Aim High and Open the Skies for More Women

3:08 PM April 29, 2011

Late last month, the US began an air attack in Libya, safely helping to push back Muammar Qaddafi's army.  The combat air campaign was lead by Major General Margaret Woodward, the first woman to direct such an attack. When Woodward first joined the Air Force, women were actually banned from flying in combat missions.  Times have certainly changed, but it seems there is work still to be done.
While women make up nearly 15 percent of the military, current policy still prohibits them from serving in some combat units.  The Military Leadership Diversity Commission recently reported that the lack of combat unit service is denying many women the credentials required for promotion to the highest levels.  The Commission recommended opening up all jobs to qualified women.
While more policies continue to be sorted out and updated, another relatively simple change can make a big difference.   As the next class of military aircraft is being developed, cockpit dimensions and seat proportions can be designed to enable more women pilots to contribute.  Many of our military aircraft's existing requirements for standing height, sitting height, arm length, and weight tend to exclude many females.  Studies show that 81 percent of military females are likely to fall outside of at least one of the design parameters.
Some progress has been made on this front.  The Hawker Beechcraft T-6 Texan, a plane used by the U.S. Navy and Air Force to train pilots, was configured over ten years ago to accommodate roughly 95 percent of the military's potential male and female pilot population.   This modification of old standards has enabled even more female pilots to obtain skills necessary to fly military aircraft.
The Air Force and Navy also applied the more inclusive cockpit and seating standards on newer planes, including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.  The Air Force has even also taken steps to replace the ejection seats in the existing T-38 planes to accommodate smaller pilots. 
Yet some manufacturers continue to design, and the Department of Defense continues to consider purchasing, aircraft with outdated standards.
In the coming months, the Air Force will have a chance to show how serious it is about continuing to expand future combat opportunities to female pilots.  It is currently reviewing bids, and will soon choose an aircraft, that will be used for close support, light attack and armed reconnaissance (LAAR).  This LAAR plane has the potential to become the backbone of Air Force counterinsurgency warfare efforts in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
The choices for this aircraft will come down to the American made Hawker Beechcraft AT-6, a plane that like the aforementioned T-6 trainer can safely accommodate 95 percent of the military female pilot population, and the Brazilian manufactured Embraer EMB-314, which is designed to meet some of the older standards and will fail to accommodate far too many women.   The wrong decision would result in another career-limiting hurdle put in the way of qualified female pilots.
It is time to make reasonable adjustments to military aircraft so more women (and smaller men) can contribute to our defense. We can assure a clear path for qualified fliers of both sexes with some common-sense updates today.
We challenge the Department of Defense, the U.S. Air Force and Congress to aim high and stand behind efforts that would help greater numbers of qualified women, like Major General Woodward, earn their wings and command future combat missions.


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