Breaking the fast jet ceiling

Female F-15 fighter pilots with the US Air Force’s 3rd Wing, Joint Base Elmendorf- Richardson, Alaska. (USAF)
Female F-15 fighter pilots with the US Air Force’s 3rd Wing, Joint Base Elmendorf- Richardson, Alaska. (USAF)

Welcome to our latest “Throwback Thursday” feature article from a past edition of Australian Aviation. Here, this June 2017 issue story from Max Blenkin looked at why Australia had yet to have a female fighter pilot. Since this story was published, two Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) female fighter pilots completed their operational conversion course on the F/A-18 Hornet in December 2017. The details are at the end of this article.

In almost a quarter century since the Australian Defence Force fully opened the cockpit door, women have piloted C-130s, C-17s and Black Hawk helicopters and more.

But they have yet to crack the big one, to become fully qualifed fast jet pilots.

Some have tried but this most masculine of worlds so far remains a males-only bastion, at a time when the RAAF needs more pilots for the next generation of combat aircraft.

Now the Australian Human Rights Commission (HRC) has examined this issue in detail, releasing a comprehensive report, outlining where it sees the problem and what can be done.

“Overall, the Commission’s research shows that there is no single problem or barrier for women. Rather, there are a series of factors that have prevented the progress of both female and male pilots,” it concluded.

It made a total of 65 recommendations, all but three accepted by the RAAF. Many relate to changes already in place or under way.

RAAF chief Air Marshal Leo Davies said the RAAF invited HRC to review why there were so many capable women but none were yet fast jet pilots.

That covered a range of issues, some the RAAF knew about and some it didn’t.

“It’s important we don’t see a female fast jet pilot as the only measure of progress. While it will be a symbolic milestone, it is more important that we have the right workplace culture that supports everyone,” he said.

Group Captain Rob Denney, chief of staff of the RAAF’s Air Combat Group (ACG) said ahead of and in parallel with the HRC inquiry, ACG had engaged in its own process of introspection about the best way to train a modern workforce. It launched its Aircrew Production Improvement Program in 2015.

He said changed training practices will have the e ect of producing more male pilots plus the first ever female fast jet pilots, likely within the year.

“We knew we had to evolve in that space already but the HRC gave us some insights and views,” he said.

“Different people learn in different styles at different rates. Instead of having a one size fits all pipeline, where we are trying to push everyone through, we know we need to adapt the way our instructors interact with trainees and educate and train them to become better fighter aircrew,” GPCAPT Denney continued.

“We always have to question – are we compromising quality to achieve this end – and ensure we don’t. We are comfortable we can improve the way we teach without compromising quality.”

GPCAPT Denney said examining established practices and longheld beliefs wasn’t always comfortable.

Likely not comforting reading was the HRC survey of opinions of RAAF members of fighter pilots.

HRC said the training system was designed to graduate a particular type of individual and many required qualities were masculine.

It is almost 30 years since the first female RAAF pilots FLTLT Robyn Williams (pictured) and Officer Cadet Deborah Hicks earned their wings. Both graduated 144 Pilots Course on June 30 1988. (Defence)
It is almost 30 years since the first female RAAF pilots FLTLT Robyn Williams (pictured) and Officer Cadet Deborah Hicks earned their wings. Both graduated 144 Pilots Course on June 30 1988. (Defence)

Female RAAF members acknowledged fast jet pilots were highly professional but also arrogant. Other descriptions included “elite/snob” and “worshipped.”

Notes the report: “The feedback from across the Air Force is that ACG has a poor public image. It is concerning that the majority of young trainees commence pilot training with an interest in becoming fast jet pilots, but their interest wanes as they progress through the training continuum. While for some, this may be an issue of talent, many men and women claim that the lifestyle and the culture at ACG appears increasingly unattractive to them. If ACG is going to attract the best and brightest to its ranks, it must promote and project itself in positive terms.”

One RAAF member said individually, jet pilots were lovely people. But put them in a room together they were like a bunch of footballers let loose in a pub “with the occasional dickhead”.

Anyone who has ever watched the movie Top Gun will have some insight into how this could be, though Australian women pilots report that US military pilot training is now more agreeable because of the presence of qualified women pilots and instructors.

The HRC even recommended the RAAF consider training women pilots in the US. That was one of the recommendations ACG knocked back, on grounds that it wanted one team, not a sub-set of pilots who had trained outside the Australian system.

VIDEO – The story of US Air Force F-16 pilot Major Julie Moore

It also rejected a recommendation that there be a no-fail policy for those undergoing jet conversion courses. HRC took the view that anyone who had made it that far surely had what it takes and every effort should be made to ensure success.

GPCAPT Denney said ACG understood the intent but simply couldn’t maintain a no-fail culture.

“At the end of the day we have to ensure our aircrew are safe and effective. We have a duty of care to them and everyone around us and the people we fly over the top of,” he said.

ACG has instead adopted a maximum pass policy.

“Our graduation rates over the last two-three years have increased markedly. Failure is a lot less common. We will try and pass everyone we think we can get through,” he said.

The HRC study was conducted by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins between January 2015 and April 2016.

Flying Officer Brooke Chivers and Pilot Officer Aroha Fifield (pictured) became the RAAF’s first female fast jet aircrew, qualifying as F-111 navigators in 2000. (Defence)
Flying Officer Brooke Chivers and Pilot Officer Aroha Fifield (pictured) became the RAAF’s first female fast jet aircrew, qualifying as F-111 navigators in 2000. (Defence)

The HRC has gained substantial insight into Defence culture, playing a significant role in the reform processes which were given a substantial kick along by the 2011 ADFA Skype Scandal.

The report makes clear that the RAAF maintains exceedingly high standards for its fast jet pilots.

While no females have yet reached that peak, neither have many aspiring males. It said some adjustments could get women and more men through the training pipeline, with no diminution in standards.

Recommendation number one urges the RAAF to commit to short and long-term strategies to increase pilot numbers, male and female. Recommendation two calls for a new female pilot workforce development unit to case-manage training of women pilots.

“Air Force must become an employer of choice to attract the best and brightest aspiring aviators. The training system must be adapted to accommodate different learners, learning styles and timelines for learning,” it said.


Defence opened the way for Australian women to train as fast jet pilots in 1995. That was an early step in the ongoing process of cultural change. Around the same time the then Labor government prodded a reluctant Defence Force to lift its longstanding gay ban.

Females have already qualified as fast jet aircrew, with the first F-111 navigators graduating in 2000. A small number of women have started lead-in fighter training on the Hawk jet trainer, but so far none have graduated to convert onto a frontline fast jet.

Placing female pilots in Hornet and F-35 seats isn’t just an equity issue. The RAAF needs more pilots right now and will need even more for F-35 and Growler, the HRC notes.

VIDEO – In 2016 Lt Col Christine Mau became the first female pilot to fly the F-35.

But the training system hasn’t been producing nearly enough. Further, competition to recruit will become even keener as Qantas ends its long hiring freeze.

HRC said ACG currently requires 24 to graduate from operational conversion courses each year to maintain workforce requirements – 18 D-Category fast jet pilots and six weapon systems operators. The RAAF failed to achieve its target for a number of years but did so in 2016.

At the time the report was prepared, ACG had 174 pilots. It needed 190.

HRC said historically, the pilot training system was the exclusive domain of men. Only in recent decades have numbers of women slowly increased.

“With a long male history and a large male population, the culture at Air Force has evolved to reflect a single gendered experience,” it said.

In 2015, there were 25 female pilots, including four senior pilots, out of a total population of 763 pilots – just 3.3 per cent of the pilot population. Of those pilots, 18 are in Air Mobility Group, flying C-17s, C-130s and MRTT aircraft.

Three are in airborne instructional positions. More perform roles outside the cockpit. In 2015 there were more than 200 in roles such as airborne electronic analysts, crew attendants and loadmasters.

The HRC cites a typical pathway to becoming a fast jet pilot.

Out of 600 applications for Defence pilot training, 275 are selected for aptitude, medical and psychological testing. About 70 start basic flight training on CT-4 aircraft, from which some 45 proceed to advanced flight training on PC-9 aircraft. Graduates gain their wings then head off to their parent services.

Roughly 15 are chosen for the introductory jet course, flying Hawk 127 lead-in fighters at 79 Squadron at RAAF Pearce, Western Australia.

Some 10 complete this training, then head to 76 Squadron at RAAF Williamtown for the six-month introductory fighter course which includes instruction in air-to-air and air-to-ground combat. Only successful graduates become D-Category fast jet pilots.

They go on to 2 Operational Conversion Unit for training on F/A-18A/B Hornets or to the US for training on EA-18G Growler or F/A-18F Super Hornet aircraft.


HRC said women who have tried the RAAF fighter training system report that key traits for success are an ability to withstand constant test stress, confidence in the cockpit that is “masculine” in its attributes and the ability to learn within stringent timeframes.

While female pilots say the RAAF tries to treat them equally, they describe a culture that diminishes women and judges them by a male standard. Women report that anything female has negative connotations, in both the training environment and squadrons.

Despite well-publicised incidents of misconduct across the Defence Force, female RAAF members reported a reduction in unacceptable behaviour in recent years.

It hasn’t disappeared – one female pilot was nicknamed “token” with a photo of her head used as a target during shooting training in Afghanistan.

Some cited cases of outright hostility in flying units and squadrons and described an exhausting environment where they were continually identified by gender, with any mistake attributed to being female.

HRC said the training was long and gruelling, with failure possible at any point, even right at the end.

Male and female trainees report a constant “test stress” which can detract from development of flying technique or decision-making. Females said they could perform better if this constant stress was eased.

“Flying’s a confidence game. You can really get inside your own head if you have a couple of bad days and you’ll start second guessing yourself,” one said.

For many women, success comes from staying in the middle of the pack, not standing out through excelling or failing. The military terms this “going grey”.

Said one: “If there wasn’t a culture that smashes you, you wouldn’t need to spend so much time unlearning. We waste so much time trying to be grey; to not stick out. And we don’t focus on what we should be doing.”

One desired quality of fighter pilots is controlled aggression in the cockpit – referred to as “tiger” – which HRC said could be difficult for females.

“On the other hand, if they want to succeed in air combat, they must find this very quality (tiger),” the HRC said.

HRC said the consequence could be that the RAAF was graduating small numbers of highly resilient (male) pilots, while excluding others of equal talent.

Attrition rates are higher for fast jet training than for training on other platforms. In 2014 only seven of 11 male candidates completed conversion to fast jets while 31 of 34 men and the single woman qualified to fly other RAAF aircraft.

Unsurprisingly, this high attrition rate poses a substantial disincentive to aspiring pilots. Those who succeed are very good indeed. But there’s a substantial dollar cost to the Australian taxpayer in training invested in those who don’t make the cut.

The consistent message from trainees was that more flight training better adapted to different learning styles could increase throughput. Male and female pilots said everyone learned at different rates and a little more time and mentoring would have greatly assisted.

“We could all achieve greatness if there was just more time,” one told the HRC.

There’s another route for females into fast jets. That’s by “re-role” of those already qualified to fly helicopters or transport aircraft. RAAF members said this process was ambiguous and ineffectively communicated to personnel.

HRC recommended the RAAF make this process more accessible and prioritise opportunities for talented female pilots.

While the HRC sees much of the problem as the high attrition rate during training, the RAAF said it could increase pilot numbers, male and female, if it could increase initial recruitment.

There’s certainly something in this. One experienced pilot said when he joined in the early 1980s, there were some 20,000 applications a year for pilot training. Now that’s well under 1,000.

A survey of RAAF members on why there were no female fast jet pilots produced a range of responses. Females attributed that to difficulty of training. Males said it was due to Australia’s small population.

The HRC pointed out that Sweden, Norway, Netherlands and Israel have smaller populations than Australia and have graduated female fast jet pilots.

But even modest recruiting targets for women pilots haven’t been met. In 2014-15, the target was 17, with 13 recruited. Defence Force Recruiting says the low numbers reflect low interest among young women.

HRC said serving female RAAF members were perhaps the best advertisement for the RAAF, with one saying there was real potential for targeted recruiting “if we want to get serious”.

Research commissioned by HRC indicated many potential female candidates were opting for civil aviation, deterred by a perception that RAAF pilot training was extraordinarily challenging.

To create interest among young women, it said the RAAF needs to reach out to younger students. By years 11 and 12, they have already chosen subjects which may not include essential science and maths.

RAAF flight camps offer a tailored RAAF experience for young women, with 29 enlistments out of 121 who attended the seven camps since 2013. That includes 14 pilots. (Defence)
RAAF flight camps offer a tailored RAAF experience for young women, with 29 enlistments out of 121 who attended the seven camps since 2013. That includes 14 pilots. (Defence)

RAAF “flight camps” show promise. These offer a tailored RAAF experience for young women aged between 16 and 18, with 29 enlistments out of 121 who attended the seven camps since 2013. That includes 14 pilots.

Space camps run by NASA in the US and attended by small numbers of Australian students each year have created similar interest in flying careers, as have Air Force Cadets.

But many who aspire to pilot training are rejected at recruitment for medical reasons, some for conditions unrelated to ability to fly. The HRC said the RAAF needs to ensure it’s not creating unnecessary barriers.

Since the dawn of flight, aircraft have been built for the male physique and modern fighters are no different – pilots must weigh between 55 and 100 kilograms and measure between 163 and 193 centimetres in height.

That’s to do with effective functioning of ejector seats and parachutes. Further, G-suits are designed for men, though the RAAF says female aircrew show they can be made to work. The F-35, with its adjustable seat and controls is designed to be a better fit for women.

For women pilots, there are further issues – managing high G-forces while flying and fighting.

Many male pilots find this challenging, especially the requirement to constantly look around while dogfighting, pulling high Gs while wearing a three-kilogram helmet.

One male pilot said this was akin to looking over your shoulder with a 30kg bag of potatoes on his head.

“My neck is buggered,” he said.

The physical stress on neck and back can be significant and ACG instructors say this is where they lose the highest percentage of trainees.

The demands are so heavy and we’re breaking people, one said.

“When we train we repeat these events over and over again sometimes for periods of three weeks almost every day because you have to, to get the skills, but realistically it’s not going to happen like that. It’s all going to be over in about 30 seconds.”

Then there’s the long periods in the cockpit. Sorties in Operation Okra in the Middle East often last eight to 10 hours.

For male pilots, there’s the piddle pack, requiring them to unbuckle, unzip and pee into a funnel. For females there are, well, nappies.

Neither is a very effective or dignified solution, prompting the US military to issue a challenge for someone to come up with something better.

The answer is the Omni Advanced Mission Extender Device (AMXD). For males, the collection unit is a cup shaped like an athletic protector. For females the collection unit is akin to a sanitary pad. Output to either is automatically pumped to a collection bag. HRC says all female pilots should have an AMXD.

Of 600 applicants to become pilots in the Defence Force each year, barely a dozen will make it to fast jets. (Defence)
Of 600 applicants to become pilots in the Defence Force each year, barely a dozen will make it to fast jets. (Defence)

Finally, the report considered family and flexible workplace considerations for women pilots.

“It should be of major concern to Air Force, that three out of its four senior female pilots are considering leaving the service,” it wrote. “The main reason for this exodus is that Air Force is not flexible or particularly hospitable for women managing work with the responsibilities of children and family.”

The report said it found a common perception among women pilots that they had to make a choice between a flying career or having a family. This is a disincentive for female pilots nominating fast jets upon graduation from 2FTS, given the long timeframes involved in a fast jet career path.

“Overall, female pilots are optimistic about the future,” the report concludes. “They can see that change is occurring, but they think it is slow. Many argue that Air Force accepts failure in its pilots and trainees too easily and does not invest sufficient inputs in its personnel to identify potential. ‘What kind of business model accepts 50 per cent failure?’,” the report said.

“They argue that there is too much focus on “raw talent” and not enough focus on the ways in which the training system can adapt to meet its learners. Many argue that the training schools must modernise their teaching methods so that QFIs can assist women to achieve success. QFIs need to employ a variety of teaching techniques that are based on theories of learning rather than the simple skill development model that is currently practised.

“Ultimately female pilots would welcome statements from the Chief of Air Force that put the recruitment, training and retention of female pilots at the forefront of Air Force priorities.”


In December 2017, Defence Minister Senator Marise Payne announced Australia’s first female fighter pilots had completed their operational conversion course on the F/A-18 Hornet.

“I congratulate the six graduates of our most recent Royal Australian Air Force fast jet pilot course – including the first two female pilots to graduate from this course,” Senator Payne said in a Facebook post.

The six pilots successfully completed High Sierra, the three-week intensive exercise that marked the culmination of 2OCU’s six-month long classic Hornet ‘opcon’.

“Air Force fighter pilot selection and training is comprehensive and rigorous, and only a select few ever graduate as qualified fighter pilots,” Senator Payne said.

“Years of dedication and hard work has brought these pilots to this point in their careers – and I wish to take this opportunity to thank them for providing such a fine example of the career opportunities and aspirations that can be realised in today’s Air Force.”

Two women were among the six graduates of the RAAF’s latest six-month long classic Hornet ‘opcon’. (Defence)
Two women were among the six graduates of the RAAF’s latest six-month long classic Hornet ‘opcon’. (Defence)


  1. Nicholas says

    Stopped reading when I read the HRC ( and let’s be honest I don’t think the HRC has much of a military skill set ) said we should have a “no fail” policy.

    I’d read a couple of silly things but this took the cake….

  2. R Inglis says

    Nicholas, you stopped reading it and it simulaneously took the cake for silly things you had read?

    I read it and it was not the silliest. Not silly at all.

  3. PAUL says

    Such a pity being human if only the body could last a lot longer like the Vulcans (200 years) then many of us could reapply for jobs like these & bring some of the life skills & knowledge that you didn’t have when so young. that could ensure a pass …

  4. Raymond says

    R Inglis – Nicholas has a valid point…

    He was referring to the absurdity of the Human Rights Commission’s recommendation that there be a no-fail policy – GPCAPT Denney said ACG simply couldn’t maintain a no-fail culture!

  5. Don Mackie says

    Nicholas and Raymond. Having a no fail policy is miles away from having a no fail culture! Where you boys been living!