38 female IAF pilots shatter the glass firmament

Twenty years after Miller vs Defense Ministry, a once-reluctant Israeli Air Force wants more women in the cockpit

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Female graduates of the IAF's 163rd flight school course (photo credit: IDF Flickr/CC BY-NC)
Female graduates of the IAF's 163rd flight school course (photo credit: IDF Flickr/CC BY-NC)

Over the past 20 years, ever since Alice Miller broke the gender barrier by petitioning the Supreme Court for the right to enlist in the Israel Air Force’s prestigious flight school course, a total of 38 women have received pilots’ wings, the army weekly Bamahane reported.

Half of the graduates are combat aviators — with 16 combat navigators, three combat pilots, seven helicopter pilots, and 12 cargo pilots and navigators, including a deputy squadron commander.

The Defense Ministry and Israel Defense Forces initially rejected Miller’s request to enlist in the course in 1993 “not because she is a woman,” Maj. Gen. Herzl Bodinger — the commander of the IAF at the time — wrote in an affidavit, “but mainly because her anticipated length of service [placing an emphasis on reserve duty] is inconsistent with the army’s preconditions for the training of a member of an air crew.”

That same year, president Ezer Weizman, a former air force commander, was far more blunt about the basis for the long-standing gender exclusion. “Meidele,” he reportedly told Miller — using a Yiddish word for “young lady” — “have you ever seen a man sewing a pair of socks?” To boot, Weizman claimed that “women are incapable of withstanding the pressures placed on a fighter pilot.”

The court disagreed. It ruled in a 3-2 decision that “closing the aviation course to women violates their dignity and degrades them. It also, albeit unintentionally, provides support for the degrading slogan: ‘The best men for the air force, and the best women for its pilots.’”

A female graduate of the IAF's June 2012 course (Photo credit: courtesy: IAF)
A female graduate of the IAF’s June 2012 course (photo credit: Courtesy IAF)

Miller, an officer who had a civilian’s pilot license and was serving in the academic reserves at the time, was allowed to try out for the army’s most elite course, but was deemed unfit.

Although the pre-state Yishuv trained female pilots, some of whom flew missions in the War of Independence and the 1956 Suez War, Sheri Rahat, an F-16 combat navigator, became, in 1998, the first female graduate in nearly five decades. Three years later, Roni Zuckerman, a granddaughter of Zivia Lubetkin and Yitzhak Zuckerman, two leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, graduated as the first combat pilot.

Yael Rom, the first pilot to graduate from the IAF Flight School, before the practice was discontinued for decades (Photo credit: Wikipedia/ IAF)
Yael Rom, the first pilot to graduate from the IAF flight school, before the practice was discontinued for decades. (photo credit: Wikipedia/IAF)

Nonetheless, IAF officers told the army weekly that it is still hard to typify the female pilot. “I feel that still today, 20 years later, we do not know how to characterize the profile of the female pilot as we do that of the male pilot,” said Maj. Racheli Weinberg, the head of a unit that seeks out potential air crew enlistees. “The evolution of it is much slower, and not enough time has elapsed to make it researchable, which is why we are looking to pass through our ‘strainer’ as many women as possible in order to understand the characteristics of the female Israeli Air Force pilot.”

The most recent course, which began in July, was comprised of a mere seven percent women, a figure that the army seeks to increase by lifting all limitations on the initial screening process, which was, until recently, geared more toward male candidates.

Thus far, roughly 10 percent of the women who have begun the course have completed it —  a figure that is very similar, if not better, than that of the male gender.

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