Army Women: Better Helo Pilots Than Men?

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Ten out of every 100 Army helicopter pilots are women — but they account for only three out of every 100 accidents. That’s the bottom line in an Army report that, in an effort to study the impact of women on the front lines, compares accident rates of men and women flying U.S. Army helicopters from 2002 to 2013. The revelation is included in Army Major Seneca Peña-Collazo’s report, Women in Combat Arms: A Study of the Global War on Terror, which he published while a student at the School of Advanced Military Studies at the Army’s Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Peña-Collazo is an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter pilot; his report does not hypothesize what might account for the different crash histories of the Army’s female and male pilots, although the data matched what auto insurance underwriters have known for years—women are better drivers than men. The report is also is consistent with the informal information reported by World War II Royal Air Force Air Transport Auxiliary pilot Diana Barnato Walker in her book, Spreading My Wings. Male and female Air Transport Auxiliary pilots received the same training and flew the same aircraft—Tiger Moths through Spitfires and Lancasters—on the same deliveries, yet the women pilots had a lower rate of accidents.

Peña-Collazo’s report showed that, in general, women were involved in fewer aircraft accidents than all male crews — comprising only 3 percent of incidents. When the data was boiled down to just AH-64 Apache attack helicopters flying the same missions, the data were more dramatic—100 percent of all accidents, both in garrison and in theater, involved all-male crews, at least suggesting that female attack pilots may be even more safe in the performance of flight duties. Retired Army colonel Elspeth Ritchie, once the service’s top psychiatrist, doesn’t believe AH-64 crews with one or two females at the controls are being cut any slack that could lead to fewer accidents. “Pilots do not choose which missions to fly,” she says. “Their bosses choose the missions.” The key question is why flight crews with at least one woman on board have fewer crashes. “The obvious conclusion is that mixed [gender] crews are safer,” she says. “Why is the question. Less ‘cowboying’? More safety checks? More thoughtful behavior in the air? Or is this apparent pattern random variation?”