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Recent media coverage has called attention to the United States Army’s female helicopter pilots, who may — or may not — have a significantly lower accident rate than their male counterparts.
In an article titled “Army Women: Better Chopper Pilots Than the Guys?” Time reporter Mark Thompson claims, “Ten out of every 100 Army helicopter pilots are women — but they account for only 3 out of every 100 accidents.” He cites a May 2013 academic paper by Army Major Seneca Peña-Collazo, who is himself an AH-64 Apache pilot.
In fact, the evidence is less clear-cut. Peña-Collazo’s paper (which is reproduced via the Time website) does indicate that women account for roughly 10 percent of all Army aviators. But the paper does not clearly indicate that women aviators are responsible for only 3 percent of Army aviation accidents — only that 3 percent of all soldiers injured in Army aviation accidents are female.
In some cases, the data are suggestive. For example, the paper indicates that women accounted for none of the injuries in the 85 total accidents involving AH-64A and AH-64D helicopters between Fiscal Year 2002 and Fiscal Year 2013. Since Apache helicopters are operated by pilot and pilot-gunner crews without passengers or other flight crew members, that “at least [suggests] that female attack pilots may be even more safe in the performance of flight duties,” Peña-Collazo notes. However, the paper also indicates that women make up only 3.8 percent of all AH-64D pilots, and no data is provided for the total number of hours and missions flown by male and female attack pilots, so the difference may not be statistically significant.
In any event, Peña-Collazo’s primary goal in the paper is not to make claims about the relative safety of male and female helicopter pilots, but instead to address larger questions concerning women in combat. He concludes that “both perceptually, from senior leaders, as well as quantifiable measures of performance of women in combat, they contribute meaningfully with a comparable level of performance as male-only units.” The “deeper discussion,” he says, “revolves around breaking cultural biases throughout the armed services.”
Although female helicopter pilots are still relatively under-represented in U.S. Army Aviation, female pilots in the military appear to be making greater strides than female pilots in the civilian world. While women make up just 10 percent of all Army aviators and 14 percent of the total Active Army force, Peña-Collazo says, “The Pentagon is firmly entrenched on a path of inclusiveness which continually opens up more positions to females. And Army Aviation seems to be living up to the official rhetoric of inclusiveness as more women are being selected for command.”
Meanwhile, the most recent data from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) indicate that women accounted for only around 4.8 percent of all active commercial and airline transport pilot airmen certificates held in 2012. Although the FAA does not keep statistics for rotorcraft pilots by gender, other evidence indicates that the percentage of women working as professional civilian helicopter pilots in North America and beyond may be even lower. For example, 2008 statistics from Transport Canada indicated that only 3.6 percent of all commercial and ATP helicopter licenses in force were held by women.