In a bid to attract more female pilots — or at least give them an equal shot at piloting — the Air Force has removed its height restriction for pilots.
Previously, it was required that officers wishing to pursue a piloting career be between 5-foot-4 and 6-foot-5, and have a sitting height of 34 to 40 inches. But that’s not to say that candidates who were shorter or taller than the requirement didn’t get in. Instead, they would have to apply for a waiver; most of which were granted.
Even so, having such a tight restriction in the books didn’t serve to encourage prospective candidates.
“While most height waivers were approved under the old system, feedback indicated the entire waiver process served as a barrier, which negatively impacted female rated accessions,” Lt. Col. Christianne Opresko told The New York Times.
Opresko, who is an aerospace physiologist and the branch chief of the Air Force’s Air Crew Task Force, is backed up by the statistics. Out of all the 12,373 pilots in the U.S. Air Force, only 6.6% are women. Given that 20.9% of overall Air Force personnel are women, there’s something very wrong with that statistic.
Women in the Air Force
Women served, unofficially, in all military branches throughout the Second World War. But because they weren’t technically allowed to, they didn’t see the same benefits that the servicemen did. Essentially, they were doing the work without getting any of the credit.
To rectify this, President Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act into law in 1948, allowing women to serve directly in the military. This was only a year after the Air Force was established — so it didn’t go very long without female service members.
Even though they were legally allowed to serve, women were only let into the Air Force under a special program called WAF: The Women in the Air Force program. This program meant they could only serve on a limited basis, and none could be trained to be pilots. For women who had fought and flew during the war, this was a slap in the face. They had special skills — skills that the vast majority of the general population did not have — but they were forced into the Reserves because of gender discrimination.
So, despite the fact that the U.S. government could ask women to lay their lives on the line in wartime, it could not permit them to fly military aircraft once the danger had passed.
Female pilots who flew in World War II included Nancy Harkness Love, who founded the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS), and Jacqueline Cochran, who expanded the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) program.
Female Pilots in the Air Force
The WAF program ended in 1976, when women could enter the U.S. Air Force on the same basis as men. But that wasn’t the end of their fight for equal rights.
Because they were now on “equal footing,” women could train to be pilots following full integration in ‘76. However, they could not fly combat missions. In fact, it wasn’t until almost 20 years later that a female pilot first flew a combat mission.
Colonel Martha McSally broke that barrier for women. In 1993, female Air Force members officially began fighter pilot training. And in 1995, McSally piloted an A-10 Thunderbolt II over Iraq in support of Operation Southern Watch. She would go on two subsequent deployments, to Europe in 1999 and Afghanistan in 2004. She would also become the first woman to command a fighter squadron.
“In 1984, I was attending the U.S. Air Force Academy and told my first flight instructor that I was going to be a fighter pilot,” McSally said. “He just laughed, but after Congress repealed the prohibition law in 1991, he looked me up and said he was amazed I had accomplished my goal.”
Today, 25 years after McSally flew that historic combat mission, women are still facing obstacles in the Air Force. But it’s not just a problem with the Air Force; it’s a problem with society. Women in STEM see it all the time… when society’s idea of a pilot, engineer, or scientist doesn’t look like you, then why should you believe you can achieve that dream?
The Next Step Toward Equality
Despite the obstacles, women are achieving more in the Air Force now than at any prior point in history. Removing the height restriction is just one more step on the road to true equality with their male counterparts.
The average height of an adult American woman is 5-foot-3, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the Air Force’s qualifying height of 5-foot-4 barred 44% of American women between the ages of 20 and 29, according to the Air Force. Now that the restriction is no longer in place, officials hope to see a more diverse pool of applicants.
“This is a huge win, especially for women and minorities of smaller stature who previously may have assumed they weren’t qualified to join our team,” said Gwendolyn DeFilippi, who works on manpower, personnel and services for the Air Force.
Lt. Col Opresko noted that it’s “hard to know” how many aspiring pilots didn’t apply because of the restriction. But women have been flying for the Air Force since before the Air Force existed. They’ve been going on dangerous missions since before they were even recognized as service members. Now, they can rest assured that the Air Force does want them — and that includes the pilots under 5-foot-4.