Women Pilots

by Kieran Healy on April 1, 2006

Commenting on a story about “female pilots”:http://www.dawn.com/2006/03/31/top1.htm in the Pakistani Air Force, “Lindsay Beyerstein”:http://majikthise.typepad.com/majikthise_/2006/04/first_female_pi.html asks “Are American servicewomen allowed to fly planes in combat?”

The answer is yes. Lt. Col. “Martha McSally”:http://www.ctie.monash.edu.au/hargrave/mcsally.html was one of the first seven female jet pilots in the USAF, and I think in 1995 was the first woman to fly a combat sortie, while she was on a tour of duty in Kuwait. In 2004 she became the “first woman to command a fighter squadron”:http://www.azstarnet.com/dailystar/relatedarticles/30666.php. She “recently returned”:http://www.azstarnet.com/dailystar/115123.php from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, where she led her squadron of “A-10 warthogs”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A-10_Thunderbolt_II. In December of 2001 McSally “sued the Pentagon”:http://www.rutherford.org/about/cases.asp because a regulation forced her (and all other women in the military) to wear a Muslim abaya (covering her from head-to-toe) while she was stationed in Saudi Arabia, and also forbade her from leaving the base without a male chaperone. Amongst other objections, McSally pointed out that servicemen were actually prohibited from wearing Muslim garb. She won her case.

Commenters with more knowledge of the U.S. Air Force than I are free to correct me, but I think it’s no surprise that McSally (who, like most women pioneers of her type, is by all accounts outstandingly qualified) should fly an A-10. It’s pretty much the lowest-status fighter combat aircraft in service. (One joke is that its airspeed indicator is a calendar.) Which isn’t to say I would want to see one bearing down on me with “one of these fuckers”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GAU-8_Avenger blazing away. One of the reasons I know any of this, incidentally, is that McSally’s squadron is based at “Davis-Monthan AFB”:http://www.dm.af.mil/ here in Tucson. A-10s (and other jets) fly sorties out from Davis-Monthan to the “Barry M. Goldwater Bombing Range”:http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/facility/goldwater.htm (no, really) a couple of times a day, and the flight path runs over my office. You understand the meaning of the phrase “air superiority” when you see a couple of those things go overhead.



Gene O'Grady 04.01.06 at 10:00 pm

Is the A10 (a terrific, if low status aircraft) really a fighter? I thought the A stood for “attack.” But then my analytic categories for military aircraft may be out date.


Bernard Yomtov 04.01.06 at 10:13 pm

At least it’s not the Curtis LeMay Bombing Range.


Kieran Healy 04.01.06 at 10:14 pm

Well, I just meant it’s not a transport plane or tanker or what have you. It’s meant for attacking tanks and other armored ground targets. The fact that it’s not capable of the kind of things that F-16s or other fighters can do is of course one reason it has a lower status. As I said in the post, though, I’m sure any tank commander will tell you the A-10 is not exactly harmless.


Brett 04.01.06 at 10:17 pm

Exactly what I was going to say … it’s not a fighter, it’s a ground attack aircraft (close support, bomber, whatever). Whether it has low status or not, I couldn’t say. But I certainly wouldn’t like to ask a Warthog pilot that :)


squorch 04.01.06 at 10:37 pm

The A-10 isn’t a fighter – it’s an attack aircraft. It’s the bastard child of the USAF because close air support isn’t viewed very well in terms of “air power” – it’s more viewed as a job that the Army should do. Comparing it with a fighter in terms of capabilities is comparing apples and oranges – they simply do not have the same mission. Also, I have friends that are flying Vipers (F/A-22s) and are also female, so the “women get crappier fighters” thing is a non-starter, honestly.


Kieran Healy 04.01.06 at 10:58 pm

it’s not a fighter, it’s a ground attack aircraft

Yeah, but the original question was whether women can fly in combat — so the answer is still yes, I think.


Gary Farber 04.01.06 at 11:17 pm

“It’s pretty much the lowest-status fighter aircraft in service.”

Since it’s not a fighter, I suppose one could say that. It’s a ground-attack plane, of course.

Ah, I see I’m not the first person to point out the obvious.

“Yeah, but the original question was whether women can fly in combat—so the answer is still yes, I think.”

Well, yeah, of course they can; this is hardly news. I’m a little baffled that Lindsay would post such a question; granted that clearly she doesn’t know anything about the subject, which is hardly a crime, but, y’know, Google?

Major Tammy Duckworth just won the Democratic primary in the Illinois Sixth; she got her legs blown off flying combat. Tangentially, I didn’t even bother blogging the news a couple of weeks ago of Capt. Nicole Malachowski’s actually starting her flying with the Thunderbirds, since I covered the news that she would be a year ago. Or one could ask Maj. Gen. Betty Mullis.

The number of stories of women flying combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, well, there have been hundreds and hundreds and hundreds. For more than half a decade. It stopped being news a long time ago.

I wouldn’t let this sort of thing bother me, save that I’m always embarassed when my fellow liberal/lefty mates display huge frakking ignorance about things military; I don’t think it’s actually helpful towards winning elections, although I’m simply wildly generalizing now, of course. But, still, not obscure information, and again, Google. There are about 460 female fighter pilots in the U.S. Air Force at the time that article was written; bomber and attack crew would be another number, and, of course, there are a zillion other jobs that put you in the air and in combat, and particularly if you’re in Army Aviation. (And it’s not all piloting, of course.)


ECW 04.01.06 at 11:38 pm

These are some scary planes. The Goldwater range is just north of Organ Pipe National Monument in AZ. I was camping there a couple years ago when two A-10’s popped over the ridge east of our site and buzzed us at about 200 feet. We had no idea they were in the air until the were on top of us and gone. Spooky as hell. I think they were using us as heat targets. Good thing they didn’t know we were a campsite of liberal academics, or they might have snuffed us (at least that’s what my brother the air force officer always tells me).


cheem 04.02.06 at 12:02 am

Among the Airforce, it has low status, but the grunts love the A-10 and regard it very highly indeed.


stuart 04.02.06 at 1:23 am

Among the Airforce, it has low status, but the grunts love the A-10 and regard it very highly indeed.

Probably the airforce doesn’t like it because it has to get in closer to attack enemy targets than some other types of air support. Ground troops like it for the same reason presumably.


eudoxis 04.02.06 at 1:38 am

Traditionally women flew transport but, since 1993, women have been allowed to fly fighters as well. I’ve heard first-hand accounts of female pilots having to endure a tremendous amount of verbal abuse from male pilots, especially during combat mission debriefings. There are a number of women flying F-14s, F-15s, and F-16s.


Dabodius 04.02.06 at 4:47 am

It’s the contemporary version of what the Soviets called a Shturmovik. Just now there is no better plane for attacking AFV, and this should give it and its pilot high status indeed with the ground troops whose operations it supports.


joel turnipseed 04.02.06 at 5:31 am

I suppose the Kara Hultgreen episode should be noted by someone here…

As to the Air Force and A-10: despite what anyone tells you publicly in the joint-ops age, the Marine Corps gets really nervous whenever the Air Force is around. In the first Gulf War a huge percentage of the friendly fire casualties were from heat-seaking Air Force-fired missiles rather than laser-guided munitions from Navy/Marine Corps aviators flying close-air support. In the event (as I have heard it), the Marine Corps finally told the Air Force: we don’t need your help. But to second what a lot of people here have already said, of all the aircraft in the arsenal, it’s stuff like the A-10 that the ground pounders like best (for a severe critique of airpower in counterinsurgency–which argues in no uncertain terms that aircraft like the A-10 are exactly what we do need, written by former USAF Special Forces colonel now teaching at USMC War College, check this out).

As to the GAU-8 Avenger: a personal connection here–my uncle has been working on weapons-delivery systems for General Electric/Martin Marietta/Lockheed Martin (same projects, same teams, different companies) in Burlington, VT for thirty-odd years. I always wondered, when I was visiting Burlington/Middlebury, whether all my off-beat writer/artist pals in the area knew that they lived next door to one of America’s most lethal killing factories.


Kieran Healy 04.02.06 at 7:56 am

I wouldn’t let this sort of thing bother me

Except to let it go by would mean passing up the opportunity to be supercilious?

Since it’s not a fighter, I suppose one could say that. It’s a ground-attack plane, of course.

Ah, I see I’m not the first person to point out the obvious.

Right, you’re not: 5 of the first 6 comments pointed it out, even though the distinction wasn’t really relevant to the original question. And the other people who pointed it out weren’t asses about it. And the original post had already been corrected.

I’m a little baffled that Lindsay would post such a question

Well, her blog actually has readers.

Feel free to comb the archives for spelling errors or dangling modifiers or what have you.


M. Gordon 04.02.06 at 9:02 am

I wouldn’t let this sort of thing bother me, save that I’m always embarassed when my fellow liberal/lefty mates display huge frakking ignorance about things military; I don’t think it’s actually helpful towards winning elections…
Really? Somehow, most politicians (let alone Republican politicians) manage to get elected by displaying “huge frakking ignorance” about things economic, social, scientific, and mathematical. Although perhaps less politically problematic, I regard these areas of ignorance to be a tiny bit more important.


Paul Gottlieb 04.02.06 at 9:14 am

The A-10 may be a low-status aircraft, but in reality it is one of the most valuable weapons in our arsenal. While the cream-of-the-crop fighter pilots dart around at mach 2 looking for enemy fighters that never appear, the A-1o pilots are busy taking out tanks, destroying enemy fixed positions, killing the enemy, and saving the lives of our troops. Women’s work!


John Lederer 04.02.06 at 9:24 am

Note that she apparently transferred to A10’s in order to take command of a squadron. That is a big advancement, even if one were to regard an A10 as a less “hot” airplane.

A10 pilots tend to be a little older than most. There are two reasons. First the A10 has a very high cockpit load that stresses basic flying skills such as seat of the pants low level navigation, and flying in low altitude weather out of rough fields. The needed skill set is one acquired by experience.

Second they impose a lower g load on the pilot and as we age we become less able to tolerate high g’s.

One of the results of this is that one can fly for much longer in A10’s than in say F15’s, and most pilots want to fly. As a Lt. Col. she is probably in her late 30’s if rapidly promoted, early to mid 40’s if not.

In my experience the number of a10 pilots who would ather fly higher performance jets is quite small.


Gary Farber 04.02.06 at 9:35 am

I’m sorry if I seemed or was supercilious, Kieran. And when I first typed my comment, there were only a couple of others; I was interrupted for a bit, and then, after I finally finished and hit “post,” my comment was “held for moderation”; I wouldn’t have piled on just to have piled on.

I’m sorry I struck you as being an “ass,” which obviously was not my intent; I don’t know if I was so much more so than the others making similar points, although I did provide some links and specifics, but, regardless, well, I regret having struck you in what seems to have clearly been an irritating way. (I kinda wish you might have avoided the name-calling, though; it’s not as if we had a major dispute here; on the other hand, I’m more bothered at the indication you think so poorly of me than I am at the choice of word.)

In regard to M. Gordon, I certainly don’t engage in a shortage of criticism of Republicans, nor did I remotely rank this one point against the vast array of criticisms of innumerable Republicans I constantly make; I don’t mind being criticized for things I say, but such a comparison is one I didn’t even remotely make.


Cranky Observer 04.02.06 at 1:30 pm

> In December of 2001 McSally sued the Pentagon
> because a regulation forced her (and all other
> women in the military) to wear a Muslim abaya
> (covering her from head-to-toe) while she was
> stationed in Saudi Arabia, and also forbade her
> from leaving the base without a male chaperone.
> […] She won her case.

Thus indirectly triggering (or providing one of the major trigger points for) the Bush/Cheney invasion of Iraq.



Cranky Observer 04.02.06 at 1:44 pm

> I wouldn’t let this sort of thing bother me,
> save that I’m always embarassed when my fellow
> liberal/lefty mates display huge frakking
> ignorance about things military;

Perhaps you could provide some solid backup as to why memorization of large qtys of military nomenclature, which is often deliberatly designed to be confusing, helps prevent “ignorance”?

And then you could go on the explain why the F-35 is named the “F”-35, rather than the “A”-12 which is its actual function? Or how the F-22 went from being the F-22 to the “F/A”-22 back to the F-22 without changing its characteristics one iota?

You do realize that when Tom Clancy, the acknowledged master of military jargon, is speaking of politics (for whatever that may be worth) he uses straightforward language, not jargon?



Jon H 04.02.06 at 2:40 pm

“One joke is that its airspeed indicator is a calendar.”

Which, combined with the very low altitudes at which the A-10 operates, and the need to aim the whole jet at the target, makes it a rather more convenient target than the high-flying supersonic jets with their laser-guided bombs and fire-and-forget weapons.

The A-10 is supposed to be quite sturdily built, with IIRC a titanium bathtub around the pilot compartment. But still…


Matt Austern 04.02.06 at 3:05 pm

The reason Lindsay’s question is interesting is that when I first started paying attention to such things (about 20 years ago, say), I noticed that there was a law forbidding women to serve in combat. In certain circles this law was a big deal politically, and it had all sorts of political and practical consequences. It’s the reason that college-age men are still required to register for the draft and college-age women still aren’t. It’s the reason one of my college acquaintances, someone in Air Force ROTC, was unsure of whether she really wanted to have a career in the Air Force.

Nowadays, in the coverage of the second US-Iraq war, we’re seeing all sorts of stories about US women doing things that an ordinary civilian would think of as combat, and we’re not hearing anything about forbidding women from serving in combat. So to anyone who has been paying attention to this issue for a while but hasn’t been following it obsessively all that time, the interesting question is: how could that law have gone away without lots of very loud debate? And if it hasn’t gone away, then what’s going on? What are the real restrictions on women in the US military, if any?

(The answer, as far as I can figure out, is that legally US women are still not allowed to serve in combat but that over the years this law has been interpreted more and more narrowly; not all roles in the US military are open to women, but women are now put in positions where they shoot and get shot at.)


James Wimberley 04.02.06 at 3:21 pm

Not only is the brilliant A10 low-status, it barely made it into production because of inter-service infighting. The production line has been stopped, while the USAF spends billions on two programmes for pointless but ultra-sexy air superiority fighters.


dq 04.02.06 at 4:41 pm

#16 – nice! I laughed out loud, and your comment is particularly nicely set off by the squabbling over mastery of military jargon, etc., going on around it.


Joseph Eros 04.02.06 at 5:05 pm

Seeing A-10s in action at night was probably the most surreal thing I witnessed during the invasion of Iraq. From the side, about half a mile away, all you could see was a thin trail of blinking flashes–silent, beautiful and ethereal, like pixie dust. Then two or three seconds later, the sound arrived, an incredibly loud buzz (the firing rate is far too fast for individual shots to be audible) that made it instantly obvious that a whole lot of pointy metal death was being thrown around.

I saw the results the next day. If you want vehicles (trucks and APCs, in this case) chewed up into little pieces, the A-10 comes in really handy.

Re comment #22, my impression during my time in the Army (2001-04) was the same–the rules against women in “combat positions” are still on the books but are being defined away bit by bit.


John Lederer 04.02.06 at 9:41 pm

After WWII my father was involved in rewriting the doctrine on close ground support for the then just split off Air Force. Using pilots on the ground to cootdinate air support was part of that doctrine.

Despite being “true blue” he was convinced that the close air support role could better be performed by the Army than the Air Force. Part of his reasoning was that it would always be an Air Force orphan — something that has largely been true.

The Army’s response to the Air Force’s less than whole hearted commitment to close air support wws the development of the attack helicopter — a lousy idea whose chief virtue for the Army was “we control helicopters”.

Close air support has always been one of the most dangerous missions for pilots. Part fo that is the obvious vulnerability to ground fire, but problems of high speed maneuvering close to the ground, low level navigation, and a real danger of shooting oneself down are major factors.

The ones who are good at it are Marine Air — but it is their major mission.


Terry Karney 04.03.06 at 1:16 am

Speaking as a member of the Army… Warthog pilots are held in high esteem here. The AF, of course, has a different culture, and the planes with status are those which fight other planes (and the more purely they do that, the better, so the F-16 has a higher status than the F-15 which is higher than the F-111).

If you ask me, part of the reason the AF dislikes the A-1o is that it, painfully, reminds them they are an independent service which exists in a support role.

They haul supplies to the Army, and for themselves. They need those supplies to give air-support to the Army. Strat-bombing is done (one hopes not) by technicians who sit in silos; so that justification is also gone.

One of the things which was done as a propaganda trick, in part I think to please the AF, was to call the 117 a fighter. It is, actually, either an Attack craft, or a Bomber but not a Fighter since it can’t carry any air-to-air weaponry.

The A-10 is an incredible plane. Watching one fire a burst is incredible. The plane slows, a sound like tearing cloth is heard and the smoke falls away. For someone who fights on the ground, it’s a wonderful thing.

Lindsay askes the question because technically women are prohibited from specialties which are combat related. No infantry, no Engineers, and even no Artillery, though these days Arty is rarely close enough to the front-lines to be in any real risk of direct confrontation.

The flip side is, jobs like MP, interrogator, truck-driver, mechanic, and the like. All of which, in the present day (which goes back to at least Desert Storm) put them in positions where they will be face to face with the enemy.



Bill Gardner 04.03.06 at 7:07 am

There was a great article by Mark Bowden in the Atlantic about an F-15 squadron in Afghanistan. One of the pilots was female (or the weapons officer? anyway, she sat in the second seat). Clearly, a frontline combat role.

Can anyone quote the actual regulations about women in combat?


lemuel pitkin 04.03.06 at 11:33 am

I’m always embarassed when my fellow liberal/lefty mates display huge frakking ignorance about things military; I don’t think it’s actually helpful towards winning elections

Oh come the frak on. Do we really want Majikthise, Corooked Timber, etc. to hold off posting anything until they’ve given an affirmative answer to, “Is this good for the Democrats?”

Frak that.


Walt 04.03.06 at 2:31 pm

Lemuel: Precedent has already established that curse words are okay on CT.


lemuel pitkin 04.03.06 at 3:11 pm

Oh I know, Walt — altho between you and me, I think it’s beneath Kieran’s dignity. I was just mocking the ever-so-mockable Gary Farber.


LYNN HARGROVE 04.03.06 at 5:31 pm

Nice comments, but most missed that the US Navy has women combat pilots, flying off its Carriers. As and “old Navy man”, I think that is great! Sitting a fighter on a flattop is the hardest thing you can do flying.


Brian Angliss 04.03.06 at 10:02 pm

I never did military, but when I was seriously considering it in my youth, I decided what it was I wanted to do in each of the services. I wanted to drive tanks in the Army, submarines or Aegis cruisers in the Navy, or fly A10s in the Air Force. Cool planes….


Andy 04.04.06 at 1:56 am

’nuff said

And knowing about military matters is important poster #20. It takes 2 seconds to look stuff up on google. It still amazes me the number of print, blog, TV and radio journalists/commentators get basic military facts completely wrong. With today’s information access, there’s just no excuse anymore.


Sirocco 04.04.06 at 11:04 am

The A-10 was designed with the curvy Balkans theater in mind. As painfully demonstrated in the Kosovo War, Apaches don’t cut it in such terrain (if any at all): they tend to be a greater menace to their pilots than to enemy tanks. Not so the A-10. While slow, it can take an astounding amount of beatings and stay on the wings.

Judging by my hazy recollection of the ancient but fine computer game A-10 CUBA!, it’s also an experience to fly — I’ve even talked to a retired USAF pilot who said it was much more fun to fly than the F-15. So the modest status has some compensation.

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