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U.S. Air Force Maj. Nick Harris, left, and Capt. Jessica Wallander, instructor pilots with the 71st Flying Training Wing at Vance Air Force Base, Okla., stand side-by-side to illustrate the varying standing heights of Air Force pilots.
U.S. Air Force Maj. Nick Harris, left, and Capt. Jessica Wallander, instructor pilots with the 71st Flying Training Wing at Vance Air Force Base, Okla., stand side-by-side to illustrate the varying standing heights of Air Force pilots. (U.S. Air Force)

WASHINGTON — The Air Force has ditched its height requirements for officers who desire to fly its aircraft, an effort aimed in part at encouraging more women to attempt pilot training, the service announced Friday.

The Air Force on May 13 rescinded its 2015 policy that restricted pilot training to officers between 5 feet, 4 inches and 6 feet, 5 inches tall, unless they were granted a waiver to attend flight school, service officials said in a news release. With steady pilot shortages in recent years, the Air Force had encouraged individuals outside that height range to apply for a waiver and routinely granted them, officials said.

Nonetheless, the height waiver process itself likely stopped many people from even considering pilot training, said Lt. Col. Jessica Ruttenber, an Air Force mobility planner who led the effort to change height standards. She said some 44% of female Americans between the ages of 20 and 29 would have had to receive a waiver to attend flight school under the old policy.

“Studies have shown that women’s perceptions about being fully qualified for a job makes them less likely to apply, even though there is a waiver option.” Ruttenber said in the news release. “Modifying the height standard allows the Air Force to accommodate a larger and more diverse rated applicant pool within existing aircraft constraints.”

Officials said Friday that it would be impossible to determine precisely how many women were discouraged from flight training because of the waiver requirement.

The new height policy will include an “anthropometric screening process,” which looks at the size of muscle, bone, and fat tissue to measure body composition for all candidates to determine whether they can safely pilot certain aircraft.

Gwendolyn DeFilippi, the Air Force’s assistant deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services, said the service is looking at various ways to eliminate barriers women and other minorities face in the Air Force.

“This is a huge win, especially for women and minorities of smaller stature who previously may have assumed they weren’t qualified to join our team,” she said.

Before the Air Force implemented the height waiver process in 2015, it banned individuals shorter than 5 feet, 4 inches and taller than 6 feet, 5 inches from being pilots. The initial waiver process was an attempt aimed at increasing diversity within pilot ranks.

Previous height restrictions were largely aimed at ensuring safety within cockpits generally designed around the average size of a man, officials said. However, in recent years, individuals well below and above the former standard heights have proven capable of flying, according to the Air Force.

The average 20-year-old American man stands about 5 feet, 9 inches tall, while the average 20-year-old American female stands about 5 feet, 4 inches tall, according to a Department of Health and Human Services assessment of data between 2007 and 2010.

The initiative to scrap the height requirements came out of the Air Force’s Women’s Initiative Team, for which Ruttenber is a leader. The team is comprised of volunteers who advocate for women’s propensity to serve and work to advance equal opportunity regardless of gender, according to the Air Force.

Top Air Force officials have said they need about 21,000 pilots in the service at all times, and they have remained about 2,000 short of that goal for several years. Officials, however, have said amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has force commercial airlines to freeze pilot hiring, the service has seen a significant uptick in retention of experienced pilots.

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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.
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