Women flew for the military during World War Two as members of the WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots), primarily to ferry new aircraft to combat theaters overseas. The program was shut down when the war ended and women didn’t fly military aircraft again until 1974, when a few were accepted into pilot training with the Navy and Army (the Air Force followed suit in 1976). Existing law prohibited women from flying in combat, so the first post-war generation of women pilots and navigators were restricted to utility helicopters and fixed-wing trainers, tankers, and cargo aircraft. Congress lifted the combat restriction in 1994, and women began flying attack helicopters, fighters, and bombers. Today women are integrated into all aspects of military aviation.
I’ve written two Air-Minded posts on women in military aviation: Women & Military Aviation (August 2014), and Fitting In (June 2018). I took pains in the first post to point out the limits of my knowledge, as a pilot who flew at the end of the boys-club era and never had the opportunity to fly with women. The second post highlighted the experiences of some of the first women to come into the military fighter and bomber community. In writing it, I called on a friend, Michelle Vestal, an Air Force A/OA-10 Warthog pilot, to share her perspective and experiences with me, and also to let me know if I got anything wrong in the older post from 2014. Xena, as she is known to her fellow Warthog pilots, came through on both counts.
I saved the bulk of Xena’s comments for future posts, and now it’s time to start sharing them. I checked in with her last night to make sure she was okay with that, and she said “go for it.” Here she is, by the way, at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan in 2003. Xena had just landed, at dawn, after a six-hour night scramble to support troops in contact. Her log book comments on the mission: “Emptied the gun. ‘Danger Close.’”
Here’s part of what I said in my 2014 post, the one I asked Xena to look over:
There was a lot of resistance to women pilots inside the military, first in the 1970s when they began to fly non-combat military aircraft, then again in the 1990s when they started flying fighters and bombers. Senior military leaders and old-school pilots from the men-only days pulled out all the stops: they’ll have to have separate locker rooms and restrooms; we won’t be able to tell jokes and sing dirty songs at the bar; women aren’t physically capable of pulling Gs; they’ll get knocked up and grounded if there’s ever a threat of actually going to war; if they do go to war with us and one of them gets shot down the American public will revolt … and on and on (and on, and on).
An interesting subset of resistance came from military wives, who worried about what might happen when their husbands were on alert or away on temporary overseas duty with woman pilots. Never mind that woman military aviators are generally married themselves, with spouses at home.
Here’s what Xena had to say about that, point by point:
Separate facilities required if we allow women to fly fighters.
- Every USAF building already has women’s restrooms!
- Separate locker room? Who has a locker room?
- Sleeping facilities (maybe, it depends).
When I was deployed to Al Jaber AB, Kuwait in 1998 (Operation Southern Watch) pilots were billeted in old trailers with private rooms (2 to 4 per) with a common multi-stall bathroom. Obviously it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to share a room with a guy so I was roomed with the intel officer who was also a female lieutenant (same as me). We were given a room in the commanders’ hooch which had a private (1-person) bathroom we all shared. When I was at Bagram AB, Afghanistan in 2003 the pilots were billeted in plywood hooches that had private individual “rooms” with blanket doors. As the only female pilot I was put in a female tent with our intel officer and several female senior enlisted, none of whom had any respect for pilot rest! Plus, I was a night flyer in the summer and the air conditioning sucked. After a couple of weeks of exhaustion well beyond safety of flight I finally spoke up and asked to be moved to the pilot hooch. I explained that privacy was not an issue since everyone had private quarters and the lights were off 100% of the time anyhow. It was done and all was fine — no issues!
Women won’t sing songs or tell dirty jokes.
Some will and some won’t, just like the men! I personally had no issue with the songs and such. I occasionally made up my own words but sang just the same (i.e., how do all fighter pilot songs start? Dah, dah, dah … tits!) I said balls instead and was always louder than the guys because I was solo. I didn’t care that they said stuff and never felt like I had to too just to fit in. If I wanted to I did. Though I did on occasion push the limits telling a dirty joke of my own because it was fun to see the shock factor. This was perhaps a loss of my individual innocence but was part of growing up for any young fighter pilot.
Women actually naturally have a higher physiological g-tolerance than men! It has to do with the critical distance between the heart and the head, which women tend to have a shorter. It also has to do with macho men and their strong upper bodies. Women tend to have a stronger lower body relative to their upper body. This means that when they do their g-strain the blood more easily moves the right direction vice the guys who proportionally had more resistance in upper body to overcome and get the blood where it needed to be.
Women will get pregnant and avoid deployments.
Well, it could happen. Any loser can get out of deployments if they wanted to and assuming women would simply get pregnant is not truly that simple at all. That being said, getting pregnant does limit your physical ability to fly after a certain trimester. Most female fighter pilots are professionals and therefore plan their pregnancies around their career and have kids when they are on non-flying assignments wherever possible. Still, accidents do happen and everyone flexes accordingly. What you didn’t mention is the breast feeding, pumping and other considerations. All manageable and totally doable without detriment to mission or morale.
Society will go crazy if a woman goes to combat, gets shot down, is a POW, etc.
As you already acknowledge in later articles, that didn’t happen. My own thoughts on the matter are that we all knowingly take risks and though the risks are not the same for men and women, nor are they for each man. Women also should have the right, privilege and responsibility to serve too. I fully support adding women to the draft. It’s only fair.
Well, first I would say that I had an amazing experience with the wives. They were my great and dear friends throughout my career and welcomed me open arms into their wife network from the time I was in FTU (flying training unit). I speak both languages (boy and girl) and often ended up finding myself in a sort of liaison role and even went so far as to give “pilot academics” to the ladies to help them better understand what their husbands are talking about and what their daily flying activities entail.
Women can’t fly planes as well as men.
Hmm, total BS. Some are better! I’m not saying that I was but I did graduate #1 in my FTU class and took all the awards (Top Academic, Top Gun and Top Overall). I also won many monthly, quarterly and annual Top Gun events over the years. I believe the best person should get the job and if that person is a woman, so be it. You cannot tell me I don’t belong and women shouldn’t or can’t fly fighters if I just beat you on the range and/or at BFM (basic fighter maneuvers; i.e., dogfighting).
Here are Xena’s bona fides, from the comments she sent on my 2018 “Fitting In” post (which, remember, was about the experiences of the first woman bomber and fighter pilots). You might notice a couple of familiar names in this section. The first is Martha McSally, the Air Force’s first A/OA-10 pilot (also an acquaintance), now Senator McSally (R-Arizona). The second is Jeannie Flynn (now Brigadier General Jeannie Flynn-Leavitt), the Air Force’s first F-15E Strike Eagle pilot, until recently 57th Fighter Wing commander at Nellis AFB, now head of the USAF Recruiting Service.
“Hey you’re the first.” Yep! My entire career people would always tell me exactly where I fell in the history books. Most of the time they were accurate but sometimes they were incorrect but not off by more than one usually. Some highlights of my lineage (as told to me) are:
- Third American female to go to Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training at Sheppard AFB.
- Second American female to get a fighter out of Sheppard (my Air Force Academy classmate and ENJJPT roommate was the first as she was a few months ahead of me in training).
- First female (any nation) to go through Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals [called Fighter Lead-In in my day — Paul] at Sheppard.
- Fifth female to go through A/OA-10 FTU (Martha McSally & Ellen McKinnon were two of the initial five female fighter cadre which included Jeannie Flynn, now Leavitt; then Andra VanPoppel, now Kniep; then Amy Svoboda who as you know crashed on a NVG training mission out of DM; then me). We were all within the first year or so of each other.
- Second female fighter pilot to go to Korea (Ellen was first). However, I was the first to come through the Academy straight through the pipeline and so when I arrived at my first operational assignment (25th Fighter Squadron @ Osan in Jan 1997) the ROKs already knew that and wanted to speak to me. Apparently that was the first year that they were admitting women to their AF Academy and since that is their pilot pipeline they were VERY interested in me and my experiences. Since I was arriving just prior to an ORI it was very important that I get good at my job and not be distracted so my leadership put up the umbrella and ran interference. Though that was appropriate and appreciated initially, it would have been beneficial for me and certainly for the ROKs to have that interaction sometime later. That didn’t happen until 10 years later when I arrived at US Army Garrison Yongsan on the CFC/USFK (Combined Forces Command/US Forces Korea) staff.
- First female BALO (Battalion Air Liaison Officer) though technically I was brigade ALO because it was still illegal for women to be in “direct fire units” with the Army. Mind you this was back in the day when A-10 pilots were basically carrying the entire ALO burden and did so simultaneously with active flying assignments. We had six BALO slots in the 25th Fighter Squadron, two of which were brigade which were considered the primo alignments. I was assigned to the 3-6 CAV Aviation Brigade (Apaches and Kiowas at Camp Humphreys). After I transferred to Davis-Monthan AFB in 1998, the 355 Ops Group commander there decided that I was to be the first official female BALO for the USAF. … I should have been off the BALO list because I had done my time and there were junior officers and pilots who would’ve/could’ve/should’ve been taking the slot but because the OG/CC directed it I had to maintain BALO currencies well beyond what was normal. Even after all that it never happened. Waste of time and effort and lots of missed flying days for BALO ground training.
- First female A/OA-10 pilot in USAFE (US Air Forces Europe).
- First female fighter pilot to graduate from NATO’s Tactical Leadership Programme.
- Second female A/OA-10 FTU instructor pilot (Martha was first).
- First female fighter pilot to CFC/USFK staff.
The women pilots highlighted in the “Fitting In” post talked about survival tactics and lessons learned. Xena learned the ropes too, and has some interesting thoughts to share:
Banding together with other female fighter pilots versus trying to fit in as individual pilots.
Well, when you are one of one there isn’t much to band together! The rare two times my assignment overlapped with another female in the unit, we were in different social and professional circles and did not become besties. That was not intentional either way, it just happened that we only overlapped for a few months and our paths were on different vectors. Now there is a more global banding via the CFPA (Chick Fighter Pilots Association) which didn’t exist until the end of my career and honestly wouldn’t have made much (if any) difference for me as it turns out.
Highlighting yourself or your presence.
Or being highlighted regardless of your desires! This one can be both good and bad on all sides. Yes, the highlighting is proof of presence, proof of ability, proof of other things. And yes, fighter pilots have giant egos, but separating yourself from the pack on purpose? Not likely and not necessary. Claiming prowess or specialness simply because your lucky timing just happened to put you first? Nope! But all that being said, trailblazing is hard work no matter how you approach it. Highlighting happens whether you intend it to or not. I elected to keep my head down and work hard. I intended to be the very best that I could be and by doing that I was making it better for those who came after me by not making waves or intentionally drawing the spotlight. In my daily grind I wasn’t different but I was very often reminded, whenever I stepped outside my daily grind, that I was different and I was special. Doesn’t matter whether I thought so or the USAF thought so or if any of my fellow fighter pilots or their wives thought so. The reality was so. This was never better exemplified to me than it was when I was the narrator for Air Combat Command’s A-10 Demo West team in 1999. I also cannot recount how many times I was “voluntold” to be an escort or do a briefing or whatever simply because I was female. I never complained or asked, I just did it. I embraced it and did my best at those things too. It was an unfair price to pay for the privilege (and curse) of being one of the first and the few but it was what it was and I did my best to make it a non-issue and go forward. Many many more examples through my entire career but hopefully you get the idea. I was a pilot but also never unaware that I was specifically a female pilot but that wasn’t anything I ever called attention to. I believe that when we can get through and not be singled out and not be pointed out, etc then and only then have we truly integrated. History happens but doesn’t have to be the focus. No regrets!
Some of the women quoted in my “Fitting In” post mentioned isolation and mentoring. I had wondered about both subjects, and asked Xena to share her thoughts:
Was I isolated? Yes, sometimes (i.e., billeting discussions above) But mostly no. Sometimes it
was recognized isolation and other times perhaps unrecognized until after the fact. Physical versus social isolation? I was different but not actually isolated. Sometimes I was lonely because though I had a squadron full of male peers and plenty of girl time (wives and other), no one (not a single person) could relate to those one of one realities (good or bad). I never lingered, I just paused, reflected, processed, acted if necessary and proceeded.
Mentors? Yes, sure, of course. Just like every other young fighter pilot, I found mentors to look up to and learn from. … Mentoring doesn’t have a sex. That being said, it would have been amazing to have another female fighter pilot to look up to and guide me in those isolating times and thoughts and share perspectives. We were just so few and far between that it wasn’t feasible. The only exception for me was Martha McSally who took me under her wing briefly during FTU. Martha was a captain. She had me over to her house for dinner one night and we chatted and she helped get me started on some ways to relieve myself in the jet.
Here are some summary thoughts from my personal experiences over my 20 years. These three things always came up (both within the fighter pilot community and with civilians):
- What’s the difference (being a female fighter pilot vs just a fighter pilot)? Honestly, the answer is the biggest difference is that people ask you all the time what’s the difference. Truth. Or I’d be scheduled to fly with someone and they’d say “I’ve never flown with a female pilot” to which I would reply “me neither” and they would always be surprised. Silly really, but think about it! If I’m the only one you’ve encountered, just how many do you think I’ve come across?
- How do you pee in the jet? (Male or female, military or civilian, sober or drunk — this always came up). Sadly, during my 20-year career, the USAF made little to no progress on this. We were left out there on our own to figure it out for ourselves and then every now and then the AF would ask us to try some new thing and provide detailed feedback. So I did a ton of extra work and nothing ever came of it. It is extremely frustrating that they have not solved this basic physiological need.
- Can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told “I still don’t feel (or believe) that women should (can) fly fighters, but you’re okay Xena.” Though bass-akwards, I honestly always took this for the huge compliment that it was intended. But I also found it two-faced and ignorant to both acknowledge this and yet hold onto a global belief despite this acknowledgment. Again, you can’t tell me I don’t belong because I just kicked your ass and though this wasn’t always the case, I wasn’t the best and I was far from the worst but always held my own personally and professionally.
Thanks, Xena, for sharing with me and my readers. I’m lucky to know some awesome people, and you’re right up there at the top of the list! And hey, readers, if you know any women thinking of a military aviation career, or currently in training for one, please let them know about this post. I think they’ll find it useful … and inspirational.
© 2019, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.