The Air Force’s 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year for 2023 will be formally recognized at AFA’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference from Sept. 11-13 in National Harbor, Md. Air & Space Forces Magazine is highlighting one each weekday from now until the conference begins. Today, we honor Tech. Sgt. Kimberly R. Mastrocola, the Noncommissioned Officer in Charge (NCOIC) of Wing Project Integration with the 1st Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field, Fla.
Mastrocola is a professional innovator. Working with the 1st Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt, she primarily finds creative solutions to complex problems using Science, Technology, Math, and Engineering (STEM). She leads the way for her wing to operationalize 3D-printing prototypes and computer coding across the Force—and beyond.
Collaborating with SOFWERX, a DEFENSEWERX platform that helps U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) develop innovative solutions to warfighter problems, Mastrocola led several special-operations-focused project integrations for her wing’s innovation cell. One integration was the first-ever U-28 water egress simulator, which Mastrocola’s team delivered to Hurlburt’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) squadron and trained SERE specialists on its applications.
“It’s basically a pontoon boat with the fuselage built on it in steel,” she said. “It was [designed] so that the U-28 crews could do their water survival training, but in more of an environment that was actually parallel to the aircraft and not just a raft.”
Mastrocola also served as the lead project officer for three data science events under the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s Strategic Studies Group in 2022. She organized the events, which were rapid-prototype, problem-solving marathons where white-hat hackers and subject matter experts worked as a team to solve real-world cybersecurity problems in just a few days. When the prototype was designed, the teams would present their solutions in hopes of receiving funding—resulting in 39 immediately deployable solutions for the DOD.
“All those 39 projects came from use cases within Special Operations,” Mastrocola said. “Solving these things normally [costs] hundreds of thousands of dollars to research, implement, and then actually pay for a solution … [But] for the cost of the event and what [came] out of it, [we] decreased orders of magnitude by, like, 100 times cheaper than the normal prototyping path.”
But for all the impact her innovative, creative, and organizational skills have made on the Air Force, Mastrocola said her favorite part of her job is sharing her passion for STEM with community students.
The 1st SOW partners with the HSU Educational Foundation, a nonprofit STEM education organization, to teach STEM classes to kids in the local community. She leveraged the partnership to become a community leader in STEM mentorship, working with local Girl Scout troops to illustrate a career in aerospace innovation, advocate for military life, and serve as a role model for women interested in STEM and the Air Force.
“Anytime [there] was an opportunity to be a speaker to represent women in STEM … I would always get pinged for that,” Mastrocola said. “So, I ended up just talking to a lot of people and showing them different paths that you can take, and different ways that you can apply education but also have a career in STEM at the same time.”
Her contributions to community education earned her the wing’s Lance P. Sijan award for leadership.
All the while, Mastrocola spent 2022 completing a Master of Science in Aeronautics program before going on to pursue a PhD in Systems Engineering. She said the Air Force has helped her harness her innovative mind into something operational—and, coming from a background in aircraft maintenance where there’s little to no room for improvisation, she’s happy her creativity is being put to good use.
“Once I was given the space with no parameters to actually just go out and figure stuff out, I really ran with it,” she said.
Mastrocola added that wanting to innovate and improve operations in the field isn’t much different than wanting to overcome personal challenges. She considers difficulties to be the road on which innovations—and people—gain traction.
“You learn a lot from the things that weren’t so good, in a way,” she said. “Bouncing back and having the resiliency from the lows is how the highs get higher.”
As one of the 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year for 2023, Mastrocola hopes her successes in the past year and the trials she faced to get here can be an example not just for junior Airmen looking to excel, but for the Air Force as a whole.
“The Air Force is at a transitional time and we’re realizing the value of hidden talent throughout the Force,” Mastrocola said. “So for up-and-coming junior Airmen, I say surround yourself with people that you look up to … Find your tribe. Find the people that bring out the best version of yourself. None of us do this alone and success is all about the environment we immerse ourselves in. Stay curious, embrace challenges, and know there is a silver lining to everything.”
Meet the other Outstanding Airmen of the Year for 2023 below: