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

February 02, 1986|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

ANDERSEN AIR FORCE BASE, Guam — 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.

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