Retired Air Force Col. Martha McSally, who logged more than 300 combat flying hours, today is recalling how she took part in the Pentagon’s last gender revolution, as the U.S. military prepares to open a new frontier for women — direct ground combat.
The winter of 1993: Col. McSally and fewer than a dozen other young female officers got calls from the Air Force telling them a 45-year ban on women flying fighter jets and bombers was ending. They had been picked to be pioneers if they wanted to try to show they had the right stuff.
“Am I interested?” she recalls saying. “I’m flying T-37s [trainers] in Del Rio, Texas. What do you think? Of course I’m interested.”
Col. McSally would embark on a long flying career on the A-10 Warthog, an armor-plated aerial “tank” built to withstand peppering ground fire as it flies low to protect the backs of land combatants.
Now she is offering advice to women’s advocates and the Pentagon on how best to integrate women into the all-male world of ground combat — infantry, armor and special forces operations. The military services have until May 15 to tell Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel how they plan to open these new roles, or keep some closed.
Col. McSally says there are lessons from her experience and from the way then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates prepared the entire force, unit by unit, in 2011 for openly gay service members.
“It seems like they went to an extraordinary amount of effort to make sure the climate was created. They didn’t do that when they threw us into fighters,” she told The Washington Times. “They just sort of said, ‘I hope this works out for you.’”
It will be 20 years ago on April 28 that then-Defense Secretary Les Aspin first authorized female combat pilots.
The change in policy allowing men and women to fly in the same combat wings endured some turbulence over allegations of favoritism but now is a mostly seamless part of training and war.
“Combat skills are blind to rank, gender, race, color or creed,” retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, a fighter pilot by training, told The Times. “They are based on performance, pure and simple.”
Gen. Deptula recalled: “During a major air combat training exercise, one of the opposing force flight leaders was a lieutenant colonel squadron commander who was very vocal that he did not like the idea of women fighter pilots. Subsequently in the exercise, he was ‘shot down’ by a young female lieutenant who was in my group.”
Women constitute a distinct minority among air combat pilots, according to statistics provided by the armed services to The Times.
Numbering 85, female pilots make up 2 percent of the Air Force’s 3,714 fighter and bomber jocks at the rank of lieutenant colonel and below. Women account for less than 1 percent of the Marine Corps’ fixed-wing pilots and about 4 percent of Navy F-18 Hornet and radar-jamming jet pilots.
The Army has 513 female helicopter pilots, but the service could not provide a breakdown of support and combat pilots.
When asked why so few female officers have become combat pilots, representatives of the armed services and Pentagon top brass declined to comment.
Col. McSally offered an assessment of why women account for 2 percent of the Air Force’s combat pilots but 19 percent of that service’s 64,000-strong officer corps.
“I’m not a quota person,” she said. “The more we can get our recruiting message out to make sure young girls realize that there is anything they can do now when they serve, they can go for it, then that will probably certainly help raise those numbers.”
While the breakthrough is 20 years old, the public occasionally is reminded of these trailblazers when a female aviator achieves a first, or one makes the ultimate sacrifice.
On Monday, a funeral Mass was held in Sykesville, Md., for Army Capt. Sara Knutson, a pilot whose UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crashed March 11 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. All five crew members on the nighttime training mission, died. There was no indication of enemy fire.
That same day, Navy Lt. j.g. Valerie Cappelaere Delaney, 26, died when the EA-6B Prowler she was piloting crashed into a field during training near Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Wash. Two crew members also died.
List of firsts grows
Women aviators have claimed a series of “firsts.”
Col. McSally was the first to fly a fighter in combat and the service’s first woman squadron commander.
Last year, the Air Force announced that Col. Jeannie Leavitt, an F-15E Strike Eagle pilot, won the competition to be the service’s first female fighter wing commander.
In January, the Navy presented Capt. Sara Joyner, an F-18 Hornet pilot, as its first female aircraft carrier air wing commander.
The wing commands are perhaps preludes to achieving flag rank and even more prestigious commands.
“I don’t think that it needs to be said. It’s out there,” Capt. Joyner told reporters, according to The Virginian-Pilot newspaper. “My hope is to be as good as the best of the best [group commanders] that I’ve had. It doesn’t matter what you look like. It matters how you do the job.”
There are many accounts of female pilot heroics in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
One of the best-known is the mission of now-Lt. Col. Kim Campbell 10 years ago this April 7 during the initial invasion of Iraq. Her A-10 took on a barrage of ground fire as she descended to unleash rockets and 30 mm guns to protect U.S. troops who were pinned down.
Somehow, she got her crippled Warthog back to base. The mission earned her the Air Force’s Distinguished Flying Cross.
Now stationed at the Pentagon, Col. Campbell told The Times: “For me, it was just going out there and doing the best that I could, hopefully helping some guys on the ground get home to their families.”
Challenges after ban was lifted
Col. McSally knew she wanted to be a fighter pilot upon landing at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs in 1984. But the ban on female combat pilots was still in force.
“I just personally decided I was going to be the first woman fighter pilot,” she said. “At the time it was against the law.”
With the ban lifted and a menu of planes on the table, “I had just decided the air-to-ground mission was something I wanted to do. I didn’t want to do the air-to-air mission primarily. The A-10 is the absolute best in the world at what it does, close air support,” Col. McSally said.
She qualified, but then faced a new hurdle. Men were not used to women in the ready room. Some resented it.
“The first commander I had in my operational squadron was not necessarily welcoming of my presence,” she said. “That climate became pretty clear to me in my first days of just transitioning into the unit.”
“It was challenging. There were a lot of male pilots who did not want women. They did not think women belonged. I have three older brothers. I’m Irish. I’m feisty. This wasn’t my first rodeo with these kinds of dynamics.”
Getting accepted, she decided, rested on her performance — in other words, making sure she met the same standards as men.
“You are going to meet the standards or you’re not,” Col. McSally said. “Once you prove yourself, you are the greatest of friends.”
An early baptism came when Saddam Hussein threatened to move troops toward Kuwait as if he wanted a Desert Storm II. Col. McSally’s squadron deployed, and she became the first women fighter pilot to fly combat missions in the southern no-fly zone.
Moving up the ranks, she eventually achieved another first — A-10 squadron commander, in charge of more than two dozen aircraft and scores of pilots.
She recalled that on one mission out of Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, her weapons system failed and she had to deliver bombs manually to make sure she helped ground troops below. She chalked up 325 combat flying hours in that country and in Iraq.
Her feisty nature surfaced in another way. She successfully sued the Defense Department to contest a policy that required women personnel to wear the Muslim head scarf while off-base in Saudi Arabia.
She retired in 2010. Last year, she ran as a Republican for Congress in Arizona, losing a close race for the seat once held by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Brothers and sisters in arms
By the time Col. Campbell graduated from the Air Force Academy and entered the “racked and stacked” system of finding and qualifying pilots in the late 1990s, the presence of women in the ready room had become routine.
“I think the important thing for me was that I did the absolute best that I could,” she said. “That’s always the way that I approached things. I found that competence goes a long way so if you are good at what you do you are accepted. The gender doesn’t matter.”
“These guys are my brothers and they look out for me, just like any brother would look out for their sister, and it’s just a very strong bond and relationship. And a lot of that is, when you go to combat together you realize that you depend on each other. Your lives depend on each other to do the absolute best job that you can when you’re flying.”
Her squadron from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., took part in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. She found herself headed to Baghdad to hunt Iraqi tanks, then got diverted to take out enemy troops firing on advancing Americans.
Hit by ground fire, her A-10 lost its hydraulics. Col. Campbell then moved to the backup system — herself. She used manual levers to straighten out the 15-ton plane. She thought she might have to bail out over friendly territory. But the Warthog just kept flying. Its shattered air frame made it back to base.
“I’m incredibly thankful to the people who designed and built the A-10 and the maintainers who maintained it,” she told The Times.
Just like women’s roles in Iraq and Afghanistan moved the Obama administration to lift the gender ban for direct land combat, a war 25 years earlier, Desert Storm, convinced Congress the time was right to break the combat aircraft barrier.
Gender-neutral policy born
Congress erased the legal prohibition in late 1991 as part of the annual defense budget. Then-President George H.W. Bush signed it into law, but no action was taken in the 1992 election year. Once President Clinton took office, one of Aspin’s first acts as defense secretary was to issue a new gender-neutral policy.
The Navy was in a rush to usher the first females into combat air wings. One of the trailblazers, Lt. Kara Hultgreen, was killed Oct. 25, 1994, when her F-14 Tomcat crashed into the sea while on approach to the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast of San Diego.
The Navy put out a news release blaming the accident on mechanical failure. But someone leaked the official investigative report which blamed pilot error.
Then a Navy whistleblower provided detailed records on Lt. Hultgreen’s training to Elaine Donnelly, who runs the Center for Military Readiness. The records, Mrs. Donnelly said, showed a pattern of favoritism from instructors to make sure that young women made it to the fleet.
“A promising female pilot, Lt. Kara Hultgreen, lost her life attempting to land on a carrier when she repeated high-risk glide-slope errors she had made in training twice before,” Mrs. Donnelly told The Times. “An instructor who tried to hold her back for more training was overruled.”
Mrs. Donnelly remains firmly opposed to the Pentagon’s 20-year push to put women into every mission specialty. One reason: the Armed Forces is suffering a consistent rise in sexual assaults as the sexes operate in more intimate surroundings on ships and at battlefield bases.
“Women have earned great respect for their service in the recent wars, but problems of sexual assault and misconduct in the military have gotten much worse, with no end in sight,” Mrs. Donnelly said.
“Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey nevertheless has made the absurd argument that putting women into the land combat arms would reduce incidents of sexual misconduct,” she said. “On the contrary, it is reasonable to expect that all such problems would become even worse. Women are not the primary source of problems with gender-integration. Pentagon policymakers, who believe and implement misguided assumptions about gender equality, ultimately are to blame.”
Women are a distraction
For male pilots, opening squadrons to women has brought on a new era of “political correctness.”
Salty language or a risque jokes can fetch a hotline complaint that prompts an investigation and possibly an ended career.
John Lehman, secretary of the Navy under President Reagan and a former A-6 Intruder bombardier, penned an article in Naval Proceedings magazine in 2011 that crystalized the “PC” culture.
“Those attributes of naval aviators — willingness to take intelligent calculated risk, self-confidence, even a certain swagger — that are invaluable in wartime are the very ones that make them particularly vulnerable in today’s zero-tolerance Navy,” Mr. Lehman wrote. “The political correctness thought police, like Inspector Javert in ‘Les Miserables,’ are out to get them and are relentless.”
Jon Ault, a retired F-14 pilot, wishes the ready room was still all-male.
“I think it’s all been a huge mistake and unnecessary,” Mr. Ault told The Times. “Of course, we have males flying combat aircraft that shouldn’t be, but the percentage is much smaller than that of the females.
“In the first 200-plus years of this country’s existence, we never found it necessary to send women into combat, and I don’t believe we need to now. Women are a distraction. It’s a done deal though. Women in the combat arms piece of the military are here to stay. Current leadership must learn how to deal with it and so far I don’t feel they have a handle on it.”
Female fighter pilots say there are lessons for this next giant step to be played out at training grounds such as the Army’s infantry school at Fort Benning, Ga., and the Marine Corps’ infantry course at Quantico, Va.
Women who plan to volunteer must get ready physically and mentally before they arrive.
“The most important thing is you have to be prepared for going into those career fields,” Col. Campbell said. “I mean, they’re certainly difficult and challenging career fields, but if you go in prepared and prepared to work very hard, that makes a world of difference.”
Col. McSally said it is up to commanders to ensure good order and discipline. That means the same standards so as not to generate resentment among men. “Not even subtle double-standards,” she said. “Don’t treat them like daughters.”
“I’ve certainly offered myself as a resource so that we’re not repeating the same challenges and mistakes over gain,” she said. “Obviously there are some things different. Ground combat is not the same as air combat. But the dynamic of making sure you are setting the standard and people are meeting the standard and that you in the leadership command have a climate of core values — that remains the same.”