Female pilots at Miramar Naval Air Station were exultant and male pilots were accepting Wednesday when Secretary of Defense Les Aspin announced that he has ordered an end to restrictions on women flying combat missions.
“The goal of every Navy pilot should be to command a squadron at sea,” Lt. Shoshana Chatfield said. “Soon that goal will be open to women.”
Lt. Mike Pocker, an instructor, said women should have no trouble mastering combat aircraft: “Men and women have equal reflexes. Men and women have equal pilot skills.”
Since 1973, women in the Navy have been flying helicopters, transport planes and cargo planes but have not been allowed to fly fighters, bombers and other attack aircraft except as test pilots. The Navy has 9,235 male pilots and 184 female pilots.
The new ruling, though, will set the stage for a female Top Gun. Lt. Sue Faris said Wednesday that she will apply for combat training soon.
“I want to be on the cutting edge,” she said. “I want to be a warrior. That’s why I joined the Navy.”
Still suffering a black eye from the Tailhook scandal, the Navy was quick to point out that it was the first service to allow female pilots and that women are assigned to 64 support ships and as test pilots for every kind of aircraft in the Navy’s arsenal.
The number of female pilots is increasing rapidly, officials said; 94 are in training.
Aspin also announced that he will ask Congress to lift the prohibition on women serving on combat ships. That would give women and men the same career opportunities in the Navy.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Lt. (j.g.) Darcey Thureson said.
Lt. Patsy Van Bloem said lifting the restrictions could make it possible for her to fly the Navy’s newest helicopter, the H-60, which has been off limits to women because it has combat capability.
“It’s a beautiful helicopter,” she said. “It’s got all new stuff on it. It doesn’t even have mechanical flight controls. I’ve wanted to fly the H-60 for a long, long time.”
Women pilots interviewed on the flight line at Miramar, the Navy’s busiest air station, predicted that any lingering opposition from men will soon be overcome.
“There’s going to be some resentment,” said Lt. Kelly Jones, “but at the same time there are men out there who think this change should happen. They realized that (the restrictions) are not fair.”
Faris said, “I’m sure any increased competition (for promotions and assignments) they’re not going to like, but after we make the transition and men and women have been working together in combat units, I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
Lt. Joe Mock, a flight instructor, said skill, not gender, is the determining factor of whether a pilot is accepted into the ranks.
“A pilot shouldn’t see gender or anything,” he said. “If a pilot can fly and land on a ship, it’s a pilot and a plane landing, not female or male or black or white. It’s all who can land the plane on a ship.”
Still, Cmdr. Jim Barnett, also an instructor and Top Gun graduate, said that changing the attitudes of combat pilots may take time. “We know we will have difficulties,” he said.
Jones said she sees no reason she should not be allowed to go as far as her ability will take her. “Why can’t I fly an F-14?” she asked.
“We’ve always been equal to the men,” Lt. (j.g.) Amy Jo Brooks said. “It’s just that we haven’t done the same things they have. Being a good pilot isn’t a matter of being male or female.”
Brooks has been flying cargo planes to carriers but has her eye on an assignment to the E-2 Hawkeye, which guards the fleet.
“My heart’s been set on flying the E-2 for a long time,” she said. “Now it’s possible.”