Maj. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt speaks to a crowd of hundreds aboard the USS Midway before the screening of "Captain Marvel." Photo by Chris Stone
Maj. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt speaks aboard USS Midway before screening of “Captain Marvel.” Photo by Chris Stone

As pilot Carol Danvers in “Captain Marvel,” actress Brie Larson slung her helmet bag over her left shoulder as she walked to an Air Force fighter jet.

That may seem an insignificant detail, but it represented the star’s dedication to accuracy, said Maj. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt, who served as a military adviser to the film.

Leavitt was recruited for her role because of her extraordinary accomplishments — starting with being the first female fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force.

Promoted just this week from brigadier general, Leavitt was on hand Friday night for the annual Family Movie Night aboard the USS Midway, featuring a screening of the 2019 superhero film.

In cool but muggy air, hundreds on the carrier flight deck sat on wooden chairs, many eating popcorn with their young children.

The veteran pilot said she wasn’t too conscious of carrying her helmet bag over the left shoulder until the actress asked during a visit to Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas.

The reason?

Leavitt left her right hand free to salute or grab flight paperwork.

“She asked so many questions about some of the things, like climbing in the airplane, holding your helmet, how you sit in the cockpit,” she said of Larson, 29.

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But Larson also asked about female pilot interactions and how other pilots treated them, said Leavitt, the first woman to command a USAF combat fighter wing.

“I was impressed by how much she wanted to get it right,” she said. “And she really immersed herself in the fighter pilot culture.”

That immersion placed her in the back seat of an F-16, which earned her the call name “SPARROW.”

The major general declined to reveal the meaning of the acronym. The actress hasn’t divulged it either.

Leavitt’s principal contribution in the early stages of the movie’s evolution was character development.

Female fighter pilots are competent, confident and have a sense of humor “out of necessity,” said the officer whose F-15 flight time includes 300 combat hours, primarily in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I thought they did a great job of building a character that was realistic,” she said.

Since June 2018, Leavitt, who was born in St. Louis, has served as commander of the Air Force Recruiting Service at Randolph Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas.

And “Captain Marvel” has the potential to be a recruiting tool for the Air Force. The service branch wants to boost the number of female and minority pilots, she said.

“We very much value diversity,” Leavitt said. “But honestly, we see it as a strategic imperative for competitive advantage.”

While adversaries may have similar weapons, she said, “we need to have people that can look at a problem from many different perspectives…. so we can come up with that solution.”

Recruiters are looking for people with physical, moral and mental strength as well as grit and determination, she said.

Diversity wasn’t always a military watchword, however.

There was a great deal of pushback on the proposal to allow females to fly fighter jets in combat, Leavitt said.

“Back in 1992, early 1993 they were doing a number of hearings, and they asked some of the retired general officers what they thought, and they were all very strongly opposed — and they did not want this to change,” she said.

“So there was a lot of resistance at the beginning. People didn’t think women should fly fighters,” said Leavitt, who received numerous decorations including the Defense Superior Service Medal, The legion of Merit with oak leaf clusters, the Bronze Star and Meritorious Service Medal.

Asked how she proved herself to male pilots, Leavitt said once people realized she was a good, competent pilot, the resistance let up.

“So I always put pressure on myself to be the absolute best because I knew everyone was watching,” she said. “The first assignment or two are probably the toughest because there were a lot of people that were very skeptical.”

Fellow military personnel noted the skill of the female combat pilots and that it wasn’t such a “terrible” thing — “so it got easier as it went,” Leavitt said.

Completing weapons school also gave her significant credibility, she said.

She began her career in January 1992 as an undergraduate in pilot training. By 2014, Leavitt became the first woman to take control of the 57th Wing of the U.S. Air Force Warfare Center at Nellis Air Force Base and was promoted to brigadier general.

The aerial pioneer said she was given many opportunities and took advantage of them, but confesses, “I could not have imagined still serving and being at this rank.”

A family watches “Captain Marvel” aboard the USS Midway, as KPBS kicks off GI Film Festival San Diego. Photo by Chris Stone

Asked the best part of being a fighter pilot, Leavitt said, “It’s absolutely awesome to fly those machines and to be part of a mission — and knowing that I am making a difference for those soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines on the ground.”

“I’m the reason they get home to their forward operating base and bring them home at the end of their tour,” she added. “That’s hugely rewarding.”

When first asked to advise on “Captain Marvel,” Leavitt was hesitant — thinking it might impinge on her current assignment.

But Marvel Studios, which released the film in March, suggested her skills and experience made her a perfect choice as a consultant. And after meeting with directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, she was very much on board.

In brief remarks to the Midway crowd, Leavitt recalled how actress Larson and others turned the tables during press interviews.

Leavitt and the military, they said, were the real superheroes.