More and More Women Are Finding the Skies Friendly in the Air Force : Opportunities for Pilots, Crew Greater Than in Civilian Life

Times Staff Writer

The pilot of this great, flapping, camouflaged, masculine lump of an airplane was wearing Midnight Plum nail polish.

Its loadmaster, sweating from brute labor and the tropical night, double-checked the tie-downs on a casket of human remains and 4,800 pounds of rockets and returned to her Glamour magazine article about a newer, sexier, flatter stomach.

Variety of Jobs

On this same South Pacific day, the navigator of a hurricane-watching C-130 took off from here. The co-pilot of a Strategic Air Command tanker flew a holding pattern awaiting F-16 fighters thirsty for fuel east of the Philippines. A flight engineer on a C-141 inbound for Okinawa fretted a mild surge in the exhaust gas temperature of the "Number Thuree engine. . . ."

All women. Yet any sense of oddity must rest with observers. For today's Air Force and aerospace programs accept women air crew as a norm and their integration as complete as manning requirements and the public mood allows.

And when command of expensive, complex flight decks is considered, the Air Force's female fliers are generations ahead of their civilian counterparts.

In the private sector: Although dozens of American women are flying for domestic carriers, only two (both with People Express of Newark, N.J.) are employed as Boeing 747 captains. "That's because women in aviation are a relatively recent phenomenon and everything in the airlines industry is done by seniority," said a spokesman for the Airline Pilots Assn. "Woman pilots are still working their way up . . . and when you're that short on seniority, you're prone to furlough."

Worldwide Operations

Yet in the Air Force: Women routinely command four-jet C-141 StarLifters on worldwide operations of the Military Airlift Command and will soon begin training on the C-5B Galaxy, the world's largest and heaviest transport aircraft. They are working as flight instructors, examiners and as pilots of highly classified AWACS (Airborne Warning and Command System) aircraft.

And in a closely related occupation and industry, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded so tragically last week, it was carrying two women among its seven astronauts.

"As of fiscal year '85 there were 21,115 pilots in the Air Force and 256 were women," a Pentagon spokesman said. "We have 108 women navigators and 194 additional women (loadmasters, engineers and refueling boom operators) in other aircraft operations."

In 1948, there were only 2,166 women in the U.S. Army Air Force, approximately 2% of total strength. That was an awful lot of nurses, chauffeurs and clerks. But no pilots.

In 1977, air-crew ranks were opened to women and so was the class of '80 at the Air Force Academy.

And in 1985, the percentage of women in the Air Force rose to 11.6%--ahead of 10.1% for the Army, 9.1% for the Navy and 4.9% for the Marine Corps.

But more important, said Maj. Gen. William J. Mall, director of personnel planning, is that of 300 Air Force job categories, only four (including the flying of fighter and bomber aircraft) are closed to women.

"We're totally integrated with the exception of combat duties," said another representative, "and that's prohibited by law."

Or is it? It was reported last week that a number of women pilots, including some from the 63rd Military Airlift Wing at Norton Air Force Base near San Bernardino, flew troop- and cargo-carrying missions to Grenada during the initial phases of the 1983 invasion.

They landed on the Caribbean island aboard C-141s when U.S. paratroopers were still fighting Cuban troops at Point Salines Airport. Air Force officials said the deployment of women was a "known factor" of operational planning that fell within the spirit of federal laws barring women from combat duties.

Said a male pilot who flew to Grenada: "The significant thing is that they went in, did the job alongside us, came out and nobody made a huge fuss about it. Nobody, as far as I know made a special effort to include them and nobody thought for a moment about excluding women.

"It simply was no big deal. For the guys or the women. That's the way it should be."

Three women. Three motives for enlisting.

- "My Dad," said 2nd Lt. Michelle Olczvanowska, 24, of San Rafael. "He's an ex-Navy pilot and chief pilot for Jet America and he'd come home and tell us where he'd been and what had happened and he was genuinely thrilled and happy about it.

"Then I looked at Mom. She was unhappy because Dad was away a lot, she was alone, she was not fulfilled in her work. . . ."

So Olczvanowska ("the guys in the squadron call me 'O Plus 11' ") went to Embry-Riddle aeronautical college in Prescott, Ariz. and joined the Air Force in 1984 and now is a co-pilot on C-141 transports flying from Travis AFB near Vacaville.

- "I wasn't interested in airplanes and joined the Air Force at 19 in lieu of college," explained Capt. Lori Muir, 31, the daughter of a nomadic government surplus dealer ("By the time I joined the Air Force I'd been to 21 schools") now settled in San Bernardino. "The only subjects being offered were engineering and nursing so I took industrial engineering at the University of Portland and as a requirement became involved with ROTC.

"Then, in 1979, 10 pilot-training slots were opened to women in ROTC and my professor of aerospace studies suggested I apply. . . ."

Muir, a blonde tomboy standing six feet in her flight boots, is an aircraft commander with the 53rd Military Airlift Squadron at Norton AFB. With 2,500 hours of flying time she's good enough to be a head-hunter, an ombudsman, a squadron cop who pulls routine line checks and snap examinations of other pilots.

- "I wanted to travel," said Sgt. Laurel Bielfelt, 26, an escapee from clerical work in a Phoenix print shop. "I thought about the Navy but, no, I can't swim. The Marines had too many colors in their uniform. I pitched the Army and then saw a documentary and it said most of the people who join the Army were cop-outs.

"So I picked up my paperwork, took it down to Air Force recruiting and said: 'Here, I'll be back tomorrow if you're interested. . . .' "

For three years, Bielfelt, also with the 53rd MAS at Norton, has been a loadmaster with the hefty responsibilities of passenger safety, cargo handling, weight and balance calculations . . . all the operational housekeeping requirements of a 160-ton StarLifter.

Three Air Force persons. Three decided futures.

Olczvanowska will transfer to the Air Force Reserves this month. It's her way of blending obligation to country with responsibility to self. For even as a pilot, despite the increased number of women, she sees a somewhat limited future as a minority member of a majority male world. Her desire is there, she says, but the military opportunities aren't. Yet.

"Yet," she repeated. "But if I ever have a daughter, I think she'll be in time for that Air Force moment when there are female four-star generals."

Olczvanowska wants a husband and a family. A full-time military career, she has accepted, precludes that. And marrying into another full-time military career would be a disaster.

"I need a wife, really," she said. The grin was huge. "You know, I once thought I'd find someone outside the Air Force, an accountant or something, but I haven't been home long enough to look. It's true. If the Air Force wanted you to have a social life, they'd issue you one."

Home, hearth and husband aren't high priorities with Muir. Nor is she interested in pioneering roles for women. She is a pilot. She is an Air Force officer. There is, she says, no gender to either job.

"It angers me to hear people say: 'Oh, a female airplane driver.' I'm just as capable of doing the job as a man, maybe more so than some, so why make any distinction?"

In May, Muir will transfer to Altus AFB, Okla., as a C-141 instructor pilot. Her intention is to serve the full 20 years required for military retirement. The future, she said, will include a master's degree and a variety of command schools and colleges "because if I'm going to stay in the Air Force I'm going to be and do the best I can. And I'm going to stay, taking things as they come, because the Air Force, as someone once said, 'has been beddy, beddy good to me.' "

Pockets of Sexism

Bielfelt isn't sure. Where she once noticed pockets of sexism in Air Force life, she now sees broader minds. A serious relationship with someone outside the military failed because of her weeks away from home, but now she's dating a male loadmaster who understands her absences. She is working toward promotion and with each trip her job knowledge and performance become smoother.

"The future is up in the air," Bielfelt said. "I want to get married one day. I want to have children. But I'm really happy and really comfortable in this job."

A woman air-crew member, according to these women air-crew members, may stumble across some awkwardness among sexes in the service. Said Bielfelt: "Some of the guys don't feel comfortable with a woman on the plane . . . suddenly, they are in a situation where they have to share a bathroom with a female who is not their wife."

Chauvinism isn't completely dead. Especially among military traditionalists. Especially among older servicemen. Said Muir, one of seven women among the 90 pilots in her squadron: "I have seen things that could be considered as that (sexist). But you've really got to be one-on-one with someone to be sure. If you go around looking for it you're going to find it . . . some females in the Air Force do create problems for themselves by perceiving situations the way they aren't."

There are, Muir, Bielfelt and Olczvanowska agreed, other generalizations concerning women air crew. They are somewhat independent yet prefer the ordered life. They are not necessarily unfeminine but they certainly are unflossy.

"You do have to assert yourself and not play up being a female," Muir explained. "You do your job, you don't ask for special favors, you try to fit in."

You also drink beer out of the can and wear boxer shorts because a military flight suit chafes skin left uncovered by bikini underwear. Light partying, carrying your own B-bag and going back for the co-pilot's bag, sharing raunchy jokes and buying a round is considered quite professional. An affair with another crew member is totally unprofessional.

And, like all good pilots, a woman pilot must feel the air.

Muir, who never yearned to fly, explains: "It was neater than I ever thought it would be. We (in training) got to do aerobatics and formation flying and it was exciting.

"A couple of times, while up there on your own, doing aerobatics around the clouds at 500 miles per hour, your heart gets pounding faster and a really neat chill goes down your back.

'That's Me'

"Once I'd just landed and was taxiing in and noticed the shadow of the airplane on the ground. I could see the canopy up and my helmet and it was the first time I'd really stopped and realized what I was doing. I said to myself: 'That's me. I just can't believe it. I'm a pilot.' "

However, as a pilot, as an equal in training, experience and ability with men, one question always occurs. Will women fliers, one day and with congressional endorsement, assume a full combat role in air warfare?

Some say not. Others feel it is inevitable. Muir sees a problem.

It came to her, she said, during one phase of air-crew survival training. Muir and an all-male crew were held in a compound that simulated a prisoner of war camp. They were interrogated and there was physical harassment.

And the men responded by protecting the one woman in the group. She came first. Not unit integrity. She became their weak link that in a real life situation could have jeopardized the mission.

"And they, guys I'd just met, were protecting me more than I'd expect from men I'd known all my life," said Muir. "So until they change the makeup of the American society, women should not be allowed in combat. But that's strictly my personal view."

Military Airlift Command Flt. 807 departs Norton AFB on or about 0810 hours every morning. The cargoes are GI passengers and dependants and military items from helicopter blades through small arms ammunition to the household goods of personnel between bases. To Hawaii and Guam. To Okinawa and mainland Japan. Then the Philippines. Five days out, five days back.

For Muir and Bielfelt and other women crew members of the 53rd Military Airlift Squadron, Flt. 807 is a commute that sure beats PSA to San Jose.

They know that on Guam the best times are at Barney's, a beach hut for steak and lobster and $11 Mai-Tais served in a plastic sand bucket. Okinawa is bargains in Burmese jade and stoneware at China Pete's and everybody says (but nobody really believes) that the soft tacos at Charlie's are made with cat meat. The Philippines is San Miguel and local woodcarvers who for $30 will hand-make most any airplane that has flown, does fly or will be flown by the U.S. Air Force.

That's the glamorous up side. But what goes up. . . .

Two Days in the Air

Flight 807 is nine legs and a total of 45.6 hours, almost two days, in the air. Circadian rhythms are shredded by 1 a.m. arrivals and 4 a.m. departures and sliced on the International Dateline. That's because you get somewhere today although it's really tomorrow where you've just been. A crew loses not just a sense of time but a sense of week. Then the senses.

The Burger Bar at Yakota AB, Japan, is the same as the Burger Bar at Clark AB, Philippines, except one serves atrophied lasagna and the other offers chipped beef in gray emulsion. In-flight box lunches of bologna sandwiches for breakfast. Or Cup O'Noodles, Cheez Curls, Deviled Spam and Vienna Sausages in Barbecue Sauce, all from the Burger Bar snack shop.

Muir says it took her at least 18 months to adjust to the routine. Now she prepares for a trip by a vitamin buildup that's heavy in iron and calcium. When flying, she works out regularly at base gymnasiums.

"But when I get home it will take the full three-day crew rests to get back into shape," she said. "There's one other thing that you try to do. You sleep when you're tired and eat when you're hungry and let the body adjust to itself." Or a body might simply forget about dates and time, ignore the instinct for functioning during daylight hours and drink enough beer to bring sleep. But not enough that can't be slept off before the next leg of Flt. 807.

"Congratulations," Muir grinned. "You are now a MAC animal."

When Jim Vogt arrived at the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1977, his class was the second to include women.

"I noticed that women were getting rougher treatment, mentally, being pushed harder academically, particularly by upper classmen who didn't want them there," said Vogt, 27, of Aurora, Ill., now a captain and commander of a C-141 with the 53rd MAS. "But at the end of four years, most of that had gone.

"They (cadets) got used to the fact that standards and grades were not lowered as a concession to women, that attrition rates for women were the same as for the men and if they (women) couldn't hack it, they got out."

Capt. Dan Stone, 31, of Shawnee, Okla., a former Army helicopter pilot who transferred to the Air Force and C-141s in 1980, has never felt uncomfortable with women on the flight deck. As flight examiners, he says, they may even have done better than men in improving his performance as a pilot.

"You just don't want to screw up and be busted by a woman," he grinned.

Dissecting Procedures

And here they both were, Vogt and Stone, commander and co-pilot of MAC Flt. 807, risking that busting by a woman, Capt. Lori Muir, who rode shotgun during a recent evaluation of their performance.

Vogt and Stone would fly more than a third of the way around the world and back with Muir in the jump seat breathing over their shoulders. After each leg, no matter the hour, she would dissect their procedures. Why did Stone miss replacing his smoke mask with an oxygen mask once the aircraft had transitioned to cruise altitude? Did Vogt know why he was slow in working through procedures prior to landing at Guam? Vogt and Stone passed their line check. But before that decision, they spoke of Muir and women air crew.

Said Stone: "You have average women pilots, good women pilots and I've seen some that, frankly, I've felt have a better feel for what's going on than I do. It's like any other group that starts off even."

Added Vogt: "This is my first trip with a woman (Muir) and I think she's really doing a good job. She's been very fair. She knows what we call the big picture, the overall performance and situation. She's not nit-picking on something that doesn't affect the overall."

Continued Stone: "Good flight examiners, like Muir, look at the mission, ask can you do it safely and effectively without knowing every little detail in the book."

Other men joined the small conference on a barracks balcony at Andersen: Master Sgt. Raul Pequeno, 36, a flight engineer and Vietnam veteran from San Benito, Tex. Staff Sgt. Roy White, 30, of Marcus, Wash., a loadmaster who flew four missions to Grenada. Staff Sgt. Henry Davis II, 28, a flight engineer from Peoria, Ill.

As the Air Force has been improved by the presence of women, said Davis, so have women benefited by the move: "It has given women the availability to expand their knowledge and it certainly doesn't bother me to have a woman working alongside me. All I wanted was for them to carry the load, and the majority do."

White believes it is a better Air Force because of women: "It's kind of refreshing. The Air Force has become more like the real world."

Yet what concerned all men was a military job restriction unique to females: Pregnancy.

"I could give you the party line and say it doesn't bother me," Stone said. "But it obviously affects the unit's ability to do the job. It's also something we should have accepted from the git-go of this whole thing. So we'll just have to accept it and work around it."

Vogt's objection is to female air-crew members who, he says, have used pregnancy as a career tool. "I resent a woman, and I've known them, who come in, get all this training then decide they don't want the Air Force. Or they had it all planned to begin with.

"Then they get pregnant to get out."

As women penetrate further into law, medicine, business and other civilian professions, said Vogt, so will their presence and effectiveness grow within the Air Force. Although women have been entrenched in aviation since Amelia Earhart and the '30s, the growth has never been so noticeable as in the '70s and '80s.

"I remember 1975, when flight decks were all-male," Pequeno said. "Then along came women and their voices sure sounded strange on the interphone." Said Stone: "But the flight deck smelled better."

Added Pequeno: "Like a flower cart. Instead of a gymnasium."

Despite the progress of the present, said Muir, the past and personal attitudes die hard. She was in the cockpit of the C-141 looking at passengers filing aboard. Some were looking up at the blonde in the aircraft commander's seat. Their expressions were interest close to surprise.

A few, said Muir, and not in total jest, have said they would rather not fly in an airplane with a woman pilot. She remembers a Marine marching towards the airplane who stopped dead at the sight of Muir in the cockpit.

A Stack of Dominoes

"The rest of the line just piled up behind him like a stack of dominoes," she said.

For Olczvanowska, social commentary from the mouth of babes came on a flight between Kadena AB, Okinawa, and Hickam AB, Hawaii. Military dependents were among the passengers. One was a 4-year-old boy.

"Just to be friendly, we invited him up to the cockpit so he could see what was going on," Olczvanowska recalled. "He looked at me and asked: 'How come the stewardess is flying the airplane?' "

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