Modern Military Women Aviators 50 / 30 Years of Service

  • Published
  • By Marcelyn Atwood, Colonel USAF (Ret)
  • Air Force District of Washington
Women Airforce Service Pilots Legacy for Modern Military Women Aviators 
Many know about the Woman Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), a group of women who flew every military aircraft in the WWII inventory. Eighty-one years ago, in 1942 there were two programs placing women pilots in military aircraft to support the war effort.  By 1943, those two programs merged as the WASPs and were assigned to fly military aircraft and missions including testing, training, towing targets, and delivering aircraft where the Army needed them.
Forgotten after WWII, the WASPs rallied to gain recognition when the Department of Defense (DoD) started an early 1970’s media campaign about opening more career fields to women, including aviation.  The DoD public affairs stated it would be the first time women would fly military aircraft. The WASPs quickly corrected the record and reminded the public of their WWII contributions.  In simple terms, the WASPs legacy can be stated as “they did their part for the war effort.”  Today’s women military aviators view the WASPs legacy as so much more. They proved women could fly any aircraft in the inventory and could do so under adversity.
First, the WASPs proved that when laws and statutes are not limiting, women readily volunteer to serve their country even if the entrance requirements were stringent. Secondly, once graduated from training, the WASPs flew every aircraft in the U.S. Army Air Force inventory, proving women could fly all aircraft.  Third, the WASPs pulled targets for artillery practice, instructed men how to fly, ferried aircraft, test-flew planes, and operated top-secret aircraft. They proved women could do more than straight and level flight and could push the limits of flight if necessary.  Post WWII, the WASPs were encouraged to join the military in non-flying positions.  Over 200 enlisted in the reserves proving women could exist in an integrated military organization and accomplish the mission.  Lastly, the WASPs proved that military aviation is not a gender specific skill; the aircraft does not care what gender is at the controls. 
Generation Two:  Fifty Years of Modern Women Military Aviators
Fifty years ago, in 1973, the Navy and Army sent women to pilot training followed by the Air Force and US Coast Guard in 1976.  For two decades, the Services and the law restricted the types of aircraft and missions these women aviators could fly. Their abilities, persistence, and proven aviation skills led to the boundaries pushing ever wider. In the first two decades (1973-1993), women were flying test planes, becoming astronauts, serving on training carriers as ship crew, training pilots to fly, flying airborne surveillance and reconnaissance, providing logistical airlift into instable areas of the world, and providing tanker support for the Strategic Integrated Operational Plan, a.k.a. the nuclear war plan. Those missions, no matter how close to the conflict, were not classified as “combat” by various definitions and exceptions to policy.
1973-1993 Military Women Aviators Legacy
It wasn’t until the 1991 Persian Gulf War, with an air campaign consisting of over 118,000 military flights in 44 days, that the edge between the front combat lines and the back combat support areas blurred in an undeniable way.  Women were in the fight if they were close enough to be shot out of the sky. From the DoD perspective women were technically outside the combat zone yet they conveniently ignored the range of the enemy’s weapons. These women aviators carried on and after nearly 20 years of flying, they not only embodied the concept but left a legacy of ‘respecting the skill at the controls, rather than “seeing” a woman or a man’. 
Thirty Years of Modern Military Women Aviators in Combat
In December 1991, President George H.W. Bush signed the repeal of the combat exclusion law.  Two years later in April 1993, after an exhaustive 2-year study on women in combat, DoD changed the policy allowing women aviators to fly combat missions. The Services immediately selected women aviators to attend fighter and bomber training and that same year, 1993, the Marine Corps sent their first woman to pilot training.  Today’s combat trained women aviators continue to prove the aircraft doesn’t know the gender at the controls, only the skills, persistence, and daring to be the best.