The last time Sarah Rhoads spoke with her hometown newspaper, she was flying combat missions over Iraq as the first female aviator in the U.S. Navy’s Black Aces squadron.
Now, Rhoads is continuing to break barriers as the director of Amazon Air, where she oversees Amazon’s growing air cargo business. Rhoads recently won Air Cargo World’s Air Cargo Executive of the Year Award for her role with Amazon, becoming the first woman to earn the distinction.
A 2002 article in The Montana Standard described Rhoads as humble — and by all indications, Rhoads hasn’t changed a bit, as she says it was the hard work of her team, not her individual effort, that landed the award.
Rhoads attributes her upbringing in the Mining City to the hard-working attitude that would later make her successful behind the cockpit and in her professional life.
“I think a lot of my work ethic I learned obviously from my parents but also the community as well — just the really hardworking community that also takes care of each other. And that’s something that I’ve carried with me, really, throughout my life,” said Rhoads.
Rhoads’ parents Bill and Carol Rhoads, a retired NorthWestern Energy employee and a former librarian, still live in the Mining City. The former fighter pilot does her best to get back to Butte a few times a year to visit.
“It was just an awesome place to grow up,” she said.
The Butte native says she knew she wanted to be a pilot early on in life.
It was an air show that came to Butte when she was seven years old that made her want to travel at the speed of sound, fly upside down and make loops in the sky.
As Rhoads grew older, her passion for the skies combined with a desire to serve her country.
She graduated from Butte High in 1995, the valedictorian of her class, and joined the Navy with the end goal of becoming a pilot, accepting an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy, where she studied mechanical engineering.
After years of training, Rhoads broke the sound barrier solo for the first time in 2002.
“It was a dream come true,” the Butte native said. “What I appreciated was all the work that it took to get to that point … all the study and the practice and the diligence.”
Rhoads was eventually assigned to Black Aces squadron at the Naval Air Station Lemoore in central California. She went on to spend 12 years on active duty in as an F-18 Super Hornet pilot, flying 37 combat missions during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
In 2011, Rhoads landed a job with Amazon as an operations manager. She moved up in the company, eventually becoming the director of Amazon Air.
Amazon Air launched in 2016 and now operates 40 Amazon Air planes and 21 air gateways around the country. As director, Rhoads oversees all of Amazon’s operations in the air.
Rhoads said the growth of the air cargo business has been challenging and rewarding at the same time, and the best part of her job is the people she works with — the team that she said made winning the Air Cargo World award possible.
When asked if she had a message for youth thinking about becoming fighter pilots, Rhoads stressed the importance of staying the course.
“Take it one day at a time and know that things might not always go the way a person planned,” She said. “But it’s also about grit and bounce-back and resilience.”