Capt. Charlene Sufficool didn't think she could be a fighter pilot until a commander at the Air Force Academy encouraged her to try. Here, then-First Lt. Sufficool poses with an A-10 during B-Course training at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz. 355th Wing Public Affairs
Photo Caption & Credits

Erasing Artificial Barriers

Nov. 1, 2020

The Air Force is making it easier for women to be aviators—and to keep flying should they choose to have children.

When Capt. Charlene Sufficool first got to the U.S. Air Force Academy in 2012, she wanted to be an engineer or maybe work in intel. Although she grew up in a military family and her dad had once been a crew chief for the Thunderbirds Demonstration Team, flying wasn’t on her radar, she said. “I never really thought of it as a possibility for me.” 

But when Sufficool made the Academy’s Wings of Blue parachute team her sophomore year, her commander, an A-10 pilot, said she had what it takes to fly fighters. He urged her to give it a try. Sufficool had by then begun thinking of flying, but she’d only met one woman pilot, and she flew C-17s. “I was like, you know, I think I would like to fly C-17s because I’ve seen a girl, and she flies C-17s, so it seems like that’s what girls do,” Sufficool recalls. 

“But, he was like, ‘No, really, I think you could be a female fighter pilot.’” His insistence changed her trajectory. Today, Sufficool flies A-10s with the 354th Fighter Squadron at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz. “It took a commander that believed in me as a woman to help me see what I could be,” she said, and “for me to believe in myself.” 

You can’t be what you can’t see.Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, Air Mobility Command boss

Of the 10,964 pilots in the U.S. Air Force today, only 708—just 6.5 percent—are women. The majority fly mobility aircraft and fewer than 3 percent fly fighters.

“You tend to see more women in mobility because that’s … where we started,” said Air Mobility Command boss Gen. Jacqueline D. Van Ovost, a command pilot with more than 4,200 flight hours. Now the Defense Department’s only female four-star and a former test pilot, Van Ovost oversees 52 percent of the Air Force’s women pilots.

“It goes back to that thought … you can’t be what you can’t see,” she said. “That’s why we’re so focused on exposure for our aviators.”

Artificial Barriers

The Air Force is also focusing on removing barriers that shouldn’t exist. Restrictions on women flying combat missions were dropped in April 1993. Maj. Gen. Jeannie M. Leavitt—then a first lieutenant—became the Air Force’s first-ever female fighter pilot a few months later. 

Leavitt made a career of blasting through barriers. She was the service’s first woman to graduate from the elite Air Force Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., in 1998, and nearly two decades later, the first woman to command a fighter wing. Today, she serves as Air Education and Training Command’s director of operations and communications, where she heads up the service’s Rated Diversity Improvement (RDI) team—one of five lines of effort under the Department of the Air Force’s overall Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, stood up by former Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein. 

Leavitt said the May decision to remove initial height requirements for pilot applicants was a “key change” to improving rated diversity. Pilots previously had to be between 5 feet, 4 inches and 6 feet, 6 inches tall, with a sitting height of 34 to 40 inches. But that physical requirement disqualifies about 44 percent of the U.S. female population between the ages of 20 to 29, according to AETC. While the former policy allowed Airmen to apply for waivers—and 87 percent of those were approved from 2015 to 2019—the number who never even tried is beyond knowing. 

“About a year ago, I met a highly qualified young lady working on her master’s in aeronautics and astronautics, and she was thinking about going into the military, but she wasn’t sure which service. Of course, I said, ‘Well, the Air Force is wonderful,’ and she said, ‘Yes, but I want to be a pilot.’ I said, ‘Well, we are the Air Force and we definitely have pilots.’ And she said, ‘I’m not quite 5 foot 4.’ I said, ‘No, no, that’s not a restriction!’” 

Such policies are “artificial barriers,” Leavitt stated, defining an apparent absolute minimum, when in reality, it just meant that for those shorter than 5 foot 4 inches, USAF had to take extra measurements to steer them into cockpits suitable for that height and stature. There are very few aircraft that people who did not meet those parameters are prohibited from flying, she added. 

“There was a misperception that the Air Force had a minimum height restriction of 5 foot 4, but a lot of that was urban legend,” Leavitt said. “Even though we had changed the height restriction, when you Googled, ‘What is the minimum height to be a pilot in the Air Force?’ 5 foot 4 would come up. Well, it wasn’t true, we had made changes, but it took a concerted effort to highlight  the changed requirements.” 

Most USAF aircraft were built around a 1967 anthropomorphic study of males between the ages of 20 to 29 years old, which looked at everything from femur height, sitting height, head size, shoulder width, to how you wear your gear, Van Ovost said. Future cockpits will be more inclusive. 

“We are—in the future—designing cockpits that are going to meet 95 percent of the recruitable American population. So, we’re changing those 1967 standards and that will provide opportunity,” she noted. “As you can imagine, they can’t do this overnight, but these are the kinds of things that give hope for women and to our recruits.”

Flight Suits for All 

One key to recruiting and maintaining female aviators is making flight equipment that is specifically suited for their bodies. This includes everything from maternity flight suits to equipment that makes it easier for female fighter pilots to relieve themselves during long sorties.  

The Human Systems Division is simultaneously working a three-phase approach to fielding maternity flight suits. The first phase is a temporary fix to the existing 27/P flight suit worn by most aviators. In phase two, USAF is looking to develop a one-piece maternity flight suit with extra, stretchable fabric in the front and adjustable tabs on the sides. The Air Force is conducting burn and extended-wear testing now and fit tests will follow early next year; initial production is slated to start in December 2021, according to a USAF release.  

A demonstration of issues and challenges women face with current survival vests at AFWERX’s Female Flight Equipment Workshop in Las Vegas in early 2019. Female Airmen attended the workshop to explore areas of opportunity and come up with solutions. Airman 1st Class Bailee A. Darbasie

Capt. Sydney Freeman, a C-130J pilot assigned to the 19th Airlift Wing at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., made do by wearing her husband’s flight suit while pregnant, rolling the sleeves and adjusting the middle to accommodate her frame. Now she’s trying to get one of the new flight suits for her current pregnancy.  

“Navigating through the purchase and acquisitions for that flight suit, it’s taking some time,” she said. “It’s definitely a bit of a frustration to experience, because I mean, gosh, we’ve been flying in combat for almost 30 years now. This isn’t the first time female pilots have ever had children. … I think we still have a bit of work to do.”

Hydration and Relief 

Flying in combat does bring some unique challenges for women. 

During pilot training, Sufficool practiced what she called “tactical dehydration.” T-6 sorties were about two hours and T-1 sorties typically only lasted about an hour, so she would drink coffee and try to clear out her system before she flew. Then once she landed, she would chug water to rehydrate.  

But that tactic doesn’t work in combat where flights are much longer. “When I was getting ready to deploy, and they told me that I might have to sit in the cockpit for seven hours, that’s when I started to get kind of concerned,” she said. Most of the bladder-relief gear was designed for men, and while the Air Force does have devices for women, most female fighter pilots say they aren’t really practical in a cramped fighter cockpit while wearing a G-suit, harness, and combat vest.  

That’s why AFWERX, the Air Force’s innovation arm, is hosting the Sky-High Relief Challenge to find “an improved bladder-relief system [that] will enhance the overall quality of life for female aviators on and off the job by leading to fewer physical and mental health issues,” states the challenge site.  

Tactical dehydration isn’t a safe alternative. Dehydration lowers pilots’ G-tolerance by up to 50 percent. It can also reduce physical and cognitive performance, decrease situational awareness, cause intense headaches and altered vision, and can cause G-induced loss of consciousness.  

USAF is willing to award up to 10 prizes at a minimum of $100,000 each for firms that can design “comfortable, form-fitting interfaces; urine transfer and storage technology; [and] compact, high-flow rate pump technology,” the announcement says. AFWERX is also willing to award as many as two prizes worth $250,000 or more for a “complete pump-less bladder relief system.” 

“The focus on addressing women’s needs at the highest levels of the Air Force demonstrates USAF’s commitment to developing superior aircrews while simultaneously fostering inclusion and supporting gender equality,” the announcement says. “Addressing female-specific equipment and female aviators’ well-being is a top USAF priority. The outcomes of this challenge will help improve retention rates, advance recruitment practices, and eliminate gender gaps.”  

Still, while the requirement remains, funding has proven a challenge. Efforts to reprogram additional funds for both maternity flight suits and new in-flight bladder relief devices for women were both deferred in recent budget actions.

Family or Career—or Both?

The Air Force is also taking steps to tackle another perceived barrier—the idea that women have to choose between having a family and a flying career in the Air Force. Leavitt calls this a “false choice.”

“Personally, my husband and I have two amazing children, and most of the female pilots I know are moms. I think there is the perception that you can choose to be a pilot or choose to be a mom, and I think that is kind of a false choice  in terms of choosing one over the other,” she said.

Last year, the Air Force updated its policy for pregnant women, allowing those flying remotely piloted aircraft, performing missile operations duty, and “certain fully qualified pilots” to continue their work during pregnancy without a medical waiver. 

Lt. Gen. Dorothy A. Hogg, USAF surgeon general, said the policy change was meant to “empower women to work closely with their obstetrician and flight medicine providers to pick a path that is tailored to their individual needs.” Women are not required to fly while pregnant and pregnant pilots are free to change their minds about flying at any time, she said.  

When the change was made, Lt. Col. Jammie Jamieson, the first operationally qualified female F-22 pilot assigned to a combat-coded unit—and a mom of three—said the policy pays off for both pilots and the Air Force. “Flying is a sport and a perishable skill,” she said. “So being able to minimize time out of the air helps preserve their individual skills and readiness and retains the Air Force’s significant investment in them.” 

Col. Danielle Willis, vice commander of the 93rd Air Ground Operations Wing, always wanted to be a fighter pilot. She has a picture of herself at three years old sitting in the cockpit at an air show giving a “thumbs-up with a huge grin on my face,” and from that moment on “all I would talk about was flying,” she told Air Force Magazine. 

Maj. Danielle Willis and husband Maj. Darren Willis prioritized getting assignments together so they could raise a family, despite warnings that doing so might limit their careers. The couple deployed to Balad Air Base, Iraq, in 2008. 93d Air Ground Operations Wing

Growing up, Willis had no idea women weren’t allowed to fly in combat. “Without a strong military background in our family, it honestly never occurred to my mom, my sister, or I that … wasn’t something that was open to us.” Willis was a sophomore in college when Leavitt went through pilot training, so when she graduated and joined the Air Force, “I ended up being on the leading edge of women flying fighters in the military, without even realizing how I was on the cusp of essentially the history of women in the Air Force.” 

She met her husband—a fellow fighter pilot—at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas. “It was love at first G,” she said. The couple prioritized having assignments together, which was one of the reasons they volunteered for instructor duty. “Early on, we got some feedback that it might limit our career,” Willis said. But, “we knew that we wanted to have children, and the way that the policies were set up at the time, it was easier for me to requalify in the T-38 as a UPT instructor than it would have been for me to requalify as an F-16 instructor.”

Now, things are changing. 

Van Ovost, whose prior post was as USAF director of staff and as adviser on the Air Force’s Diversity and Inclusion efforts, said the service has made it easier for women to fly while pregnant. 

“And, now, we’re just in the final throes of authorizing a new policy that specifically talks about women and pregnancy and flying duties,” she said. “Currently, when pregnant and flying in a physical airplane, you can only fly if you’re cleared in your second trimester. … That’s only in airplanes that have multiple pilots in it, no ejection seats, so we’re opening that up so that we can allow our women to continue to fly. We’ll have some restrictions, but we’ll be able to continue to fly them, and you can maintain currency, and do things that, frankly, are lower risk to them and to the fetus.” 

When Freeman had her first son in May 2019, she was immediately grounded and had to wait weeks to get a medical waiver. As a C-130 pilot, an aircraft with two pilots and no ejection seat, she was able to keep flying until her 24th week of pregnancy. And, because Little Rock has certified C-130 simulators at the base, she was able to maintain her currency after that, and never worried about requalifying after the baby was born. 

“Dyess Air Force Base [Texas], Yokota Air Base [Japan], and Ramstein Air Base [Germany], don’t have simulators,” she said. “The ladies that are expecting at those locations don’t have that option.” 

The recent policy change gave Freeman, who is now pregnant with her second child, more time in the air. “It’s absolutely wonderful,” she said. “I get an extra five weeks [to fly] because the waiver period now goes from my 12th week to 28 weeks [of pregnancy]. And, as soon as I had the meeting with the flight doc, within the next two days I had my waiver approved because it’s at the base level now.” 

In August 2019, USAF also released a new lactation policy, requiring units to provide rooms for nursing mothers. The policy does not only apply to pilots, but it shows the increasing support female Airmen have in the service. 

Col. Angela F. Ochoa, vice commander of the 375th Air Mobility Wing at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., is very familiar with the logistical challenge of balancing a busy flight schedule and being a new mom. After giving birth to her daughter, Ochoa would show up for a mission, do all the necessary pre-flight paperwork and briefings, and then send her crew out to the airplane, while she went into a bathroom to pump. But since sorties could last as long as 16 hours, she also had to figure out how to pump in the air.  

Col. Angela Ochoa encourages female Airmen to be upfront about their challenges, such as breastfeeding needs, instead of trying to hide them. The 375th Air Mobility Wing’s vice commander is pictured here in front of a C-21 in a hangar at Scott Air Force Base, Ill. Senior Airman Solomon Cook

“I would bring my kit, and go out to the plane, and what I would try to do is find a time where I could pump either while I was flying, while we were up at altitude … or … schedule a period of time [during the] sortie where I [could] sit down on the ground and take care of business,” Ochoa said. “This is a common thing that a lot of women that are moms have to deal with and figure out how to work it into the mission.”

Now as a leader, she is trying to normalize the process, encouraging female pilots to be upfront about their breastfeeding needs, rather than saying they have a “meeting” or need to take a “phone call” when it’s time to pump. 

“I am very excited that the rated diversity improvement initiatives have so much attention,” Leavitt said. “When I started pilot training quite a while ago, there were no such efforts. There were not a lot of women or minorities in pilot training, and there was no one focused on changing that. So, the fact that our Air Force leadership, from the very top-down, is interested—very interested—in improving the diversity of our rated force is very exciting to me.” 

Putting a Face to the Mission

In October 2018, the Air Force Recruiting Service (AFRS)—then under Leavitt’s command—stood up its Detachment 1 as the “tactical execution arm” of RDI, according to its website. Det. 1’s mission is to “inform, influence, and inspire,” and it does that largely by having a diverse group of Airmen—from general officers to new lieutenants—tell their story to potential new recruits, said Det. 1 Commander Lt. Col. Annie Driscoll.

The service announced in February that 300 rated officers would join Det. 1’s Total Force aviation recruiting team, with the goal of using those officers as “force multipliers” at AFRS recruiting and engagement events. The goal is to increase the number of engagement events with youth and underrepresented groups, such as women and minorities, by 300 percent by fiscal 2025, and then increase the number of minority and female applicants by 20 percent annually to match the demographics of the eligible, qualified American population during the same time period, according to USAF. 

The coronavirus pandemic forced AFRS to rethink these engagements, but it hasn’t stopped the service from reaching out. In response to the crisis, Det. 1 launched the “Pathway to Wings” virtual program—a live webinar in which pilots from different backgrounds answer questions about what it’s like to fly for the U.S. Air Force, while recruiting experts are on hand to answer questions about joining the service. Driscoll said 1,250 people signed up for the first event, and nearly 3,000 participated in the first three events held over the summer. AFRS plans to continue holding the virtual webinars every month. 

“We want to show them somebody that they can look up to, that they can identify with their story and say, ‘Hey, that could be me,’” Driscoll said. 

So far, the efforts appear to be paying off. 

“As we’ve continued to put emphasis on this, we’re starting to get momentum,” AFRS commander Maj. Gen. Edward W. Thomas Jr. told reporters at the Air Force Association’s virtual Air, Space & Cyber Conference in September. “Over the past four years, we’ve seen a steady increase in female rated selects,” going from 9.2 percent four years ago to 19.2 percent today. “So, we are making headway. … We’ve got to keep our foot on the pedal, clearly, but we are making some headway.”