Asian Air Forces Recruit Women Fighter Pilots
Culture and physiology are big obstacles
On Aug. 23, 2018, Capt. Misa Matsushima, pictured at top, became the first woman to qualify to fly a jet fighter for the Japanese Air Self Defense Force. Three more women soon followed.
Before starting operational service, the 26-year-old Matsushima will practice intercepting intruders with the 305th squadron at Nyutabaru Air Base.
The JASDF began training female pilots in 1997, but when Matsushima graduated from the National Defense Academ in 2014 the service still didn’t permit women to fly fighter and reconnaissance aircraft.
However, in 2015 the government of Shinzo Abe opened fighter pilot training to women as part of a larger initiative to increase the female participation from the current 6.4 percent percent of Japan’s self defense force to nine percent by 2030. For comparison, women make up between nine and 15 percent of most Western militaries.
More generally, since 2013 Abe has sought to increase female labor force participation to compensate for Japan’s aging population and low birth rate. The JSDF is a volunteer force and is suffering severe shortfalls in personnel even as Abe seeks to build it up to counterbalance China. Therefore, boosting female participation expands the pool of talented individuals willing to serve in the JSDF.
Lt. Misa, who told media she had been fascinated with jet fighters since she saw Top Gun in primary school, jumped on the opportunity to switch from transport to fighter training. She now flies an F-15J, a Japanese-built variant of the powerful twin-engine air-superiority fighter.
Japan, however, is only the latest to join an Asia-wide trend to begin training female combat pilots since the turn of the 21st century.
North American and European air arms began inducting female combat pilots in the 1990s. Today, nearly one-fifth of the active-duty U.S. Air Force is female — the highest percentage of any U.S. military service. However, out of 62,500 female personnel, that includes only 665 pilots, of which 100 are fighter pilots.
Despite the prevalence of patriarchal values, Asian states hold various motives for recruiting female combat pilots linked to intensifying security competition involving China, it allies and its rivals in East and Southwest Asia. Competing states may feel pressure to ‘keep up’ with inclusion of females in each other’s militaries.
Women participating in the most elite and glamorized of military professions serve as symbols of a state’s modernity and of female patriotism in the cause of national defense. For less developed countries like Afghanistan, female pilots instead may indicate a government’s aspirations to modernize.
After all, government sometimes use militaries to lead implementation of social reforms, such as when Truman ordered the U.S. military to desegregate in 1948, more than a decade before the Civil Rights Act.
Asian women still generally face significant societal pressure to marry and bear children young — an imperative at odds with the grueling training and duties required of a fighter pilot. For example, the Chinese government urges women to marry by age 27, lest they become shèngnǚ or “left-over women.”
Not only may family members be unsupportive of a military aviation career path, but the high status of a female pilot may intimidate suitors. In fact, many female military pilots marry fellow aviators, and return to operational status even after becoming mothers.
Most air arms induct women into transport and helicopter units before training any for fighter aircraft. Though modern fighters require greater and greater technical and analytical skills, physical strength and stamina remain vital due to the strain imposed by high speed and high-gravity air combat maneuvers. Some women fighter pilots have stated in interviews that high-gravity turns and especially heavy controls can be challenging for women of slight builds.
“I am physically more petite than [male pilots], so I think in terms of the missions that require more maneuvering and higher G-forces, it takes a toll on my body,” Singaporean F-15 pilot Maj. Nah Jinping told an interviewer. “I feel like I get tired more easily, and I pant faster.”
Nonetheless, if female pilots are tested to the same standards as men, than only those that can meet those exacting standards will qualify to fly combat aircraft.
Singapore, Malaysia and China
Asian air arms are pursuing diverse paths to incorporating female pilots. Some, such as Singapore, simply open recruitment to women without deliberately courting them, and train them alongside male pilots. The city-state of 5.6 million people musters a hundred F-15s and F-16 multi-role fighters.
Among the Republic of Singapore Air Force’s ranks are female F-15 pilot Nah Jinping and F-16 pilots Khoo Teh Lynn and Lee Mei Yi. All entered the RSMAF after having received education and even flight training abroad.
In neighboring Malaysia, Maj. Patricia Yapp became Asia’s first female MiG-29 Fulcrum pilot, after having earlier qualified on the Italian-built MB.339 trainer/attack jet. The MiG-29N, operated by the No. 19 Squadron, are highly maneuverable short-range fighters bartered cheaply from a cash-strapped Russia in the 1990s in exchange for commodities such as stinky durian fruit.
The Malaysian MiG-29N model boasts upgrades including an aerial refueling probe and beyond-visual-range-missile capability.
However, the MiG-29s have proven very expensive to keep in the air due to poor reliability. Yapp, a 41-year old native of Sabha, recounted close calls such as a failure of the oxygen system in her MiG-29 that caused her to briefly lose consciousness. Earlier, while flying an MB-339, a fire consumed the turbojet engine, forcing her to make an emergency landing.
Yapp eventually married an aviator in her squadron with whom she had two children. She continues to serve as a flight instructor. Though at least one other woman previously served in an RMAF A-4 squadron, the service doesn’t appear to host additional female combat pilots, though female aviators serve in transport and helicopter squadrons.
The People’s Liberation Army Air Force follows a very different model from Singapore and Malaysia. do. Every few years, it trains an all-female cohort of prospective pilots.
The PLAAF actually began formerly inducting female aviators before the U.S. military did, graduating the first 17 into service in 1952. However, for decades, the service channeled Chinese female pilots exclusively to the 38th Transport Regiment.
That changed in the year 2005, when the PLAAF selected 35 applicants out of 200,000 to begin fighter pilot training — a group that eventually winnowed down to 16 graduates. Four went onto qualify on J-10 Vigorous Dragons, a maneuverable single-engine jet comparable to the F-16C/D. At least 10 fly older J-7s — clones of the Russian MiG-21 — while six qualified for JH-7 two-seater fighter-bombers and others pilot Z-9 helicopters and crew H-6 strategic bombers.
In November 2016, one of the original four J-10 pilots — Capt. Yu Xu, known as “Golden Peacock” — died in a collision while flying in the backseat over Hebei province. The PLAAF does not share accident investigations with the public and it’s not even clear if she was piloting at the time of the collision.
Nonetheless, the accident led some to accuse the PLAAF of rushing female pilots into the Ba Yi aerobatics team with inadequate training. While Western teams typically require 1,500 flight hours, but the Ba Yi team mandates 1,000 flight hours. Yu Xu reportedly entered with 800.
Undoubtedly, the PLAAF has thrust its female fighter pilots in the spotlight as symbols of its modernization drive. In June 2018, the PLAAF announced it had selected its latest cohort of 38 high school graduates to receive pilot training after subjecting them to over 100 tests. Reportedly, the new cadets are undergoing a grueling fitness regime in which they run 20 kilometers a day. Beijing is training dozens of female combat pilots—but has yet to integrate their recruitment with male pilots.
Taiwan commissioned its first female military pilots in 1993. Though most of the Republic of China Air Force’s female fliers went on to fly trainers and transports, four or five qualified to operate supersonic F-5E Tiger II fighters, a lightweight jet exported by the United States in the 1970s.
However, none could pass the G-force endurance test to fly Taiwan’s more advanced fourth-generation fighters, which are capable of more demanding maneuvers. That test requires candidates to endure a spin inducing nine times the force of gravity for 15 seconds without passing out.
However, in 2018 Captains Fan Yi-lin, Chiang Ching-hua and Chinag Hui-yu finally passed the test and a nine-month qualification course, and now respectively serve in Taiwan’s 1st, 2nd and 4th Fighter Wings, which operate Mirage 2000s, indigenous F-CK-1s and F-16s.
A fourth F-CK-1 pilot, Guo Wenjing, qualified in 2018 as well. Taiwan’s military may seek to increase female participation above the current 13 percent. Otherwise it risks contracting sharply in size as it attempts to transition to an all-volunteer force.
The Koreas and The Philippines
Both North and South Korea boast substantial cohorts of female aviators, though their respective aircraft couldn’t be more different.
Though female aviators such as Lee Jeong-hee and Kim Kyung-Oh played a role in the inception of the Republic of Korea Air Force in the late 1940s, the Air Force Academy in Cheongju didn’t admit its first women until 1997. Five years later, the ROKAF commissioned its first three female combat pilots, who initially flew KA-1 turboprops and A-37 jet-powered ground attack aircraft.
However, in 2007 Cap Ha Jung-mi became the first woman to qualify on a KF-16, a domestically built variant of the F-16 Block 52. Again, nine-G maneuvers proved a challenge. “After training for gravity acceleration, my thighs and arms would look like they were bruised because the capillary vessels had been ruptured,” Ha told Chosun Ilbo. “They would only get back to normal after two to three days.”
By 2019, the ROKAF will count 19 females KF-16 pilots in addition to other types. The service promoted three women to vice-command of fighter squadrons, and in July 2018, Seoul announced a new plan to provide scholarships to recruit ten female pilots directly out of Korean universities each year, instead of recruiting solely through the Air Force Academy.
Across the demilitarized zone, North Korea established its first female aviation unit in 1993 and in 2015 introduced mandatory conscription for women between the ages of 18 and 23. However, Pyongyang assigned its female aviators rickety old An-2 short-takeoff-and-landing biplane transports. Because the An-2 is unpressurized, the crew wear bulky leather bomber jackets.
Nonetheless, female An-2s flier could face combat duty, as in a conflict with the South, the NKPAF would likely swarm hundreds over the DMZ at low altitude to drop bombs and insert commandoes. Slow-moving, fabric-covered biplanes hugging craggy Korean mountains would likely prove difficult to detect and intercept.
However, in 2014 Pyongyang began training some female aviators in jet fighters, starting them off on antiquated MiG-15s that were hot rides during the Korean War.
At least two pilots — Jo Kum Hyang and Rim Sol — qualified in 2015 to fly the ubiquitous MiG-21. Both were prominently featured in the Wonsan Air Show and had photo-ops with Kim Jong Un in 2014 and 2015, tearfully pledging to defend Kim through “a thousand miles of clouds and ten thousand miles of fire.”
Kim appears genuinely enthused by his “flowers of the sky”, who can be touted as symbols of Pyongyang’s modernity and juche, “self-reliance.” However, it’s unclear whether the KPAF is training more female jet fighter pilots, given the rusting air arm’s limited combat capabilities versus potential adversaries.
Currently, The Philippines’s female fliers operate transports and helicopters — though in the 1990s, at least five women flew OV-10 Bronco attack planes and MD-520 scout/attack helicopters. One, Capt. Mary Grace Baloyo, died in a crash in 2001 attempting to maneuver her Bronco away from a populated area and became the first Filipina to receive the Medal of Valor.
However, in February 2018, Lt. Catherine Mae Gonzales recently received a scholarship for flight training in the United States. It is expected that when she returns, she will fly one of six A-29 Tucano turboprop attack planes scheduled for delivery to The Philippines.
Meanwhile, the Royal Thai Air Force began training a cohort of five female pilots in May 2016, though fighter qualification is not yet in the offing.
Not all East Asian air arms are joining the trend. Notably, the Vietnamese People’s Air Force, which has a proud heritage of air-to-air combat during the Vietnam War, does not appear to have any female combat pilots.