Pioneering women in aviation: breaking barriers and celebrating progress

  • Published
  • By Maria Galvez
  • 673d ABW/PA
As U.S. Air Force Maj. Rachael Oliver, now a C-17 Globemaster III pilot, embarked on her Air Force career as a weather officer, her trajectory into aviation was not conventional. She spent seven years in meteorology assignments across different locations.

The pivotal shift occurred while stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson as the weather flight commander, where she decided to cross-train into a rated career. With support from her leadership, she completed her private pilot license and attended undergraduate pilot training in 2019, eventually returning to Alaska to fly C-17s.

“I spent seven years in the weather community with assignments in Louisiana, Alaska, and two in Korea,” said Oliver. “During this time, I earned an appreciation for what the United States Air Force brings to the joint environment and what the U.S. brings to the global stage.”

While recognizing the absence of formal barriers today, she highlighted the importance of honoring the women who paved the way and said Women’s History Month is an opportunity to appreciate the battles fought by trailblazers, fostering a culture of inclusion that extends beyond their service.

“Representation is important,” said Oliver. “I’m not from a military family, and it was a few years into my career before even considering being a pilot was something I may want to do.
“I don’t think our low numbers of women in the military or in aviation are due to formal barriers, but due to societal norms and not showing our young women that this is a realistic opportunity.”

While acknowledging the U.S. Air Force’s commitment to anti-discrimination policies, Oliver noted challenges in training and equipment designed with men in mind.
There is a need for more inclusive instruction methods, she said, and acknowledges the pressure on undergraduate pilot training instructors, calling for a shift away from a one-size-fits-all approach.

“I don'’t know how many times in undergraduate pilot training I was sitting with an instructor and they started their explanation of a process with something to the effect of ‘So, did you ever play football in high school?’” said Oliver. “My stare and silent smile was usually enough for them to think twice about the relatability of their go-to object lesson.”

She believes that instructing students of a diverse background is more challenging and requires a deeper understanding of human learning.

“We put a lot of pressure and a high workload on our undergraduate pilot training instructors, sometimes leading to a tendency to assign a ‘one size fits all’ type of instruction to their students,” she said. “This is often to the detriment of students who come from minority communities, levying a higher burden for self-educating their way through formal military courses.”

Oliver advocates for increased representation, emphasizing the importance of programs like the Women'’s Initiative Team (WIT) and Aviation Inspiration and Mentorship (AIM). She believes these initiatives, both at the institutional and individual levels, will continue to improve opportunities for women in the military.

She underscores the significance of ongoing support for such programs, addressing institutional and recruiting challenges faced by women in the military.

While recognizing the importance of all-female crews or activities, Oliver envisions a future where Women'’s History Month is celebrated by normalizing gender equality in daily operations, ultimately achieving the equality that past generations of women fought for.

Other female pilots have spoken up to speak on the importance of women in aviation.

In a groundbreaking event commemorating National Women'’s History Month, U.S. Air Force Maj. Jessie Roberts of the Alaska Air National Guard and Capt. Aubrey Swammy of the 517th Airlift Squadron recently led a historic all-female flight crew in executing the first-ever all-female jump for the 11th Airborne Division.

"Female pilots help diversify a flying squadron by providing views and perspectives unique to females," said Roberts, a C-17 Globemaster III instructor pilot with the 144th Airlift Squadron, emphasizing the significance of female representation within the Air Force and its broader impact on diversity and inclusivity. "Our skills and backgrounds contribute to creating a cohesive fighting unit."

"Having female pilots can add strength to the flying community,” said Swammy, a C-17 pilot with the 517th Airlift Squadron. “[We’re] highlighting the value of diverse perspectives within the military and bringing unique perspectives, priorities, and strengths that benefit the entire organization," she added.

Reflecting on Women's History Month, both Roberts and Swammy acknowledged the strides made by women in the military while recognizing the challenges they have overcome.

"The road I followed to get to my wings was once bumpy and littered with obstacles," said Swammy. "But thanks to the efforts of those who came before us, we now have a clear way forward."
The all-female jump not only celebrated the achievements of women in the military but also underscored the ongoing commitment to fostering diversity and inclusivity within the armed forces.

“Female pilots and load crews bring an entirely different attitude to the workplace; they add diversity, and ensure different ideas, methods, and skills are used to accomplish the mission,” said U.S. Air Force Tech Sgt. Andrea Kilborn, a C-17 loadmaster assigned to the 144th AS, Alaska Air National Guard. “Connecting with females in the workplace gives me the confidence I need to play my part in accomplishing the mission.

“Knowing what it takes to get where I am today, I hope I can motivate other women to do their best every day, like my mentors have for me,” she said.

Oliver, Roberts, Swammy, Kilborn and their fellow female aviators stand as symbols of progress and determination, paving the way for future generations of women in aviation and beyond.