We Can Do Better. Women in USAF Test Pilot School Represent Broader STEM Disparities

  • Published
  • By Jessica "Sting" Peterson
  • 412th Operations Group

It’s time to have some hard conversations. Since the inception of the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School (USAF TPS) in 1944 there have been 3,249 graduates to date; as of December 2022, only 87 have been female. Over the past 5 years, the average female-to-male make-up of a USAF TPS class has been between 1-to-2 out of 24 students, and more than a quarter of the classes have been composed of only men. It took having just five females graduate in one class, less than a fourth of class USAF TPS Class 20A, for the event to make national news.

With so much effort being put into diversity and inclusion in the military, specifically with women, why are the percentages of females applying and attending the USAF TPS still so low? The student make-up of the USAF TPS is a barometer for the status of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education in the population. With the continued Air Force pilot shortfall and the looming shortage of STEM professionals, it is critical for our national security to increase the number of students studying aviation and STEM career fields across the board. This includes underrepresented groups such as women.

When you look at the general population numbers for females in both STEM and aviation career fields, it is not surprising the USAF TPS has such low numbers for females in the course. These statistics unfortunately mirror national numbers in broader STEM career fields, for which females are drastically under-represented. According to the census, the general working population is composed of 48 percent females yet women only make up 27 percent of the scientist and 15 percent of the engineering career fields. Within general aviation, women only make up 9 percent of the pilot population. For the larger Air Force, women make up around 20 percent of the military ranks and 29 percent of the civil servant workforce. To increase the number of women who can apply to the USAF TPS, the pipeline of women in aviation and STEM career fields needs to be increased.

What are the barriers?

The first female graduate at the USAF TPS was Capt. Jane L. Holley, a flight test engineer, in 1975.  It would not be until 1989 when Capt. Jacquelyn Parker would be the first female test pilot to graduate from the USAF TPS. Historically there were many barriers that women in aviation had to overcome to include aircraft and flight equipment design. Aircraft cockpits and equipment were designed for the average range of a predominately male aircrew; women who were shorter or lighter were limited on what they could fly.  Recent efforts on aircrew flight equipment and cockpit design are making military aviation more accessible for women, removing one of the barriers.

Another barrier are the core requirements to apply to the USAF TPS, a graduate level program with a master’s degree in flight test engineering. To attend, a student must have a physical science bachelor’s degree that includes science, engineering, and mathematics courses, with a technical master’s degree preferred. In addition, rated aircrew must meet a minimum of at least 500-750 hours of flight time in their platform to apply for the course. These are key steps in education and a career before someone can even apply for consideration at the USAF TPS. Women are not reaching these core requirements compared to their male counterparts.

Additionally, once women enter a career in STEM and aviation, we need to continue to support them through their career and life progression. Recent Air Force policy changes now allow women aircrew to voluntarily request to fly during pregnancy without requirement of a waiver, allowing normal life to not get in the way of career development. These changes are a positive step forward in breaking down the barriers that have historically halted women from even applying to the USAF TPS.

Why should we care?

In my career, I have found that team diversity provides benefits for creative thinking and ability to identify and cover blind spots that one-sided teams may miss. Additionally, for just sheer numbers, the United States is not producing enough STEM graduates to meet national security threats. The United States’ role as the world’s foremost performer of research and development is changing as Asia continues to increase its investments. For decades, the United States has led the world in the number of scientist and engineering doctorate degrees awarded. However, China is now closing that gap.​ In 2018, China awarded nearly 38,000 doctorates in natural sciences and in engineering; the United States awarded 31,000. If we are serious about the future of our country as a leader in technology and development, we need to nurture STEM education and career fields across our entire population.

What can we do?

Underrepresented groups, such as women, present an opportunity to boost the overall enrollment in STEM degrees and aviation careers. To increase our numbers in advanced degrees, such as the USAF TPS, we need to start by increasing our numbers at the beginning levels of education. You can help by getting involved in STEM outreach and education at the K-12 level. Go to career fairs, volunteer to speak at our local schools, find science and robotics competitions to be involved in. Most importantly, we all need to share what is cool about our job and how students can apply science and mathematics to the real world. I’ve tackled this by becoming a “STEMinist,” advocating for STEM careers and putting myself out there for the sake of our workforce.

While these conversations can be hard, recognizing the deficiencies in our current STEM career fields and choosing to act is critical for the prosperity and national defense of our country. We can do better.

Learn more about Edwards Air Force Base STEM efforts.

Jessica “Sting” Peterson is a United States Air Force Test Pilot School graduate and current adjunct instructor. She serves as the Technical Director for the 412th Test Wing Operations Group and maintains flying currency as a flight test engineer for a variety of tactical and fixed-wing aircraft.