Nineteenth Air Force Commander Maj. Gen. Craig Wills’ recent push to better publicize pilot height waivers aims to make the service’s population of aviators more diverse, he told Air Force Magazine in a Nov. 14 interview.
“The reason for now is that we want to get the word out because we want to have more female aviators, we want to have more aviators from… underrepresented groups, and we want to make sure that our Air Force looks like our nation to the max[imum] extent because we think that that leads to a more combat-capable force,” he said.
USAF rules currently stipulate that pilots must be between 5’4” and 6’5” when standing, and have “a sitting height of 34-40 inches,” according to a Nov. 5 Air Education and Training Command release.
According to AETC, US National Center for Health Statistics state that 43.5 percent of American women between the ages of 20-29 are 5’4” or shorter. This means the service’s standing height minimum for pilots can potentially ban half of the nation’s female population from becoming pilots unless waivers are used to level the playing field, Wills told Air Force Magazine.
Echoing Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein’s stated belief in diversity as a warfighting imperative, Wills said the quality of group decisions improves when people who don’t think or act identically are given the chance to make them together.
However, he noted, waivers are also meant to help pilots who may struggle to meet the service’s standard for the opposite reason—being too tall. It’s an issue that Wills, who is 6’4”, admits he struggled with as a cadet due to sitting-height restrictions.
“I was over the sitting height requirement, or was concerned that I would be, and so the night before I took my medical exam, I slept in a chair sitting upright, and I woke up early and ran three miles with my backpack full of rocks just to make sure that my spine would be nice and compressed before I got measured,” he said. “And, so, I’m very much interested in having a great waiver process.”
HOW THE WAIVER PROCESS WORKS
The Air Force has approved 87 percent of the 223 waiver requests it has received since 2015, according to an AETC release.
Wills said that, while waivers aren’t a new thing, the service is doing a better job of sizing up both its people and planes so it can more wisely play matchmaker—or call the whole thing off, if safety warrants.
“Every aircraft in the US Air Force inventory has been measured with lasers, and we have an incredibly accurate set of statistics on what the dimensions of that airplane are,” he explained. “So, what we started doing with our applicants is that when…you’re interested in a pilot slot, when you apply and you get your medical, we measure you very thoroughly.”
If potential future pilots fall outside of the standard height ranges—sitting or standing—during their “initial medical screening,” they’re automatically entered into the waiver process, Wills explained.
“There’s no chance that you’re gonna get inadvertently left behind with respect to getting a fair shot at this,” he said.
The service then sends them to Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, or to the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., so that additional data can be collected, according to AETC.
Once metrics, including (but not limited to) an airman’s arm length, and standing and sitting height, are captured, the information is input into a “software program” that stacks up their stats to every aircraft in the service’s fleet and generates a report summing up those findings, Wills explained.
“That report essentially puts a green circle around airplanes you can fly and a red circle around airplanes you couldn’t fly,” he said.
An airman’s medical information is forwarded to him and his team—since he serves as the waiver authority—and they review it in hopes of answering two questions:
- Can the airman fly the service’s T-6 or T-1 trainers? Wills says he mainly looks for the ability to fly the Jayhawk, since “it tends to be our most limiting airplane” and the majority of graduates will pilot it.
- Are there any aircraft in the USAF fleet that the airman can safely pilot?
“Bottom line is, I look at training, I look at the operational side, and if there’s a path to wings, and if there’s a path for you to have a career, then I sign the waiver,” Wills said.
But, even if an airman doesn’t look like they can fly the T-1 on paper, all is not lost, Wills said.
These individuals are flown to Randolph Field, Texas, where they meet with “a flight surgeon, instructor pilot, and a member of” Wills’ team. From there, they’re seated in the aircraft, where they attempt to operate its controls while being evaluated by the instructor pilot. If height gets in the way, the airman will be given USAF-certified seat cushions to assist (since two sizes are available), and, if they allow the airman to “safely manipulate the controls of the T-1,” their waiver will be granted.
At the end of the day, Wills said, safety is the top priority.
“I think we can all agree that our pilots should be tall enough to see over the dash and that… you need to be able to fully manipulate the controls,” he said. “And, so, unfortunately, there will be some people who don’t qualify, but that’s truly in the best interest of that person and our Air Force if they don’t fly.”
Heather Penney, a senior resident fellow with the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies and a former F-16 pilot, said rules regarding pilot height (as well as weight) can literally make the difference between life and death.
“Height and weight restrictions are even more crucial in ejection seat aircraft, because of how seat trajectory and stabilization can be affected by body size,” she said in a Nov. 16 email. “Seats can tumble and flail with smaller bodies—usually women—even snapping the neck.”
Wills acknowledged that the service’s pilot height standards may change, but said the extent of those changes and the timeline for their implementation is as of yet unclear. But he said he takes heart in the fact that the current waiver process’ design means no airmen will fall through the cracks in the meantime.
“I promise you that, at the end of that, we will still have a waiver process,” he said. “The question is, you know, can you expand the range that does not require a waiver, and that’s what we’re really looking at.”
But according to Penney, the push for a more gender-diverse Air Force pilot population—at least when it comes to fighters—is going to take more than just waivers. It’s going to take some re-engineering, too.
“Ensuring that current and future fighter ejection seats can safely accommodate all ranges is critical to opening fighter cockpits to women,” she wrote. “This issue is crucial if the Air Force is to have access to ALL available talent and solve its pilot shortage.”