US DEFENSE SECRETARY Les Aspin announced on April 28 at the Pentagon that the US military forces were being ordered to allow women to fly aircraft on combat missions. Although there has always been Pentagon opposition to expanding the combat roles of women, this was lessened by the active role played by women in Operation Desert Storm. About 35,000 service women played a part in the Gulf War and five of them were killed during the conflict, including Chinook pilot Major Marie Rossi, while two were taken prisoner by the Iraqis.
Congress repealed the ban on women flying combat missions in 1991 and the distinction between combat and support roles has already become very blurred. The USAF and USN will take immediate steps to implement the new policy. At present, only 184 of the Navy’s 9,400 pilots are women, while in the Air Force the figure is 295 out of 16,000 and in the Army 327 of its 12,442 aviators are women.
The first female pilot in Navy combat training was Lt Sally Fountain on EA-6B Prowlers and the first female combat aviators will join VAQ-130 in July and be on USN carriers within 12 months. The USAF has already moved quickly with Lt Jeannie Flynn commencing fighter lead-in training in mid-May for an F-15E combat pilot assignment and due to be followed by Capt Sharon Preszler, who will begin F-16 training in November. It will be up to a year before women are seen flying operationally in Army AH-64 Apache gunship helicopters due to the length of training time, although two, Lt Angie Norman and W/O Cathy Jarrell, began training during May and a third, Lt Charlene Wagner, is training on the AH-1 Cobra — there are already female Black Hawk and Chinook pilots. Female pilots in the Marines will come later as the USMC does not presently have any women training in any aviation unit.
Altitudes to female pilots vary between the services — Air Force chiefs have been reluctant to put them in fighter cockpits, arguing that in an era of tight budgets and expensive training it made no sense unless they were actually going to fly in combat. Conversely, both the Army and Navy have been keen to see female combat pilots, the Army Chief of Staff having already voiced his commitment to seeing women flying Apaches.