The military designed aircraft with only men in mind. Now it's working to change that.
By TARA COPP | MCCLATCHY WASHINGTON BUREAU Published: December 23, 2020
WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — As a helicopter pilot in Iraq in 2004, now-Sen. Tammy Duckworth stopped drinking water hours before she climbed into the cockpit of her Army UH-60 Black Hawk for combat missions.
Even in Iraq’s heat, she’d purposefully dehydrate herself because there was not a safe way for her to use the restroom in her one-piece, zip-up flight suit.
“I would have to take off my side arm. I wore a shoulder holster, so I would have to take off my shoulder holster. Then I would have to take off my flight vest, my survival vest, then I would have to take off my body armor and then I would have to take off my flight suit in order to go to the bathroom,” said Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat.
“So I did what any sane person did, which was I just didn’t drink [water],” she continued. “And that is a very dangerous practice that many of our female service members went through.”
McClatchy exclusively reported this summer that of the military’s 48,000 pilots, only 3,300 were women and only 72 were Black. There are a multitude of reasons, including that the services did not open up flying roles to women until in the 1970s and did not allow women to fly in combat until the 1990s.
But even 25 years later, aircraft systems that could make military aviation more accommodating for women and encourage more of them to stay in service are still designed around men.
That’s starting to change. This summer, due in part to the uproar over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, all of the service branches took a deeper look at the lack of race and gender diversity in their ranks.
Those internal reviews prompted process reforms, such as who sits on military promotion boards. But it also re-energized reviews of warfighting equipment and a commitment that future military aircraft systems would be designed with both men and women in mind.
In the past, “we were eliminating about 44% of the U.S. female population right off the bat” through aircraft design, said Jennifer Whitestone, a biomedical engineer with the Air Force’s Airman Accommodation Laboratory, which is assisting with the review.
Most of the nation’s current fighter jets were designed around male pilot body measurements from Army, Navy and Air Force studies completed in the late 1960s or early 1970s.
When women tried to operate them, many were too short to see over the aircraft’s nose.
In advanced fighters, such as the F-15, only about 9% of all women had the arm length and torso height needed to control or safely eject from the jet, Whitestone said.
In an August memo, the Air Force said that past aircraft configurations had disqualified as many as 74% of Black women, 72% of Hispanic women and 61% of Asian women.
“To put it bluntly, the U.S. faces a crisis of scale,” wrote Will Roper, the Air Force assistant secretary for acquisitions. The August memo eliminated height restrictions in place since a 1967 study and directed that all future aircraft acquisition would need to be designed to accommodate 95% of body sizes among the recruitment-eligible U.S. population.
Going forward, “all program managers will work with their lead commands to use the central 95 percent of the U.S. recruiting population body size when defining design specifications for aircrew flight equipment and new aircrew or operator station designs,” Roper wrote.
With China rapidly building up its military, the change “is not only about pursuing diversity and inclusion as a matter of principle; it also reflects the practical necessity of leveraging our nation’s entire talent pool to beat these odds,” Roper added.
It will be too expensive to retrofit the military’s older jets, such as F-16s and F/A-18s to meet the 95% standard, Whitestone said.
But the Air Force has been able to retrofit the T-1 Jayhawk trainer aircraft with a cushion to help some pilots obtain the height needed to qualify for and safely operate that aircraft. In addition, its future replacement for the UH-1N Huey helicopter, the MH-139A Grey Wolf, is already undergoing measurements at its various positions such as gunner to determine what range of body types it can accommodate, Whitestone said.
A new ejection seat being produced by Collins Aerospace will remove another barrier female pilots faced: many of them did not weigh enough for the old seat to safely eject them.
“In the past, our ejection seats were only able to accommodate women who, without any added gear, weighed in the 140s range,” said Maj. Saily Rodriguez, the director for female fitment for the Air Force’s Agile Combat Support Directorate.
There are also initiatives underway within the services to revise body armor, adapt anti-gravity suits to fit correctly around female pilots’ thighs and calves and design bladder relief systems to provide better support for female service members.
“A lot of these things are really coming about simultaneously, which is great in terms of improving their [women pilots] chances of being successful in their mission and continuing in that career path,” Whitestone said. “All of those things have to be in place. The aircraft could be perfect, but if they don’t have good bladder relief or properly fitting aircrew flight equipment, then it’s problematic.”
Duckworth remembers in early 2003-2004 that there wasn’t body armor designed for female body types.
“So you had the female service members fighting over the handful of size ‘smalls’ that would be available and you just took whatever there was,” she said. Duckworth added a provision to the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act to require the services to coordinate on new designs and track any injuries reported as a result of ill-fitting gear.
Bladder relief remains an unfinished priority. When Duckworth flew missions that could last hours, male crew members were able to relieve themselves by peeing in bottles, she said. That wasn’t an option for her.
“I went through my entire flight career avoiding using the restroom and in fact dehydrating myself on purpose so I would not have to urinate,” Duckworth said. “And that was bad for my health. And we now see it in the [Department of Veterans Affairs] with the high rate of urological disorders among female veterans. The Women in Military Service to America Memorial even has an exhibit, ‘To pee or not to pee?’”
The Air Force recently completed a virtual conference called the “Sky High Relief Challenge” competition, where it evaluated ideas from more than 20 private companies on how to improve options for females to urinate while in flight, Rodriguez said.
Current options include using a “piddle pak,” which requires a female aviator to insert a relief bag while still harnessed to the seat. There’s also a battery-operated bag produced by Omni Medical Systems that wicks away urine that has been tested by all of the services.
But so far there isn’t a solution that is widely trusted by female military pilots to work and not make them vulnerable to infection, Rodriguez said.
“Our women right now are actively dehydrating themselves or they are performing some really risky maneuvers inside of the cockpit, i.e., unharnessing themselves from their ejection seats, or subjecting themselves to using bladder relief devices that can leave them with health complications,” Rodriguez said. “This has been an issue for a long, long time. So our office is really engaging in a multitude of ways to go about resolving that.”