Many years ago I decided to take my life into my hands and learn to fly. I went out to a country airport for lessons, and was well on the way to earning my license by the time I encountered my first female instructor.
There was nothing at all remarkable about our meeting except my reaction to it. On previous occasions, whenever I encountered a new instructor the two of us would chat briefly in the laconic flight-speak used by pilots, then hop into the plane and take off. This time, however, I politely asked to see her pilot's license, glider, instrument and multi-engine tickets and instructor rating. I examined these documents with some care.
The flight that followed was uneventful. Afterward, I tried to rationalize my act as a manifestation of the normal curiosity any student flier might feel about a new instructor. Yet I had never asked to see the licenses of men I had flown with. Finally I had to admit my behavior was motivated by prejudice -- subtle, perhaps, but there it was.
I was reminded of that episode this week when Defense Secretary Les Aspin announced the Pentagon would lift its ban on women flying combat missions. As a practical matter, air combat is probably the area where the physical differences between men and women are least significant. Still, you can bet that lots of flyboys will have an attitude about women in the cockpit.
It's an attitude almost as old as the airplane itself. The first licensed woman pilot, Harriet Quimby, got her wings in 1911. She had to fightthe misgivings of her male counterparts as well as the elements of the air to win recognition as a pioneer. Those who followed faced similar obstacles. "Men do not believe us capable," wrote the most celebrated of the early women aviators, Amelia Earhart, in the 1930s. "Because we are women, seldom are we trusted to do a good job."
When Charles Lindbergh visited the Soviet Union in 1938 with his wife Anne, herself a gifted pilot, he was astonished to discover both men and women flying in the Soviet Air Force. "I don't see how it can work very well," he later confided to his diary. "After all, there is a God-made difference between men and women that even the Soviet Union can't eradicate."
There's a fascinating study yet to be written about parallels between the perceived social status of various groups and their participation in aviation. The first women pilots, for example, came on the scene just as the movement for female suffrage was reaching high tide.
Similarly, the bravery of black fighter pilots during World War II provided the impetus for the integration of the armed forces in 1948, a change that sounded the death knell of segregation in American society and paved the way for the modern civil-rights movement.
Major wars unleash vast social forces. Large numbers of women in both Britain and the U.S were trained as ferry pilots during World War II due to the shortage of men. Their mission was to fly combat warplanes from the factories where they were produced to the operationalfields used by male air crews. The Soviet Union actually allowed female air crews to participate in bombing raids against the Germans.
I cite these instances to show there should be no serious doubt regarding women's ability to fly military aircraft or participate effectively in combat operations. Many of the reasons traditionally given for women's exclusion from air combat are similar to those once used to justify excluding black airmen: lack of aptitude, insufficient aggressiveness, a threat to group morale and unit cohesion. Such excuses are as insulting to women fliers today as they were to the Tuskegee airmen half a century ago.
Still there is a powerful prejudice against women pilots among military fliers in general and, I suspect, among naval aviators in particular. The latter are the elite among military pilots -- you practically have to be the best to land a 20-ton bird on a pitching carrier deck at night. The Navy is also the most socially conservative, not to say reactionary, service arm, as evidenced by the recent Tailhook scandal.
Flying is also a symbolic act, intimately tied up with unconscious notions of God-like strength, freedom and power and with the primal human urges of love, sex and death. That is why it figures so prominently in the great myths of history, from Icarus to Star Wars. No doubt much of the resistance to women fliers stems from the fact that many men simply do not want to share it.
Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.