Women pilots in operational combat - An emotive issue

By Col Des Barker, Officer Commanding TFDC

The utilisation of women in operational combat flying is an emotive issue. This new age approach of exposing women to the dangers of combat action has two opinion groups - one that demands complete compliance between male and female standards, and the other, the total avoidance of women in combat missions.

Besides the aspect of male chauvinism, there is genuine concern by their male colleagues for their safety during combat operations. Whether right or wrong, most cultures regard women as a soft issue and women have therefore, historically been accorded the jobs of home-making while the male has inherited the responsibility of providing protection for the family.

Since the so-called liberation of women in the early nineteen hundreds, there has been a gradual demand by women for equality and recognition of their abilities. This has meant that women have entered man's realm of being the warrior. Certain women world-wide are claiming that it is not only their right, but also their duty to conduct combat missions on an equal basis with their male counterparts.

Are they equal to the challenge, can they do the job as well as the men? A number of significant issues are addressed, are the issues at stake merely male chauvinism, or gender feminist propaganda? You decide for yourself.

The right to serve

Although women have been pilots since 1908 - only five years after the first successful aircraft flight - they have remained few in number for decades, hampered by social, economic and legal barriers. Only in the last 25 years have professional training and career opportunities in aviation become widely available to women. Women pilots have entered virtually all fields of aviation military, commercial, flight test, business, sport, and flying everything from gliders to space shuttles. Their stories offer vivid demonstrations of personal courage, historical progress and accomplishment.

Why would women want to go to war? No one in his or her right mind wants to, and one should count oneself lucky that one does not have to go. Who said women don't want to go? Maybe women are not as intrigued by war as men are, but they do have as much patriotism as men do. Millions of women have joined the armed forces world-wide and many more served in various resistance groups during the previous world wars. Some women lay claim to their right to serve in combat and in many countries, some of these rights are protected by the Constitution. However, among these many rights, either articulated or implied, there is no such thing as any right to serve in combat.

The question being asked in modern day military organisations is, do we need to put women into the cockpits of front line fighters, and if yes, what value are we adding to our military capabilities? This is a new concept in modern military operations and there is very little modern day, actual experience on which to base any conclusions, except for the limited experience gained by the United States during Operation DESERT STORM, DESERT FOX and in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Non-traditional career path

Tactical aviation exists, some things don't change but in an issue of this importance, facts are crucial because combat is the ultimate challenge of any combat pilot. Female combat pilots are non-traditional career choices for women. Though obvious, the fact remains crucial to the success of integration programmes. Much is written and said about the average woman: size, weight, strength, mental acuity, leadership, competitiveness, and the drive to excel. But discussions on the average woman are erroneous; the average woman does not seek non-traditional career paths.

The woman who seeks a non-traditional, combat pilot career, is usually an intelligent, outspoken student of above-average ability; confident, gregarious, and competitive by nature; active and athletically inclined; and routinely found in leadership positions. This dynamic over-achiever personality does not fit statistical norms for a population wide average woman. However, these attributes do fit military aviator candidate profiles and enable successful integration of women into combat operations.

The introduction of women as combat pilots, has, however, brought on additional scrutiny of their performance. Lurking outside is a critical battery of males disapproving of this new found equality. The female F-14 aviator who was the first woman pilot to crash into the fantail of an aircraft carrier, created a hornets nest of criticism. Critics were quick to point fingers and question the decision of women combat pilots. Women who choose to pursue careers as combat aviators will have to achieve parity in performance with male fighter pilots to assure acceptance in this demanding profession.

World-wide military trends

Although the world-wide trend is to allow women pilots to fly combat aircraft, the decision to utilise them in operational combat is less clear. The US Navy probably has the highest number of female aviators, of the 12 477 Navy pilots, only 225 (1,8 percent) are women. The first Israeli woman recently graduated from the toughest combat course in the Israeli armed forces and will serve as a navigator in a fighter squadron of F-16's. Women had to go to the high court to get accepted for the course, but whether she will be employed in combat is not clear.

There is at least one women pilot assigned to flying F-16s in Holland. In Argentina there are only two flying in the Army aviation. New Zealand is training its first female strike pilot - she has just finished her wings course and is getting ready to start the conversion course onto the A-4K Skyhawk. In Portugal there are a few, the latest has been assigned to Alpha-Jets while the RAF has at least one female Tornado pilot. There are currently no fighter pilots in the SAAF yet.

Historical overview

Women fighter pilots are not new. Russia used women pilots during WWII - both Lidia V. Litviak (1921-1943) and Ekatherina V. Budanova (1917-1943) became aces during WWII. Both women were married, both achieved 11 kills and both were killed in action. Another unique role that women played in the Red Army during WWII, was sniping. Sniping demanded enormous patience, remaining motionless for hours and waiting for a German to show himself. Sniping also called for emotional intensity to kill deliberately an unsuspecting person, as opposed to killing an enemy threatening one's life, or dropping bombs on them.

One of the most successful woman snipers in history, was Ludmila Pavlichenko, who was credited with 309 German soldiers killed. It is evident that certain women do possess the ability to perform as warriors. During WWII, the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and the American counterparts, the WASPS, ferried planes to and from factories, test flew repaired aircraft, new designs, and new flying equipment, towed targets to train men in aerial and anti-aircraft gunnery and night-time searchlight techniques, and other missions such as simulated strafing, dive-bombing, smoke-laying, and radar jamming missions, helping to prepare men for combat duty.

Over 25 000 women applied to join the WASPS program, 1830 were accepted into training programs, and 1074 earned their wings as WASPs. Thirty-eight were killed during the years they were in service. Most of them weren't exactly feminists; they were all just crazy enough to want to fly in an age when aircraft design still developed as much from imagination and improvisation as engineering. What was admirable about these women, was simply that they did more than they had to do. It would have been socially acceptable, expected even, for them to have been good sisters, daughters, wives, and girlfriends and stayed home during the war.

Maybe to work in a factory, if they wanted to be really outlandish. Instead, these women found their place in the cockpit of an aircraft. They were not only fine pilots with great courage, but they had a lot more hours in the air than many of the men. In combat aviation literature, several references to women aviators may be found; "nachthexen", such as Germans called the pilots or even "sewing machines" and "highway crows". A book called "Zanek" about the Israel Air Force during the War of Attrition, mentions a woman Israeli pilot flying transports on combat parachute drops to the Mitla Pass possibly making her the first Israeli woman combat pilot?

Actually, if you go back to the War of Independence, the Air Force (Sherut Avir) lost a woman pilot. She was flying one of the communication aircraft and either crashed or was shot down. There was a second woman, a Mahal, who survived the war. It should be noted that Israel put women into front line combat units fifty years ago, and then quickly abandoned the practice. Israel is in a much more perilous position than most other countries, and Israel does not put women in the infantry.

Integration into combat

The integration of women pilots into combat fighters has not been without problems. While DESERT FOX was a milestone, it was not the first time female fliers saw combat. Female aviators made history in Operation DESERT FOX, but the Pentagon public affairs apparatus wasn't trumpeting the event in order to keep things gender-neutral. "All of the female pilots have been declining interviews," said a Navy officer at the Pentagon. One woman piloted a F-14 Tomcat, while others served as naval flight officers aboard airborne jammers and early warning radar planes. Asked by a reporter about the historical significance of women flying bombers in war, Marine Corps Gen Anthony Zinni, DESERT FOX commander, said, "Well, my answer would be, so what? We don't even count - I mean, somebody asked me today, how many female pilots or navigators? I have no idea, I can't find anybody that counts".

As a sign of the times, 26 year old, Navy Lieutenant Kendra Williams, graduated from jet training in 1997, was the first of the three female F/A-18 pilots to fly a strike mission, the Associated Press reported from the carrier Enterprise. "Women have only been in combat aviation a few years," she said last year. "It's going to take time for people to adjust. Aboard the USS Enterprise, she issued a terse "I was just doing my job" before rejoining fellow fliers in a squadron nicknamed "Gunslingers." Two other female pilots on the Enterprise, Lyndsi Bates and Carol Watts, also flew the F/A-18 over Iraq.

The Navy's blasé approach was in sharp contrast to a public relations extravaganza in 1994 when the first female combat pilots sailed aboard the carrier USS Dwight D. Eishenhower. Congress repealed a ban on women flying combat aircraft that year, based in large part, on the many support roles that women carried out in the 1991 Persian Gulf war. The Navy ferried journalists, politicians and their wives to the USS Eisenhower as part of a campaign to improve the Navy's public image after the Tailhook sexual-abuse scandal.The Air Force, on the other hand, put fighters and strategic bombers into action, but none were piloted by a woman, according to Lt John Hutcheson, a spokesman at Air Force Air Combat Command. "There were no Air Force female pilots that participated in combat," he said. "We did have one electronic warfare officer who flew aboard a B-52."

At another level, the Inspector General's report on the integration of female aviators on the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, criticised the Navy for bumping women ahead of men who were waiting for a shot at qualifying as carrier pilots. The IG report also warned the Navy to "exercise an increased sensitivity for the potentially disruptive influence the media has when it is covering a story."Following the 1975 decision in the United States to open Air Force pilot training to qualified officers of both sexes, research was undertaken to establish a data base, from female pilot selectees, composed of pre-training measures found to be predictive of training performance for men, to compare these data with those previously obtained from male pilot selectees for overall performance and predictive efficiency.

In addition the aim was to monitor the flying performance of women as judged by themselves, their instructors, and their supervisors in comparison with official Air Force flight standards and relative male performance. Few significant differences were found between men and women entering pilot training. Comparable performance on most pre-training measures, combined with equivalent graduation rates, factors associated with flight training performance, and student impressions of the flight training experience, all lend strong support to the conclusion that men and women behave similarly in flight training.

However, instructor ratings of male and female student characteristics did reveal several areas in which males were rated better. The factors underlying these differential ratings were not discernible from the available data. Overall, the similarities between the sexes greatly outweighed the differences, indicating that coeducational pilot training could be accomplished without significant modification to the training system or resultant change in student attrition rate.

They were superb

So how have they been doing to date? From 1980 to 1984, Maj A. Rypka, USN-ret, 4000 flight hours, and 1000 combat hours was the commanding officer of a composite unit which had among its missions Dissimilar Air Combat Manoeuvring (DACM), ie adversary training. All of our adversary pilots, myself included, went through a 100+ flight in the squadron syllabus followed by completing Top Gun with annual re-certification with Top Gun aviators prior to designation as a DACM Instructor and actually participating in DACM with other Navy/Marine/USAF/Allied units.

Our first tour pilots included two women pilots that were members of the original class of women that went through the Naval air training command in the late 1970's. They were superb. A Top Gun instructor once stated in debrief of an annual certification flight that one of them, "if she was a man, she would be in the top ten of fleet fighter pilots". I stated that "she is one of the top ten fighter pilots". The Top Gunner thought a moment and said, "you're right, I wasn't precise". I ranked these two aviators 1 and 5 of 9 aviators of their rank and experience. I would cheerfully go into combat leading or being led by either of these fine aviators. I would trust my son or daughter to be trained and led into combat by either of these two aviators. I hold them in the same high respect as the other male fighter pilots I have had the honour to fly with. On the other hand, I have also met and dealt with a woman aviator and expressed the facts and opinions of why I felt she should be disciplined to her commanding officer, as bluntly as I have stated the foregoing.

Unresolved questions

Several unresolved questions still exist today regarding the untimely death of F-14 pilot Lt Kara Hultgreen, one of two women trained to fly the Navy's F-14 Tomcat. Former F-14 instructor Lt Patrick J. Burns, whose warnings about the women's unreadiness for the hazards of carrier aviation were disregarded by local commanders, was featured in a CBS "Sixty Minutes" segment that was aired on April 19, 1998. As confirmed by a Navy report, a "race" was on with the Air Force to get women into combat aviation. Low scores and major errors that would have disqualified others were forgiven, so that women would not fail. What this argument misses is that women have been in and doing as good as the men for a long time now. It's just that some men find it difficult to recognise it. Or they will fixate on a female failure as some sort of sign from God that all women are bad (ignoring, of course, male failures). Reality is that the women are doing fine, some are good, and some are not.

In an Air Wing 11 Report dated June-Aug 1996, Navy officials tried to appease former F-14 pilot Lt Carey Lohrenz, even though she was removed from carrier aviation in May 1995 because of flying techniques described as "unsafe, undisciplined and unpredictable." According to investigators, she frequently disregarded the directions of landing signal officers, and landed in ways that "scared everyone, but her." The AW 11 Report also revealed a quagmire of male/female disputes about pregnancy testing, separate-sex berthing assignments, argumentative responses from some female pilots during critical debriefings, and other personal misunderstandings that mystified the men and annoyed the women. (Photo US Navy, USS Enterprise)

Impact of pregnancy

No discussion on this subject would be complete without considering the impact of pregnancy on the women combat pilots. It is here that the major difference between male and female are manifested. Females are psychologically well adapted to being mothers. Whether a mother is left or right handed, she instinctively holds the baby's head over her heart. A mother can recognise the individual cries of their infants, the infants sense of hearing is different, so mothers instinctively alter their voice to better correspond to the infant's hearing. The feeling a mother has for her infant after having carried the child for nine months, cannot be understood by males.

In theory, pregnancy should not affect her career as a fighter pilot, save for the obvious maternity leave. If she has proved herself worthy of the job that is all that counts and there is no evidence to the contrary. There is no reason why she can't continue to fly after her body has recovered from childbirth if she wants to! However, at squadron level, the pregnancy and post childbirth phase could keep a woman out of a fighter cockpit for at least one year and an additional period ofapproximately three months would be required thereafter, to bring her up to standard again, to regain currencies by means of refresher courses.

In the real world, the care of the child would have to be left to a day-mother often with feelings of guilt evident in the mother who places her career ahead of rearing the children. The ability to focus on the job of being a fighter pilot could be reduced. In the military, there are also the regular deployment exercises that could take her away from her home and her family for extended periods of up to eighteen months. These situations could lead to friction both at the domestic level and resentment at squadron level should female aviators be favoured in deployments.

Maintenance of standards

The most common concern raised when considering women as combat pilots is: What about maintaining standards? Firstly, there is nothing wrong with requiring people to meet realistic standards, so long as the standards are genuinely related to the ability to perform the job. It's just that connecting the standards to the job seems to be a little difficult at times. The counter-argument is, isn't there a danger of people wanting to relax useful standards to achieve numerical parity? The difficulty of determining how useful the standard is, is problematical. If the seemingly-useful standard is relaxed and no degradation of the result ensues, then perhaps the standard was either not useful or there's an informal adherence to the standard by those doing the job, based on agreement that the standard is, in fact, useful.

Any standard required for entrance into some job to which people already in the job are not continuously required to meet, may not be a job-related standard. If holders of the job have to continue to meet certain standards, then requiring would-be entrants to meet the standards seems reasonable. However, many of the "standards" used for selection for, or retention, in a vast number of jobs are not related to performance, but to superstition. The "we got good people with this rule so it must be a good rule, and can't be changed" theory, as it were.

In WWI, pilots were selected from mounted units (the cavalry) on the theory that being able to ride a horse would transfer to being able to fly an aircraft (hence the reference in early piloting rules to removing spurs before getting into the cockpit). Equestrianism is no longer a standard for pilot selection. No doubt there were those who mourned the degradation of standards when that change occurred.

When selection standards are maintained, selection based on sex, race, religious practices, bathing habits, etc. is unnecessary and wasteful of talent. That selection standards may not be maintained is another issue entirely and one that must be worked through while the accommodation issues and attitudes are minor in the big picture.In terms of standards, the military organisation leadership make it patently clear that they treat and grade all students, irrespective of language, colour or creed, male, female, name the minority, equally. They claim that they weed out the weak from all categories, or they retain some of the weak, equally, in an attempt not to fall short of manning requirements. But even the weakest student at graduation should be able to walk into a flight school and get to solo and PPL with no difficulty.

The only relevant question becomes combat effectiveness. Degradation of combat effectiveness caused by inappropriate utilisation of female personnel should never be allowed to happen. The use of realistic requirements are essential to ensure that the correct personnel are positioned to conduct the task, but should not be used particularly when used to keep large groups of people out of certain jobs. Fighter pilots must meet realistic standards.

Male chauvinism?

The claim against the current drive to put women into combat, is that standards cannot be maintained. Many males regard the utilisation of women in the military, as an effort to convert the military into an organisation no more potent than the Boy Scouts. Studies and research on women in the military is addressed in the book "Women in the Military: Flirting with Disaster", by Brian Mitchell. It is an examination of the devastating effects that women in the ranks have on the military readiness of the US. In the book, he calls for dispensing with the impossible idea of an androgynous military. In short, the problem with the recent trends in utilisation of women in the military is that the programme has been driven by social agenda and not by military readiness.

Then there are those that maintain that the employment of women in combat has forced women to kill the feminine part of themselves and become masculine women, an act which in itself is a perversion. Women on the other hand, counter-claim that none of them in the service were "masculinized". Approximately thirty years of social engineering by radical feminists and foolish sympathisers has not diminished the physical, emotional, or other intrinsic differences between men and women. The military recognises these differences, and accommodates them fairly well - even though there have been a few slip-ups trying to deal with implementation.

Others maintain that gender integration is akin to suicide for there is no standard that the feminists will not lower in order to achieve proper numbers. There is no limit to the amount of political pressure that will be applied to pass marginally qualified females. Case in point, is the Persian Gulf War. The 179th Tactical Fighter Wing went to the Gulf and did well. A few years ago the unit was utterly destroyed by a female pilot who wanted to convert to fighters, without the capacity to do so, and a command structure that was utterly blinded by the opportunity to qualify a female fighter pilot. The fact that the units didn't want this female pilot and that she could not safely fly Vipers even after extensive opportunities to do so, was oblivious to an Air Force too concerned about catering to militant feminists than it was about maintaining the combat effectiveness of a good unit. Is the primary aim of the armed forces to prepare for combat and to prevail in combat, or simply to promote a particular social agenda.

Then there are those that believe that we, as a society, are dealing with the legacy of suppressing women. Part of that legacy is the "knee jerk" reaction by government, management, armed services or industry. The sooner we "deal with it" and move on, the easier it will be for future generations. The trauma of forcing change is the result of the demand to "do something now".

Perhaps we are questioning the methods and not the end product, perhaps the methods are a response to the political climate which has been created. It is a free country, and you have gender feminist propaganda as if it had some basis in fact. The suggestion that we merely accept gender feminist desire and merely move on, supposes that there is some valid reason to do so. There isn't. The desires of what women want to do are only relevant in the context of advancing a social agenda. If the principle is to advance a nation's security agenda, what must be defined and understood is, how more gender integration would make the military more combat effective?

Feminists and their supporters want to gender-neutralise the military by incrementally ditching common sense policies. Studies which claim that women can be trained to be like men, contributes to this misguided ideology, weakens the force structure at its core, and puts military personnel in peril. The feminists merely chant their mantra and expect a non-questioning public to accept it as if it were fact. Even the Marine Corps has succumbed to the fallacy of dual standards, male Marines have to complete a fifteen mile course with weapon and a forty pound backpack in five hours. The females Marines have to complete a ten mile course, without a weapon and with a twenty-five pound backpack in three and half hours; under these double standards, it is possible for resentment from male colleagues. Non-gender combat norm standards should exist, but they do not. So any argument based on equal standards, is but a hypothetical one.

Most males are not against women in the military, they are opposed to women in combat arms. They support women in the military, however, their utilisation should be driven by a personnel policy intended to maximise combat effectiveness and not driven by social agendas. As a whole, women are not viewed as incapable, in fact, it is an accepted fact that there is a small population of women that could meet full combat standards. Opposition to women in combat arms is not because none are capable, but rather, because gender integrated combat units will not improve combat effectiveness. The biological fact is that men and women are different, and the difference is apparent in the womb, long before socialisation can have any effect.

Under ideal circumstances, there is no reason to believe that gender integration of combat arms would enhance military readiness. Consider a quote from Professor Martin Van Creveld, an Israeli Military Historian: "To me, the very fact that this issue [women in combat] is being discussed, simply shows that you really don't take the military seriously. For you, the military is not a question of life and death. So you can afford to make all kinds of social experiments, which Israel cannot".

Gender feminist propaganda?

On the other side of the opinion continuum, most women in the military do not wish to be assigned to combat arms, and many would leave if they were to be assigned to combat arms. Despite the collective spew of multitudes of gender role defenders, gender-based behaviour is still largely socially driven, rather than some inherent characteristic.

Sweet and cuddly domestic daddies and bloody warrior maidens are not "unnatural", merely awkward for the society. But women are not so different from men that a woman can't, simply by gender, perform war skills. Several female members of the military would have loved the chance, and might have done well in operational combat conditions. There have been many dear old grey-haired mothers, in their prime, raised on a farm that could have easily taken any man of their size and weight, and were no slouches in hunting.

Though they may never have considered service themselves, the idea of women in the military and even in combat, would seem perfectly reasonable to them. But clearly, there are individuals who would be definitely unsuitable by physique and character to cope with military Service, and reasonable and fair standards ought to be in place to keep unfit men and women out. Simply by being one sex or the other, should not be the issue, there are some very capable women. An armed forces personnel policy has to deal with populations and not individuals. There are some women capable of handling combat, but even fewer would actually volunteer for it.

It is interesting that most people, when arguing that women should indeed be in combat roles in the armed services, seem to think that the macho male sexist attitude is the only impediment to women's integration or success. Indeed, some seem to scoff at these sexist attitudes as if to say "How dare you stand in the way of progress." Women are just as capable and gender doesn't make you a professional. Aviators have always been volunteers; to ignore 51 percent of the population to seek qualified volunteers for this increasingly difficult arena, does not make good sense.

Treatment of POW victims

One of the single most important issues often not addressed or quite appropriately avoided, is that of the prisoner of war. During the Gulf War there were at least two female Americans taken POW by Iraq. Details of their imprisonment, torture and abuse are displayed at the Andersonville Prisoner of War Museum. They weren't pilots, one was army enlisted that got lost driving around and was captured. The other one was a flight surgeon flying in a Blackhawk, which was shot down during a Combat Search and Rescue operation. Of course none of the news hype or details of their capture should detract from the fact that they both laid their lives on the line and served their country honourably and thus deserve the utmost respect.

Churches and women are the soft-underbelly of a country during war. During early centuries in the world-wars, the attackers plundered the nation by parading their cattle and animals through the churches. Women were raped and statues of the gods were de-capitated, all in an attempt to humiliate the enemy completely. The role of women in different cultures is also relevant and in many of the fundamentalist states, the role of the women is subservient. On the one hand, it would be quite de-moralising for the enemy to be shot-down by a women pilot, on the other hand, should such women pilots be taken captive after having ejected, the demoralising effect on the country's morale of having their pilots abused by the enemy, would cause a major outcry from the citizens.

The effect on the woman's family at home could be devastating. The theory that each woman would carry a cyanide capsule to be swallowed in the event of capture, is totally unacceptable since it accepts the loss of a pilot, mother, sister or daughter following an ejection over enemy territory. On these grounds alone, the employment of women fighter pilots in combat operations would surely have to be carefully considered at the highest level.The most physically demanding assignments should go to men who are genetically predisposed to handling the toughest tasks. If special training is offered, it should go to men to give them an edge over our enemies. Even the best and strongest females are unlikely to match most male enemies. Because of undeniable differences in speed, strength and endurance between men and women, women will always be in greater danger than men on the battlefield. In terms of modern-day combat, women do not have "an equal opportunity to survive."

Pilot percentiles

Two major policy decisions dramatically impacted on the requirements to accommodate women into combat aircraft. On 28 April 1993, the USA Secretary of Defence directed the services to open assignments in combat aircraft to women. This decision greatly expanded the number and types of aircraft that women could fly. Prior to this decision, female pilots and other female aircrew were restricted by directive to aircraft that did not directly engage in combat. The second significant decision impacting on the woman pilots, was a requirement that the new joint services aircraft, the Joint Primary Aircraft Training System (JPATS) and the F-22 Advanced Tactical Fighter, be designed to accommodate 80% of US women.

Military aircraft are designed with a certain range of pilot dimensions and weights and requiring pilots to be within the design range seems perfectly reasonable. The integration of women into fighter aircraft cockpits is, however, not simplistic, current fighter aircraft were designed to be flown by males. The fact is that men and women are generally of different mass and dimensions. Aircraft cockpit design has been driven by a desire to accommodate the 5th to 95th percentile male. Rejection of a number of females because they didn't fit, caused concern among advocates and aircraft are now being designed (ejection systems in particular) to accommodate a greater number of women.

However, there's no good reason not to change the design range when specifying a new aircraft, so long as the new parameters are reasonable (as defined by percentiles and based on anthropomorphic data). It's not unusual for companies to manage to build cockpits that will accommodate shorter pilots when the object is to sell the aircraft to a country with shorter pilots. Surely no one expects the pilot population of, say, Singapore, to be as tall as the pilot population of, say, Denmark, yet somehow, the F-16 managed to be marketed all over the world.Current military combat, trainer, and support type aircraft are generally designed to accommodate pilots who are 64 to 77 inches in stature with a sitting height of 34 to 40 inches.

When applied to the aircraft cockpit, ejection seat and crew-mounted life support equipment, this design criteria allows approximately 90% of US males to meet size requirements, while only 40% of US females are tall enough to meet the requirements. The expansion to the size envelope to accommodate 80% of US females will significantly increase the number of women who qualify for flying training. These two decisions - allowing women to fly combat aircraft and greatly increasing the aircrew size and stature ranges that the aircraft will need to accommodate - present a unique challenge to aircraft and life support equipment development, particularly the development of G-protective equipment and evaluations of ergonomic issues.

Historically, ejection seat sled tests conducted to assess aviation injury potential to pilots have incorporated only the 5th through 95th percentile male weights. The ejection seats are designed to operate within a certain mass and centre of gravity range; if the ejection is performed outside of this mass range, the trajectory of the seat may not guarantee safe flight. Alternatively, the impulse of the rocket motors on a seat occupant that is too light, may cause damage to the spine of the occupant.

In re-defining the percentiles for ejection seats to include lighter women, the fallout is that they will be designing out a lot of men in the process. From a policy perspective, does it make good sense to accommodate say 90% of the female population and perhaps only 75% of the males in combat aircraft when the military's composition is overwhelmingly male and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future? Since female pilots have increased in number during the past few years, it is estimated that the risks associated with an ejection for female pilots have not been adequately evaluated during ejection seat testing. It was determined that the majority of female pilots are in a weight class below the 5th percentile male and that, based upon a computer model, the spinal injury potential just makes the acceptable limits.

Physical considerations

Within the issues of maintenance of standards and equality, the sensitive subject of physical considerations needs to be addressed. For a combat fighter pilot, fitness and endurance is one of the most important elements to sustaining the forces of modern air-combat manoeuvring. How do females compare with males in this field?The 1992 Presidential Commission in the United States ran a study to investigate whether women could meet the same physical fitness standards as men. It found that only 3,4 percent of women achieved a score equal to the male mean score on the Army's physical fitness test. Women experience more than twice the number of lower extremity injuries and over four times the number of stress fractures, the report said.

Without special training, the commission found, nature gives women only 50 to 60 percent of the upper torso muscular strength of men and they have 70% to 75% of the aerobic capacity of men. The United States Military Academy requires all cadets to complete an indoor obstacle course test to evaluate a cadet's muscular strength/endurance, flexibility, agility, and co-ordination. The average completion time for the 10 obstacles is 2:50 (min:sec) for men and 4:05 (min:sec) for women.One of the last barriers facing the women combat pilot was that of physical strength. Tests conducted during 1981 revealed that the typical maximum longitudinal stick force sustainable by the average women was 55 to 60 lbs on average.

Technological improvements in aircraft and control system design removed the requirement for fighter pilots to possess great physical strength. Servo controls, power assisted systems, and mechanical boosters were introduced to improve aircraft handling qualities. The use of fly-by-wire systems reduced control forces to low values of approximately 3 - 5 lb/g without fear of structural failure since g-limiters were incorporated into the flight control laws making the aircraft easy to fly and reducing pilot fatigue. The reduced stick force per g of modern fighter aircraft is well below the maximum capability of women and at 35 lb/g, the stick force of modern fighters like the F-18 are well within the physical strength capabilities of women, even at 9 g. To pilot a modern day fighter, it takes training and skill, not excessive strength; and training and skill are not gender specific.The P-51 Mustang had a longitudinal stick force per g of approximately 20 lb/g, certainly a two-handed aircraft which was extremely tiring to manoeuvre during combat.

A recent study described the second phase in a ground-based control force testing programme conducted by the University of Oklahoma and the Civil Aeromedical Institute of the Federal Aviation Administration located in Oklahoma. A Convair-340 simulator, modified to conform to a typical civil aviation aircraft, was used for the study in which female pilots were used as subjects. The data shows that the current FAR 23.143 control force limits for general aviation aircraft are too high for a majority of US female pilots. Dr Mary Lloyd Ireland, a Kentucky orthopaedic surgeon, studied why female basketball players suffer twice as many serious knee injuries as males and six times more anterior cruciate ligament tears. She attributes the problem in part to the fact that women's bodies are less suited than men's to absorb the driving and pounding of sports. Ann Loucks, an associate professor of physiology at Ohio University, found that hard physical work coupled with a caloric deficit may have long-term effects - damaging a woman's reproductive ability and losing bone minerals, which could lead to osteoporosis.

Extended periods of hard labour and limited caloric intake are common military conditions. Maximum normal acceleration forces during combat have increased from peak averages of 5 g to 9 g. Besides physical strength, air combat manoeuvring requires significant g-tolerance. G tolerances of 102 women and 139 men were subjected to a Standard Medical Evaluation and the G Profiles were compared. Unpaired t-tests revealed that there was no significant difference between the women and men in either relaxed or straining G tolerance. Covariance analysis controlling for differences in tolerance due to age, height, weight, and activity status revealed that the women have marginally lower tolerance; the analysis also identified height as a factor having a strong negative influence on G tolerance, and weight as having a positive influence. When the women were matched only by height to the men in the comparison group, the women's mean G tolerances were significantly lower than the men's. On Standard Training G Profiles, 88% of 24 women and 80% of 213 men completed the runs, but this difference was not significant. G tolerances of 47 women were measured on the Medeval Profiles both during and between menses, but no significant differences related to menstruation were found.

No important differences between women and men in signs or symptoms of G stress were observed, except for two instances of urinary stress incontinence in women during the training profiles. It was concluded that women should not categorically be excluded from aircrew duties for reasons of G intolerance.To support the 1993 US Secretary of Defence directive to open combat aircraft assignments to women, investigators of the Female Acceleration Tolerance Enhancement (FATE) determined female and male subjects' G-protective equipment fit and their tolerance/endurance to aerial combat manoeuvres (SACM). A study of female subjects previously conducted, employing a +4.5 to +7Gz SACM, indicated women experienced rib pain and breathing difficulties secondary to the poor fit of the anti-G suit. Using a +5 to +9Gz SACM study in this project, investigators tested SACM endurance in females before and after a "best-fit" modification of the standard CSU-13B/P anti-G suit, with female SACM times being compared to those for males.

In the best-fit 13B/P, there was no significant gender difference in SACM endurance times. These best-fit modifications also proved effective for two refereed female F-16 pilots. Fit modifications of ATAGS and the COMBAT EDGE counter-pressure vest were not required, although "extra small, short" sizes of the 13B/P and ATAGS were developed to accommodate the smaller aircrew authorisation for current developmental Air Force aircraft. The modification of the 13B/P greatly enhanced positive G endurance in women, and centrifuge tests demonstrated gender parity in high-G SACM tolerance/endurance.

The initial EKGs from 309 female aviators and 309 age-matched male aviators were read to compare the prevalence of findings. Abnormal readings were unusual, as would be expected in this selected group, about 1,3 percent of the males and none of the females had abnormal readings, a difference which is not significant. The abnormal readings were two cases of left anterior hemiblock and two of Wolff-Parkinson-White. Possibly abnormal findings, which required a second order work-up to rule out the presence of cardiac disease, occurred at a similar rate between the groups (22,7 percent of females vs 16,2 percent of males). The preponderance of possibly abnormal findings in women were due to non-specific ST and T-wave abnormalities. Normal variant tracings were more common in men (60,2 percent female vs 74,1 percent male) while women were more likely to have an EKG without significant finding (17,1 percent females vs 8,4 percent male). These findings supported the concept that EKG criteria that were developed for men could be used aeromedically for women.

There is very little information available concerning differences between males' and females' abilities to withstand combat-relevant stressors. A study was conducted to determine whether there are gender differences in responses to a common operational stressor, sleep deprivation. Six male and six female UH-60 helicopter pilots were exposed to a 40-hour period of continuous wakefulness and tested on flight performance and mood. The flight performance results indicated that gender produced virtually no operationally significant differences in the effects of sleep loss. Furthermore, although mood evaluations showed that women felt less tense and more energetic overall than their male counterparts, there were no interactions between sleep deprivation and gender. Thus, male and female aviators appeared equally capable of performing flight-related tasks despite moderate sleep loss.

The systematic study of the effects of trauma on women's health is also important for women in all branches of Service. There is a close interplay between performance, health and psychosocial factors in responding to trauma, disaster, and combat. Understanding the gender specific responses associated with traumatic stress is important for the development of command policy, training scenarios, and medical care procedures. Available data on responses to various traumatic events can serve as an analogy to aid in understanding some of the potential effects of war and combat on military women. The higher base rates of psychiatric illness in women, their greater social supports, higher distress after exposure to death and the grotesque may be expected to alter responses to combat, deployment, and military contingencies compared to that in men. In addition, differences in fatigue, chronic stress tolerance, effects of sleep deprivation and variation of stress effects across the menstrual cycle could increase or decrease stress tolerance and health effects. These aspects form important insights into the challenges encountered in the transition from an all male force to a gender integrated one and will only be answered in future as experience in combat operations increases.

The bottom line

"Combat effectiveness, winners, the search for excellence, fairness, these are the concepts that really matter. Do we really desire to get into an argument over what demographic had the highest percentage of representivity to prove a point? With so much on the line in terms of how we are preparing ourselves to fight and win the next round of madness, is it really important whether we are representative? Believe it or not, there is a significant percentage of male fighter pilots that don't care if women are employed as combat pilots. They only care that she professionally fulfils her responsibilities for her portion of the mission planning. That she does not find some little reason to down the jet in the chocks when the engines start turning and the butterflies in her stomach turn into bats. That she rendezvous expeditiously and hangs on through the flak and missiles. That she sanitises her contracted portion of hostile territory, both visually and on the radar so you can make that good "break left" call to one of your wingmen as that nasty SA-6 surface-to-air missile lines up on a collision course.

That through all of the radio noise, formation flying, and distracting orange white bursts of 57 mm, she gets her weapons programme set up correctly and her master arm switch to ARM. That she stick her nose down into that hornet's nest when the time comes and acquires her target. That her bombs hit their target and if they don't, at least she remembers to record her FLIR for good battle damage assessment to plan for the next time and that she can fight her way back to the tanker and calm her nerves enough to get a good plug and the fuel that she so desperately needs. These are the kind of people that the warrior/operators of today want to train with and go into battle with. If there is an agenda other than THAT, then the female fighter pilot is not going to find a very hospitable environment.


Adequate evidence exists to prove that certain women have the potential and skills to be trained as combat pilots and operate successfully in combat operations. Women pilots (like men) come in a distribution from superb to barely adequate and it is the job of leadership and air force systems to identify the superb and weed out the unsatisfactory. No one should contemplate becoming a pilot to "advance the cause of womanhood". There is no doubt that some women will be good aviators but the question remains: What exactly do women bring to tactical combat aviation that it was missing before? Considering that it costs more scarce Rands to bring women into military aviation, and it does nothing to improve the combat capability, and it may hurt, why do it? Just because women want to, isn't a good enough reason.

Today, women are a very important part of the Air Force workforce, not just because they comprise 10% to 15% of the skills required, but also because they bring innovation and ability to handling the job. In the narrow discussion of women in the military, especially questions about the standards applied, compromising standards for bodies is simply wrong. But at the same time, care should be taken to make sure the standards are not set so arbitrarily as to clearly select out women. To suggest training a woman to be a combat pilot is somehow "unnatural", is simple sentimentalism but that isn't at all a barrier that will keep a woman with the physical stamina, intelligence, skill, and guts from succeeding in a "naturally-male" environment.

Don't make the mistake of trying to compare it to clearly-discriminatory instances of a segregated military, or old prejudices explaining why "women weren't suited to science/engineering". For a too large part we have people attempting to drive the military for a purely social agenda who have never served, never intend to serve, and most important, never intend for their sons and daughters to serve. Opposition to women in combat arms is based merely on the fact that it does not make military sense, and will continually be opposed until it can be shown that it does make military sense. However, with forethought and planning, the integration of women into military aircrew training and squadron assignments should progress smoothly. A planning outline which covers employment intentions, development of an accession model, flight training attrition, aviation retention, and addresses integration concerns and lessons learned should be constituted.

There's a reason that there are so few male midwives (less than two percent). These are not the primary or best-developed characteristics or instincts that most men have. There are always exceptions, though. There are also very few female fighter pilots, that's a job that requires characteristics that, on average, most men possess more than most women. There are a few women fighter pilots, though, that have distinguished themselves in conflict. Very few women want to be fighter pilots, and very few men want to be midwives. That doesn't mean, though, that those very few outliers can't be good at these jobs. Most probably, those female fighter pilots wouldn't make the best midwives, either.

Women can choose to be fighter pilots, and with the correct skills, achieve that ambition; and men can be midwives, and with the correct skills, achieve that ambition. Finally, there is a talent pool in this country of women and men of all colours and creeds that are capable of executing the role of combat fighter/attack pilots. And if their motivation and desire takes them to the place where they want to compete for the right to fight and die at 500 knots, then bring them on. Pilots are respected (or aren't) based on their ability to fight a good 1V1 or hit a target or nothing else matters. Competitive, aggressive, tenacious, intelligent, fluid-thinking combatants, who were tested and hardened in their training, not given a break - THAT'S what really counts. And that has been the way it has been since the beginning of air combat.