Females in military aviation

Female military pilots

It is only in the last 30 years that females have been accepted into most Air Forces around the world. In the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF), females were only allowed in from 1977. The first female pilot was Angie Dickinson, who graduated in 1988. She, along with a few others, became the first females to be in operational roles within the RNZAF, including several fighter pilots. These fighter pilots were, in essence, in a combat position. These combat positions for females were constantly under scrutiny, due to the widespread, but not complete, belief that combat positions should be filled only by males. This was world-wide, not just in New Zealand.

History of females in the military

The initial jobs available for females in the military were limited to traditional jobs, such as nursing and administration. Most Western nations followed this trend, with many not allowing females into the main military until the 1970's. The way that females were employed was through the introduction of women's forces, such as the Womens Army Corp (WAC) in the United States of America. There were also nursing corps, as well as auxilary air force arms set up across the world. The main exception to this was in the former Soviet Union, where females were allowed in the main military corps from the early 1900's.

Hofstede’s masculinity/femininity descriptions are one way of identifying the differences in military aviation culture, with the more traditional culture of military pilots being the masculine side. “Masculinity stands for a society in which social gender roles are clearly distinct: Men are supposed to be assertive, tough, and focused on material success; women are supposed to be more modest, tender, and concerned with the quality of life.”

World War Two was the first main period where females became more included into the militaries around the world, although still in limited roles. In the USA females started to be included in flight crew, however not in a pilot role or in combat aircraft. The introduction of more women's corps marked the beginning of a changing in culture in the military.

The first females to officially fly were part of the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs) during WWII. They were restricted to ferrying flights and support roles, with no combat roles available for them.

Women in combat

Women were first included in combat by the former Soviet Union, soon after suffering huge losses during World War Two. They were included in aviation combat, in bomber and fighter regiments. There were female-only regiments, as well as combined regiments. In Western nations, there were no females in combat in World War Two.

Psychology of females in the cockpit

The psychology of females in the cockpit is one of continuing interest to many in both the military and civilian worlds. Within the civilian world, there have been similar struggles to allow them to fly with males, such as the battles of Deborah Wardley and Ansett Airlines. An example of this that highlighted the publics’ attitude at the time towards female pilots, where she was confronted by someone who was concerned about his safety simply because she was a woman pilot.

Within the military environment, the females in the RNZAF were only allowed in non-combat flying roles, as it was believed that the “introduction of females into combat units would hinder the development of close relationships that led to trust in life-or-death situations” (Collings & Laine, 2010). This is representative of the culture that is still prevalent within many militaries around the world.

There is little evidence available about the culture within the confines of a military cockpit, other than the above thoughts about trust in a life-or-death situation. However, it can be deduced from the experiences of being a female RNZAF officer that there would be very few issues within the cockpit, provided that all crew are confident and know what their role/task is. The main crux of it is to be a professional, as anecdotally there are no longer the issues of believing that females are not as capable as males when it comes to flying ability. If the crew understands their job and does it professionally, it is believed that there would be very few issues surrounding discrimination and harassment.

Currently, there are many females serving as pilots in defence forces around the world. Some countries have them restricted to non-combat flying, but the flying they do is still dangerous, entering combat zones to evacuate wounded personnel. The only difference is that they are not going up to purely fight; they are performing a vital support role. In that sense, the military has not changed hugely in that females are still doing more support roles rather than combat. It is just the means of doing the support roles have evolved more.

Practical implications of female flight crew

The main implications of female flight crew is in relation to the equipment and whether they suit the female body shape and size. The facilities provided also need to accommodate females.

Equipment is vitally important to a pilot, so the correct sizing and fitment is crucial. Specialist equipment such as G-suits for fighter pilots must fit properly; otherwise there can be serious consequences as they may not function correctly. Many female fighter pilots have said that they had to get their G-suits tailored specifically for them, as female anthropometrics are different to males. Other areas that have to be changed or adapted are the cockpit seats, and the reach available to get to the instruments and controls. Most equipment can be modified to accommodate female pilots; these are just two examples that are commonly faced.

Facilities need to be modified also, so females based in combat areas such as Afghanistan are looked after in terms of their personal needs. Generally, females will have their own quarters rather than having unisex ones. Ablutions are usually unisex, however depending on the unit and location they may need to be modified to have separate female and male ablutions.

Changing the equipment and facilities is a huge cost to the military/government funding the process, and as such, many militaries do not allow females in areas where there would be excessive changes needed to accommodate them.

Acceptance of females around the world

Many air forces around the world accept females with few restrictions. In terms of flight crew, there are still not many female fighter pilots, however there are generally no barriers to females being a fighter pilot. Generally females are accepted into military aviation, whether it be as a pilot or crew.

In India, females are not allowed in their Air Force, and there are no plans in the foreseeable future to allow them. It is said that the “Indian Air Force does not want any disruption, which he feels is inevitable when a woman pilot gets married and has children” (Parsons, 2009). The cost to train a pilot can be up to 1.7 million Euros, and up to 14 years of active service to recoup that money in India. Many militaries around the world have a similar view in relation to a return of service to recoup the money spent.

The Soviet Union allowed females to fly in combat during World War Two, the only country to do so. This decision may have come from the communist ethos, where everyone is equal and should work regardless of gender in order to get the job done.

One of the best ways to achieve acceptance is to treat all crew the same, regardless of gender. “As a pilot and member of an aircrew, we see each other as just that – a crew; there is no difference” (American Forces Press Services, 2009). This seems to fit into the military culture in general, where there are very few concessions made for the differences between males and females.

The culture within the RNZAF is one of acceptance, as long as everyone is professional in their conduct and execution of their jobs. This has transferred into the cockpit, where females are subject to the same training as their male counterparts. There have been no measures taken to help support the females specifically, rather, everyone has the same support available throughout their career.

1. American Forces Press Service. (2009). Female Soldiers Continue Footprint in Army Aviation. Retrieved from http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=55383
2. Australian Government. (2010). Aviatrices – Australian Women of the Air. Retrieved from http://www.cultureandrecreation.gov.au/articles/aviation/aviatrices/
3. Dawson, B. (2002). High Flyers: Celebrating the Extraordinary Women of the RNZAF 1977 – 2002. Auckland: Penguin Books.
4. Feltus, P. (n.d.). Women in the Military in World War II. Retrieved from http://www.centennialofflight.gov/essay/Air_Power/Women/AP31.htm
5. Hofstede, G.H. (2001). Hofstede: Masculinity/Femininity. Retrieved from http://www.andrews.edu/~tidwell/HofstedeMasculinity.html
6. Parsons, G. (2009). No Women Fighter Pilots for the IAF. Retrieved from http://www.key.aero/view_news.asp?ID=1111&thisSection=military


A. Laurence

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