Military Women Pilots

History tells us that the first licensed woman pilot in the United States was Harriet Quimby in 1911. History forgets to tell us that Katherine Wright, sister of the Wright brothers, had as much to do with the first flight at Kittyhawk as did her brothers. Women flew airplanes before they could vote - but not in the U.S. military!

During WWI Princess Eugenie Shakhovskaya and Princess Sophie Alexandrovna Dolgorunaya were among the first women to become military pilots in Europe and though American women pilots volunteered, none were taken seriously. We all know the story of the gallant WASP pilots - women who flew every airplane made during WWII - including an experimental jet at 350 mph at 35,000 feet, (flown by Ann Baumgartner in 1944) - yet were not considered military pilots until decades later.

Jacqueline Cochran broke the sound barrier in 1953, set speed and altitude records and lobbied for the use of women pilots in the military - to no avail. Civilian women were flying over the North Pole, around the world, and through the sound barrier but until the '70s the military resisted having women pilots.

The Navy, not the Air Force, took the first step - in 1974 six women earned their wings and became the first Naval aviators. The Army followed suit in 1974 and trained female helicopter pilots.

The Air Force caught up in 1976 and admitted women to the pilot training program. But there was a catch. By virtue of exisiting policies, their flying was limited to non-combat. Military women pilots would not be flying combat missions.

At least not yet.

Although the military finally trained women pilots the services still played games with gender quotas, the pilot slots, combat exclusion laws and the type aircraft women were allowed to fly. From 1976 to 1993 women pilots were kept out of the cockpits of combat aircraft - in actual combat. Even though women aviators flew during Panama, Grenada and Desert Storm their presence was somehow "excluded" from combat records. Not until 1993 were women allowed to fly combat aircraft.

In the Air Force today women comprise more than 300 pilots, 100 navigators and over 600 enlisted aircrew members, but only a select few are combat pilots - the slots are still quietly manipulated. (And we all know that when a female fighter or bomber pilot does something "not in the best interests of the service" it makes magazine covers, film at eleven, headlines for righteous ranters and fodder for the tabloids. But when male pilots deep six a 60 million dollar F-14 or two -or four - or more - it never seems to get a mention. Same story with "inappropriate behavior" - generals who intimidate women are allowed to retire with full benefits.)

The first woman pilot in the United States flew in 1911 - it took the military 65 years to recognize and train women as pilots and another seventeen years to permit them to invade the sacrosanct area of combat aircraft. Gratefully the tide is turning. An all women Air Force Fly Over team was present at the dedication of the Women's Memorial in 1997. A female Air Force Colonel - Eileen Collins - was the first woman to command a space shuttle mission in 1999. Air Force B-52's and Navy Tomcats are being flown by women.

Major Marie Rossi

During Desert Storm the first woman pilot gave her life while flying in a combat zone. Major Marie T. Rossi died at age 32 on March 1, 1991, when the Chinook helicopter she was piloting crashed near her base in northern Saudia Arabia. The unit she commanded was among the very first American units to cross into enemy held territory flying fuel and ammunition to the rapidly advancing 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions. Major Rossi is buried in Arlington Cemetery where her simple epitaph there reads "First Female Combat Commander To Fly into Battle."

Lt Col. Martha McSally

Another of the first American woman to fly in combat in the '90s was Lt Col.Martha McSally, ranked as the top female Air Force pilot. Lt Col McSally was among the first women trained by the Air Force as a fighter pilot. During a 1995-96 tour of duty in Kuwait, she became the first woman in military history to fly a combat sortie in a fighter aircraft. She also flew more than 100 combat hours on an A-10 Warthog attack plane over Iraq in the mid-1990s, and served as a flight commander and trainer of combat pilots.

In 1993 when Secretary of Defense Les Aspin opened combat aviation to women, including enlisted female aircrew members, allowing women to fly combat missions, opportunities opened even more for women pilots and crew members. With these new opportunities female pilot numbers are increasing steadily with more and more women completing pilot training.

Today, in the war against the Taliban and al-Qaida targets in Afghanistan, women are filling aircrew positions as bomber pilots, navigators, tanker pilots, and weapons officers - those who specialize in operating in flight arms - loadmasters, and varied officer and enlisted aircrew positions.

F-15 Pilot's Story

Unless otherwise noted contents © 1996 to 2002 by Captain Barbara A. Wilson, USAF (Ret)