Blame the plane’s ejection seat
by TOM DEMERLY
On May 7, 2015 at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, Lt. Col. Christine Mau — deputy commander of the U.S. Air Force’s 33rd Fighter Wing Operations Group — became the first woman to fly the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
And for nearly two years, there was no second female JSF pilot. Problems with the new plane’s ejection seat prevented more women from joining the JSF force. As late as September 2016, Mau said she was apparently still the only female F-35 pilot.
That could change soon.
Mau, a graduate of the Air Force Academy’s class of 1997, comes from a flying family. Her father was a C-130 pilot in the Air National Guard and a commercial pilot for Continental Airlines.
In 2011, Mau was part of the Air Force’s first all-female combat sortie. An all-female maintenance and planning crew launched an F-15E Strike Eagle — flown by Mau and her female back-seater — against insurgents in Afghanistan’s Kunar Valley.
“Women have been flying fighters in combat for over 20 years,” Mau told an Air Force reporter. But on the day Mau flew the F-35 for the first time, there were 86 other Air Force pilots certified to fly the JSF — all men.
Technology rather than sex-bias explained the imbalance. While there are cultural barriers to entry for women in many combat roles, the U.S. military integrated its fighter force fairly early on. Jeannie Leavitt became the Air Force’s first female fighter pilot way back in 1993. Leavitt is now a brigadier general.
Here’s the problem. Starting in October 2015, the Air Force required that any pilot sitting on the F-35’s Martin-Baker US16E ejection seat weigh at least 136 pounds.
Martin-Baker’s original specification for the US16E was 103 pounds, but the Air Force revised the number upward owing to problems with the seat’s performance in specific areas of the F-35’s flight envelope. There was a chance that a pilot weighing less than 136 pounds would break their neck on ejection.
The higher weight requirement barred smaller pilot candidates, including many women. The Air Force and Martin-Baker have stated that the elevated weight restriction will finally end in April 2017, giving many more pilots of all sexes a chance to fly the new plane.
“Flying is a great equalizer,” Mau said in 2015. “The plane doesn’t know or care about your gender as a pilot, nor do the ground troops who need your support. You just have to perform. That’s all anyone cares about when you’re up there — that you can do your job, and that you do it exceptionally well.”