Murphy's Law: Beyond Tokenism


March 15, 2012: China recently celebrated the 60th anniversary of their first female air force pilots. In the last 60 years China has trained 328 female pilots, most of them in the last decade. The first group of female pilots served in the 1950s, and then the recruiting of female pilots disappeared for a long time.

Female military pilots began to reappear in the last decade, at first only in noncombat roles. Three years ago China had its first 16 female fighter pilots graduate from a 44 month course. These young lieutenants (age 21-24) were not the only female Chinese military pilots, as there were already 52 in service (flying non-combat aircraft) at that time, with another 545 in training. As with their male counterparts not all trainees complete the training.

At the same time China announced (via photo ops, TV spots, print) that they had developed special flight suits for their female fighter pilots. The fighter pilots chosen (well, probably ordered) to act as models for the new attire looked a bit uncomfortable. But the flight suits seemed to fit well. The first flight suits tailored for women showed up before World War II, but most air forces are just rediscovering the importance of fit in these vital items of clothing.

A special flight suit for female military pilots is nothing new. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that, compared to men's flight suits those for women have to deal with narrower shoulders, smaller necks and waists, shorter upper torsos, and shorter legs.

Meanwhile, noting the success of female military pilots in the United States over the last three decades, an increasing number of other countries are moving in that direction as well. The reason is simple, many of the women who go through flight training turn out to have better flying skills than the average male pilot.

During World War II (1939-45) the United States used women pilots to ferry military aircraft around, including bringing them to the airfields combat missions were flown from. These female pilots were considered civilian contractors but some male pilots could not help but notice that many of these women were very good pilots. In Russia the need for good pilots led to hundreds of women being put to work flying bombers and fighters in combat. But in Russia, as elsewhere, the women were removed from the ships and airplanes when the war was over. It took another three decades before the women regained in peacetime the jobs they had in wartime. Now several dozen nations, most in the West, employ women as military combat and non-combat pilots.

Many countries, however, have cultural problems with female pilots. For example, India and Pakistan (which graduated its first female pilots three years ago) are both having a hard time keeping male pilots in uniform. Too many of the men depart for more lucrative, and less stressful, careers as commercial pilots. But in these two countries women may not be the solution. Currently, only about half of women officers stay in past their initial five year contract. Indian women, even military pilots, are under tremendous social and family pressure to marry. Those that do may still be pilots but married women are under a lot of pressure to have children. The Indian Air Force provides its female officers with ten months leave for this, six months during pregnancy and four months after delivery. The air force does this because pilots are very expensive to train. Fuel costs the same everywhere, as do spare parts. So what India may save in lower salaries is not enough. A good pilot costs over half a million dollars for training expenses and takes over five years to train. So the Indians are betting a lot of money and time on keeping their female pilots flying. Many women are willing to take up the challenge. But they have already heard from their peers in Western air force that motherhood and piloting can be a very exhausting combination.

Worldwide, women are increasingly part of the military. In many nations over ten percent of military personnel are female. In the U.S. military it’s now 15 percent. A century ago it was under one percent (and most of those were nurses and other medical personnel). More women are in uniform now because there aren't enough qualified men, especially for many of the technical jobs armed forces now have to deal with.

Islamic nations have higher illiteracy rates overall and very high rates for women. These nations have a severe shortage of technically trained people. Those women that do get an education in Islamic cultures tend to be very bright and able. So there's a need and a solution close at hand. But because of those religious restrictions, and the generally very macho attitudes in Islamic nations, there will never be as many women in uniform as are needed. This means that Islamic armed forces will continue to come up short when it comes to maintaining and using military technology. The future of military operations is more technology, so you can see where this is leading. No wonder Islamic radicals want to go back to the past. Unfortunately, the non-Moslem world is not inclined to join them. Taking a knife to a gun fight doesn't work.

Allowing women to be combat pilots eventually leads to women commanding combat units. Four years ago a U.S. Navy F-18 pilot, Commander Sara Joyner, completed her tour as the first female commander of a navy combat squadron (VFA 105). This included a seven month cruise to the Persian Gulf aboard the USS Harry S. Truman, where her dozen F-18Cs flew about 412 hours each. Joyner had been in the navy since 1985, when she entered the Naval Academy. She was a flight instructor in 1993, when the Department of Defense changed its policy and allowed women to fly combat missions. Joyner had 3,000 hours in the F-18 and 600 carrier landings at the time. Once women were allowed to fly combat aircraft it was only a matter of time before some of them rose to command positions.






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