Forget the scandals. For these women, the Air Force offers careers they could only dream about in the civilian world. These are no . . .

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The woman who strides across the flight line is the picture of confidence and style. Her gait is precise, her attire, crisp--olive drab jumpsuit, the pants creased just so, red bandanna neatly wound about her neck, leather bomber jacket the color of chocolate.

Meet Capt. Cherianne Carlisle of the United States Air Force. She is one of just 316 female pilots in a corps of nearly 15,000 flyers, and she has a surprising--but not uncommon--secret to share.

The military, Carlisle confides, can be a terrific place for women to work.

Here, at this sprawling base midway between Sacramento and San Francisco, the pilot is at ease. She clambers up to the flight deck of the massive C-5 cargo jet, the largest plane in America's fleet. (Only Russia has one larger.) It is a hulking goliath--so big it can ferry eight buses through the sky.

Carlisle has piloted this and other Air Force planes around the globe more times than she can count. At 27, just 5 1/2 years out of flight school, she has visited every continent but Africa. She has as much responsibility as some commercial pilots in their 40s--and her training, worth thousands of dollars, was paid for by U.S. taxpayers.

At a time when the nation's attention is turned to horrifying allegations that Army drill sergeants have raped and sexually harassed young recruits, when many are asking just why a woman would join the armed services in the first place, Cherianne Carlisle illustrates the central paradox of military life:

The military is not an easy place for women. In a 1995 survey, the Department of Defense found that 61% of all military women had been victims of sexual harassment--from crude remarks to unwanted touching to rape--within the past year. At the same time, however, the military offers women unparalleled opportunities for advancement, responsibility and job security.

It is one of the most vocal advocates for equal opportunity in America; indeed, in the military workplace, commitment to the promotion of minorities and women is examined as part of each supervisor's formal, annual job evaluation. Here, discrimination of any sort--if it can be proved--can get you fired. (For instance, Air Force sources, speaking off the record, say they've heard rumors that a number of generals have been quietly relieved of their command due to sexual improprieties, although the stated reason was simply that their superiors had lost confidence in them.) And where else can a woman be absolutely certain that if she does the same work as a man, she will get paid the same?

"The military is a culture shock to any civilian, and then you have a double culture shock as a woman because the world and American society has always considered this man's work," says Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan. "But the fact of the matter is that if you survive those two shocks, then you can do much better [as a woman] than you can in other places, because the military is an equal opportunity employer."

Says Judith Stiehm, a military sociologist and author of the recent "It's Our Military Too" (Temple University Press): "A lot of military women think they would never have had the opportunities they have had, never been able to see the world or gotten the education they have [if they had worked in the private sector]. For many of them it has just been a wonderful experience."

If a recent visit to Travis Air Force Base is any guide, there are plenty of Cherianne Carlisles out there, laboring in obscurity as they quietly break gender barriers. While most military women continue to flow into traditional jobs--nursing, administrative work, public affairs--each year more and more choose careers that were once the exclusive province of men.

Among them is Lt. Col. Michelle Johnson, described as a "fast-burner" by her colleagues because she has been promoted so quickly.

Two decades ago, Johnson entered the Air Force Academy as part of the second class in which women were admitted. To the chagrin of some men, she became the academy's first female wing commander, an equivalent of the student body president. Today, at 38, she commands the 9th Air Refueling Squadron at Travis; 160 pilots report to her.

Her resume includes a Rhodes Scholarship, a return trip to the Air Force Academy to teach, and a four-year tour of duty at the White House, where she performed the ultimate guy job: she carried "the football," the ultra-secret suitcase containing codes that could initiate the launch of nuclear weapons, for Presidents Bush and Clinton.

Says the base public affairs officer: "She has 'general' written all over her."

Fast track or not, the lieutenant colonel holds few illusions about how women are perceived. "I'm no Pollyanna," she insists. Stereotypes are still at work; once, when Johnson was traveling with Clinton, a veteran wire service reporter (a woman, no less) mistook her for a nurse.

Yet at the same time, Johnson sees change on the horizon, particularly now that women are allowed to fly fighter jets. That Air Force policy switch, which came three years ago, could one day help shatter the glass ceiling that has circumscribed so many women's careers for so long.

"There's a wave of women coming through now who will change things," Johnson predicts. "I know that it catches my eye when I see a woman colonel, because there aren't many. It used to be that it caught my eye when I saw a lieutenant colonel woman pilot, and now I am one."

The Air Force, perhaps more than any other branch, seems ripe for the ascendance of women. Twenty-three years after the military switched to an all-volunteer service and women began joining up in record numbers, they account for 13.2% of the combined active duty forces. But the Air Force is 16.7% female, a greater percentage than any other force. And about one-quarter of all new recruits are female.

Other services have women of higher rank; the Marine Corps and the Navy just named their first female three-star generals, while the highest-ranking woman in the Air Force is a general with two stars.

But in the Air Force, 99% of all jobs are open to women, more than any other service. And the Air Force secretary--a civilian appointee--is a woman, Sheila Widnall, an aeronautical engineer and former associate provost of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She works at the Pentagon, in an office off a long corridor adorned with oil portraits of previous Air Force secretaries. There is nary a woman among them.

At the same time, the Air Force has the lowest incidence of sexual harassment of any of the services. The 1995 Department of Defense survey that found that 61% of all military women experienced some form of harassment indicated that the figure was just 49% among Air Force women.

Of course, that is nothing to be proud of. "Obviously," Widnall says, "we would like to do better." But military experts say Air Force statistics regarding women demonstrate a clear benefit to gender integration: The more women are integrated, the less likely they are to be victimized.

"Critical mass is important," says Carolyn Prevette, a retired Navy captain who now heads a civilian committee that advises the Defense Department on women's issues. "There have been more women [in the Air Force] for a longer time and there have been more career fields open for a long time. As long as women are excluded from some jobs, they are going to be given second-class-citizen status. And that sets a climate for harassment."

Twenty-three years ago, Prevette filed the first formal complaint of sexual discrimination in the Navy, arguing that she did not receive a fair job evaluation because she was a woman. It took more than four years, but the complaint was finally settled--in her favor.

"Having experienced that, and having been on active duty during Tailhook [the sexual harassment scandal that rocked the Navy five years ago], I still believe that you can't go anywhere in America and have more opportunity than the United States military," Prevette says. "There are problems like this everywhere in the United States, but we are actively rooting them out. They are hidden everywhere else."

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That is precisely the point that Majors Cheryl West and Jackie Dudley would like to make. Both are African American, both are about to be promoted to lieutenant colonel, both grew up in small towns and were anxious to see the world. Both have done just that, via the Air Force, and both are now squadron commanders at Travis, working in fields long dominated by men.

West, 39, heads a corps of 560 mechanics, maintenance workers, welders and sheet metal workers who keep the planes in good repair. Her annual budget: $14 million. Dudley ("my age is classified," she says) supervises 150 transportation workers, most of them mechanics who fix everything from buses to firetrucks. Her annual budget: $4 million.

It does not take a rocket scientist, these women say, to figure out that a black woman is not going to get that kind of responsibility in the civilian world. They need not look beyond the daily newspaper for accounts of how African Americans--much less African American women--fare in corporate America. The story of Texaco, which recently agreed to pay $176 million to settle a discrimination suit brought by 1,400 black employees, is fresh on their minds.

"There are different rules out there in the private sector," West says. "They are not the rules that I am used to in the military. . . . We can be rapped upside the head and made to tow the line. Whereas at Texaco, the motivation is money, and there's nobody to look over them."

Korb, the former assistant defense secretary, says that is true. The military, he says, "can change behavior without changing attitudes." Commanders, if they are so inclined, can exert incredible control over their workplaces--much more so than in civilian society. And in a world where profit is not the motive, performance appraisals can take other considerations into account.

Explains Widnall, the Air Force secretary: "Our leaders, our commanders, are judged not on the bottom line. . . . So there's a lot more room for other ways to measure [their] success, and one of the ways we measure the success of a commander is how they treat their people."

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It will take decades--25 to 30 years, Widnall realistically predicts--for the pool of high-ranking Air Force women to grow large enough that one might be selected to the top job, chief of staff.

"It's hard to imagine," she admits. "You have to project yourself way out into the technological future."

In the meantime, the women of Travis Air Force base know that they must dance a delicate tango to succeed. They must work twice as hard to attain the respect a man would be accorded by simple virtue of his rank.

As to sexual harassment, shrugging it off works best. Staff Sgt. Elaine Taylor runs a vehicle maintenance shop; once, many years ago, she asked a favor from her boss--the weekend off, or some similar request--and he asked her for sex.

"I pretended I didn't know what he was talking about," she says. "He repeated it, and I said, 'Well, I didn't want it that much.' "

These women know that all eyes are on them. "You have to be prepared," Carlisle says, "that you are going to stand out. You have to be aware that people pay attention to what you do. You are setting an example for everyone else."

That said, the young pilot adds that she has big plans for the future: She wants to fly test planes, and then maybe become an astronaut. Sometimes, at the end of a mission, she looks around and realizes she is the only woman on the plane. It is perhaps a measure of how much things have changed already that she says, with utter candor: "I really don't notice it anymore."

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