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Female flight crews push boundaries for safety, warfighting effectiveness

  • Published
  • By 412th Operations Group
  • 412th Operations Group

The first female officers to graduate from the Air Force Undergraduate Training Program, Class 77-08, broke barriers almost 45 years ago. Today, a new generation of female flight crews continue to work to push that legacy forward.

Earlier this month, the 412th Operations Group’s Caroline White, a T-38 pilot and Standards and Evaluations Deputy Chief, and Jess Peterson, Flight Test Engineer, performed a training mission at Edwards Air Force Base, California. Together, along with other experts in their field, they are working on bringing forth improvements for aircrew flight equipment for women.

“Over the past several years, the USAF has been making great progress on efforts to test and acquire aircrew flight equipment that supports the wide range of aircrew, including needs for female aircrew,” said Jess Peterson, who also serves as the 412th OG Technical Director. “Supplying flight equipment, such as flight suits, helmets, masks, G-suits, and harnesses is critical for aircrew safety.”

Providing input from an experienced female pilot has been critical in the success of the programs Peterson added. And the two women both have played crucial roles for aircrews. Besides flying the T-38, White is also qualified to fly the C-12, moreover she also flies an HH-60 with the USAF Reserve.

“As a pilot, I am an instructor/evaluator in the C-12 and train Air Force pilots to become qualified in the C-12, who go on to support the Air Force and US in various ways, to include flying for the Defense Intelligence Agency and are fielded to US embassies and ambassadors across the world,” White said. “Knowing that I train and equip the pilots who are critical to maintaining our international relations is incredibly rewarding. As a T-38 pilot, I support the 416th Flight Test Squadron by chasing test aircraft and also serve as a red air (enemy) platform for our 412th fighters to utilize their mission and test systems against.”

Peterson, meanwhile, is qualified in the backseat of the T-38, F-16D and C-12. In addition to flight duties, she teaches a curriculum at the USAF Test Pilot School on the interaction between human and aircraft systems. A key focus is on the physical measurement of aircrew, called anthropometric measurements, and how it affects the interface with the systems.

Not only does aircrew measurements affect flight equipment, such as flight suit/G-suit/harness sizing, but it also can affect aircrew operation of aircraft with visibility through things like a Heads-Up Display (HUD). Designing systems that allow for a wide range of aircrew allows the Air Force to focus on aircrew ability and potential when selecting mission sets, Peterson explained.

While attending Test Pilot School, all the students go through an anthropometric measurement lab where dimensions such as sitting height, distance between knee to hip, head size (for helmets), mouth width and height (for mask sizing), etc. are measured. From this laboratory, the Air Force maintains a profile on the anthropometric characteristics of the aircrew workforce.

The students receive numbers that fall anywhere between 5 to 95 percentile for standard measurements; these numbers can then be used when aircrew evaluate systems. Peterson said it was an eye-opening moment when she received her measurement numbers for mask fitting, in the 5% range, and understood why Aircrew Flight Equipment had challenges finding a good mask fit for her.

“I have always been mission focused in my work; what is the big picture and why does it matter? The reason I have been focused on aircrew flight equipment recently is that it removes one of the perceived barriers for both men and women,” she said. “Historically if you were in a percentile that didn’t allow for the right fit in an airplane or equipment it would limit your opportunities.”

As the female aircrew workforce increases, using anthropometric measurements allows test and design teams to ensure our USAF equipment and systems meet the needs. Recent success have included the incorporation of female flight suits and G-suits that properly fit female body types over the traditional equipment.

“Additionally, getting female appropriate equipment was one additional hurdle that women had to overcome. To have the best military in the world, we need to give opportunities to all different backgrounds. Our diversity is what makes us strong, we cover each other’s blind spots and can come up with creative ways to solve problems,” Peterson said. “With the support from Caroline, the past couple years have seen great strides in developing better systems for the USAF. With new bladder relief systems our female aircrew can support long duration flights without concern for hydration or performance.”

White’s personal experience while she was deployed drives her to continue striving to make flight equipment better suited for women.

“I have memories of flying 6 hour sorties into Syria wearing body armor, flight vest, weapons, NVGs (night vision goggles) and having no real method of meeting my physiological needs, which ultimately made my job as a warfighter more difficult,” White said. “If I can help others in the future to not be in that situation, I will be relieved that they can be physically relieved.”