degree from the Harvard Kennedy School through the Air Force Institute of Technology’s Civilian Institution Programs.

Beyond her military aspirations, Marsh has also been involved in cancer research after losing her 41-year-old mother to the disease in November 2018. She founded the Whitney Marsh Foundation which raises money for pancreatic cancer research, awareness, detection and patient care. The foundation hosts 5k and 10k runs in her hometown of Fort Smith, Arkansas and has raised a quarter of a million dollars over the years.

“I think before my mom passed, I didn’t really value time enough. I felt like I had wasted so much of it looking back that year that she was going through chemo and all the treatment that I was focusing on the wrong things, all of the little things,” Marsh said in a Miss America interview. “Being able to use that for me, to get up, live every day, enjoy it, don’t regret, take every moment that you get. And I think that is the giving that I’ve gotten through my grief of realizing my mom isn’t here but I still get to be.”

Marsh is also a two-time National Astronaut Scholar, U.S. Air Force Academy Superintendents List NASA intern, National Rhodes Finalist, a certified private pilot, and a black belt in taekwondo, according to Miss America.

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