December 29th, 2009
09:43 AM ET

Female aircrew eager for Afghan mission

(CNN) - Sgt. Stephanie Cole joined Britain's Royal Air Force more than three years ago to fly into battle - and not, as she says, to stay on the ground and "fly a desk."

Soon, she'll finally get to do what she signed up for - working on a helicopter crew in dusty and rugged southern Afghanistan, where British, U.S., other international forces and Afghan soldiers are slugging it out with Taliban militants.

"I'm looking forward to it," said Cole, 24 (on the far left in the photo above).

She will be among four female air crew members deployed to a pool of more than 100 pilots and loadmasters beginning New Year's Day to handle the newly-deployed Merlin helicopters in battle-scarred Helmand province, a haven for insurgents and an illegal drug trade.

The other three are pilots Flight Lt. Michelle Goodman, 32, the first woman to win Britain's Distinguished Flying Cross for her actions in Iraq; Flight Lt. Joanna Watkinson, 29; and loadmaster Sgt. Wendy Donald, 31 (pictured left to right after Cole). Three others are still in training.

Royal Air Force spokeswoman Lesley Woods said their presence in the Afghan war zone reflects a British societal trend: More women are considering careers in wartime and are realizing "they can play a part in today's armed forces."

The four-person Merlin crews will pick up casualties, fly supply missions and use machine guns to fend off Taliban fire. It is possible all four women will be deployed on one helicopter. Merlins can haul up to 20 people and they will complement the work of the Chinook, Sea King and Lynx copters.

Earlier this year, the four trained in southern California, where the hot and dusty environment resembled Afghanistan's.

Goodman and Watkinson practiced "evasive flying maneuvers" and Cole and Donald trained on the helicopter's three 7.62 mm machine guns, the British Defence Ministry said.

What's it like being females in a male-dominated military? The RAF's Woods supplied their comments from transcripts of interviews.

Their male counterparts, Goodman says, are great sports.

"You don't really notice any difference, it's just every day," Goodman said. "You always get banter but that's what you expect. If I didn't get banter I would think there was something wrong."

Watkinson agreed, saying she doesn't really notice being one of a handful of females on the Merlin force.

"You start your officer training and there's two or three girls on your flight and you just go through training and get used to the fact that you're one of very few girls around the place. The boys are the boys, they always will be, and I get on with them really well, but it is quite nice when you're flying with some other girls around the place that you can be close friends with."

Some women who join the military are following their male relatives.

"It was sort of following in the line of the family and it was something I wanted to do as well," said Donald. And, Cole said, her father is in the RAF and she has "kind of always grown up around it."

Goodman says, "It's a good career" and emphasizes that it's not "widely known that women can come into the military, that they potentially go out to places like Iraq and Afghanistan."

Watkinson said there will always be doubters who think women can't take on certain tasks because of their gender.

"I've had a few people tell me that in the past and I'd like to see them one day and go, 'Hah, told you!' "

She too has had relatives in the British armed forces, including her grandmother, a nurse who was "one of first females ever to be awarded a commission in the army.

"There's a lot of forces history in the family but I don't think as an only child girl I was ever going to follow down the same thing. My mum, dad and step-mum are all immensely proud. All my family are very proud."

Cole's female friends think her career is "pretty cool."

"They're all struggling in jobs and debts from university. I know some of my friends think, 'There's absolutely no way you'd catch me doing something like that, you're bonkers,' but it's good."

Watkinson said she "attended an all girls' school and all of us girls had the school's full support for whichever career we chose."

"I have friends who have become lawyers, dentists, doctors and business women - all areas which used to be very male-dominated. We were taught that we could do whatever we put our minds to, shown each year when a number of 'old girls', including myself, return to the school each year for the careers convention. It's amazing to see the support we have from the girls there today and their families."

As for the work, it will be in tough terrain. Comparing Iraq to Afghanistan, Goodman said, "Obviously the threat is slightly different out there as well and there's a lot more happening and going on. And ... the Merlin force has expanded so much over the 18 months we've got a lot of new guys who are going to be coming out with us who will not have been on operations before."

Also deployed in the past to Iraq, Watkinson said the skills learned in that war will come in handy in Afghanistan. But there will be differences. "The Merlin has operated in Iraq at the height of the threat and will perform equally well in Afghanistan; with tasking that will be similar, covering trooping, underslung loads, replenishment tasks and casualty evacuation. The Taliban have had many years of fighting and so are very experienced; and with the inhospitable, high altitude terrain in Afghanistan, our task will require top notch training and engineering," she said.

Watkinson noted the unique challenges in Afghanistan for pilots.

"The area of operation is large and predominantly at high altitude. All engines suffer from reduced efficiency in hot climates and rotor blades, by their nature, have decreased lift at high altitudes," she said. "In addition to this, mountain flying on night-vision goggles is a difficult skill to master; with various wind effects through the mountains and dust clouds at most landing sites. The combination of these factors means that the operation of the aircraft is a challenge."

Is the work particularly arduous for a woman?

"It is a hard job. I don't like to say it's too tough, it's different," Donald said. "I like to put the girls on the same level. It's hard but you just get on with it. The best bit is flying in different places. We've been in Iraq for a few years; Afghanistan coming up, for myself in January, I'm going out with my flight in January, and that's going to be something new. Coming to places like this, doing different training, something new. You don't get to do that in an everyday job. Flying is what I've always wanted to do so that is definitely the best part for me."

The aviators expect to shoot, be shot at, and possibly, be shot down or "forced to ditch their aircraft in hostile territory," Britain's Defence Ministry said. But Goodman said their minds will be on their tasks.

"If we thought about the threat continually, we would never be able to do our jobs," Goodman said. "Obviously, we always bear it in mind in terms of our actions but when you're in the middle of a dangerous sortie you just get on with your job."

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Filed under: Behind the Scenes • Troops
soundoff (140 Responses)
  1. Roy Fanendes

    David Karuri has kicked off a six nation official tour for the United States military. David Karuri will visit Germany, India, South Korea, Kenya, Southern Sudan and Uganda

    October 8, 2011 at 11:47 am | Report abuse |
  2. Codra Peters

    David Karuri the Raptor Global CEO has today launched a $48,000,000 million security operations syststem to be used by U.S special forces soldiers in Afganistan

    October 8, 2011 at 11:45 am | Report abuse |
  3. Codra Peters

    David Karuri will make an official trip to Afganistan in December 2011 to launch a joint security comand center built by Raptor Global at a cost of $2,500,000,000 Billion.

    October 8, 2011 at 11:41 am | Report abuse |
  4. How to grow roses

    Very good article.Really thank you! Fantastic.

    September 11, 2011 at 12:58 pm | Report abuse |
  5. how to download books

    Good blog! I really love how it is easy on my eyes and the data are well written. I'm wondering how I might be notified when a new post has been made. I have subscribed to your RSS which must do the trick! Have a great day!

    August 26, 2011 at 6:08 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Burt Rotondo

    He's so amazing the guy can study with no looking.

    August 18, 2011 at 6:15 am | Report abuse |
  7. salerno

    I am ashamed to be part of the west. This is why I walked away from christianity, as they failed to condamn this violence like they failed during third Reich.
    The presence of women as baby-killers is an ominous sign of our time !!
    I am really shocked they are supporting violence up to this level. I saw the videos of children killed and burned by those missiles in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    March 2, 2011 at 12:54 am | Report abuse |
  8. salerno

    Simply disgusting women

    March 1, 2011 at 3:52 am | Report abuse |
  9. Travel Pillow

    when i went to college, i chose a medical career because it is high paying job ;:~

    December 14, 2010 at 11:25 am | Report abuse |
  10. Cameron Kelly

    medical career is one of the highest paying jobs on these days,'.

    September 12, 2010 at 7:29 am | Report abuse |
  11. Niamh Carter

    i would also like to pursue a medical career since the pay is good.~.:

    July 25, 2010 at 11:31 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Kylie Sanchez

    the good thing about choosing a medical career is that it is a high paying job.'.`

    June 30, 2010 at 9:33 am | Report abuse |
  13. PA

    I am at a loss concerning previous comments with respect to perceived jealousy and having insulted the subjects of this article. Did I strike a nerve?

    As I expected, the reaction by some to my post suggests a measure of inability or unwillingness to grasp a relatively simple perspective on this subject.

    I did not say or otherwise imply that women were not capable of flying military aircraft, but as noted in other posts, the "gee-whiz" factor associated with this entire issue would appear to suggests otherwise; i.e., that this represents some sort of astounding feat. Perhaps what should be asked is "why is this an issue in the first place?" I would submit that there is a definite political-cultural dynamic at play that, in the interests of capability and safety, should be, to the extent possible, kept out of the equation.

    Another point would have to do with optimisation. I, for one, subscribe to the notion that men and women are equal, but nonetheless different. Accordingly, should there exist inherent factors that detract from the sustainment of valid standards, then they should be duly considered, as are all other factors applicable across the selection/training spectrum. As noted in another post about female aptitudes being higher, I could offer countering data concerning male aptitudes vis-à-vis suitability/optimisation. I believe it safe to say that women are superior in specific areas of aircrew aptitude, just as men are superior in others. Going back to the 'equal but different,' comment, what ultimately matters is that we don't lower standards just to meet them - and this doesn't just apply to the female aircrew "issue."

    I continue to assert from personal experience (and I do so from a position of direct involvement) that as long as legitimate standards are maintained, there should be no “issue;” however, I can tell you that in both my country and whilst on exchange as an instructor with Air Education and Training Command in the US in the early 90s, there were frequent occasions where we had to 'overlook' failures of select candidates for reasons of "expediency." We also had to track other notable 'attributes' of select candidates, including key 'linkages' (e.g., the son of a general, the daughter of senator, etc.) for due consideration in the event of of failure leading to the termination of training. Suffice to say, there were a number of occasions where we were overruled concerning failed simulators/flight serials leading to CT, after which the individuals in question were 'helped along' to wings standard. From this point, it becomes increasingly complex, but suffice to say we noted on several occasion individuals continuing to have problems, some of which led to serious flight mishaps, of which the source of the problems were traced back to ab-initio training.

    So, in closing, I ask that you reflect somewhat upon the my comments with a view to some balanced perspective, before overreacting in a manner that actually serves to reinforce the points on culture and expediency I previously raised.

    December 31, 2009 at 9:39 am | Report abuse |
  14. BCD

    Awesome story. God speed ladies!

    December 31, 2009 at 3:55 am | Report abuse |
  15. Get Real

    How quaint for so many of you who sit comfortably in your well-protected and insulated little worlds to pontificate so openly on this issue. The fact is, unless you've served in a combat zone under combat conditions (and I refer to 'harm's way situations; i.e., people trying to kill YOU), you don't know squat about what works and what doesn't.

    WIth due defference to others who have experienced combat, I can only say that you want the best warriors that can be produced in the field of battle. Trendy political machinations and quaint little gaws and goos aren't going to cut it when the enemy is engaged. Political correctness doesn't mean a damn in war. The guy who talked about 'optimization' is right. You want the people best suited to the job – period. Not somebody who is 'enabled' through artificial means.

    People, the use of women in combat has been attempted before and it has failed. Read your history. Someone once said that the only thing we've learned from history is that we haven't learned anything from history. That would appear to be the case here.


    December 30, 2009 at 6:10 pm | Report abuse |
  16. Laughing at you all

    The typical hysteria exhibited by some of you suggests to me that you are unable to undertake a balanced, cogent exchange of views. The reactions by some to the comments made by others actually serve to justify his argument...... The comment on 'equal but different' should have turned a couple light bulbs on, but evidently didn't.

    December 30, 2009 at 3:28 pm | Report abuse |
  17. ZOD

    Speaking in support of a previous (and obviously unpopular) post, I'd offer the following in support:

    Further to my earlier post, and given some of the 'data' provided by others, I'd like to share the following by way of example:

    Data collected since females first started aircrew training in Canada in 1979 was published a number of years ago by the Canadian Defence and Civil Institute of Environmental Medicine (DCIEM). The report noted that females are less successful than males in selective competition for training, but once into the training scheme, there "no significant sex difference in achieving wings standard." Although numbers are still relatively small, female aircrew are now participating equally with their male peers in all aspects of military flying, including tactical fighter operations.

    To wit:

    "Surveys were conducted of candidate performance at the CFASC (Aircrew Selection Centre). It demonstrates that only 33% of females, while 49% of males achieved indexes of 6 or better. More recent CFASC results demonstrate that females have not closed the gap in their success rate with their male counterparts, and there continues to be a significant difference between the two groups.

    It has been evident that females are superior only in verbal ability and clerical speed and accuracy; males are superior in mechanical reasoning, visual spatial ability and quantitative ability. Generally speaking, twice as many male candidates as female can be expected to achieve a successful Pilot Aptitude Index."

    December 30, 2009 at 3:02 pm | Report abuse |
  18. Kerry Wooten

    Kc?? I'm not going to get down on you I totally agree with your points and i did Not read but 3 of them lol but I think u need to read the story again this is not bout U.S. women this was about one british woman who was told she would be flying helicopters and for 3 years was made to work a desk!! now she finally gets to do what she wanted to do when she joined the british royal army or whatever............

    Now Ladies Im very proud of you fighting for your rights and going for what you believed you were able to do and wish you all the luck in the world.


    December 30, 2009 at 1:53 pm | Report abuse |
  19. kim

    makes me so proud.

    December 30, 2009 at 7:29 am | Report abuse |
  20. K SIlvia

    YOU GO GIRLS!! (and be safe).... my hats off to all of the crew as an Army Veteran who served 20 plus years. Serve and protect.

    Army Veteran, K Silvia

    December 29, 2009 at 8:38 pm | Report abuse |
  21. Tommie Leydsman

    Thirty-four years ago, I became part of a small, but proud minority of female Coast Guard officers, 27 at that time. We were trained along with male officer candidates, no exceptions were made for gender except separate bathroom facilities.I was the first female officer assigned to an operational unit that was responsible for search and rescue in an area which encompassed a 500 mile stretch off the Atlantic. So, I was very proud to read about the British female aircrew.
    It has been interesting reading some of the comments. If I didn't know better, I would have thought myself back thirty-four years ago. To , Pragmatic Aircrew, your reply carried the same insulting implication that it did when those females of my generation served. The dreaded "lowering of standards" argument. Is it so inconceivable to some, that women have the same talents, dreams and intellectual capabilities as males? That women understand and fulfill the requirements of their jobs, whatever they may be, just the same as males. In 2009, it is disheartening that there are those that view gender (female) and exemplary performance as mutually EXCLUSIVE terms. How sad for you! Now to address the comment of Bernie Mccluskey, who stated, " I wonder if the medals/awards would have been there for males in the same situation???? There is a big push on for gender equality but the playing field is not level." (end quote)
    His very statement supports the "unfounded conclusion" that women are not capable of meeting the performance criteria that qualifies one to receive a commendation! He does a grave disservice to Flight Lt. Michelle Goodman, recipient of the British Distinguished Flying .
    Cross, by his "malicious insinuation" that she was given an award she had not "REALLY" earned. Thirty-four years ago, the Coast Guard, instituted a training cadre of personnel , both officer and enlisted, to speak to "misconceptions" about the performance and even the role of females in the Armed Services. It appears that this message, is again, in dire need of repeating.

    December 29, 2009 at 7:07 pm | Report abuse |
  22. Peter Richerds

    David Karuri has been real instrumental in pushing for more women in combat zones since 2003 and his hard work is finally paying off.

    December 29, 2009 at 6:39 pm | Report abuse |
  23. Andrew Stone

    This is indeed a great accomplishment for our armed forces. I was speaking to David Karuri who is a senior advisor at the U.S department of Defense and a strong supporter of women in the armed forces and he tells me that the number of women in combat zones is set to double as women continue to show that they too can perform in combat zones.

    December 29, 2009 at 6:35 pm | Report abuse |
  24. Tim

    ..and what happens if they come back home in body bags? Do we cheer on the next crew or do we blame it on the Taliban. True 'no one should have to ever live under the threat of terror'...go tell that to the Afgan civilians who get bombed to hell by the Coalition forces protecting them or get chopped to pieces by the Taliban in the name of God. War is not a game people. This is not football! People die! Maybe if you looked into the face of a dying soldier or had to try to save the life of a child with all her limbs blown off, you would have a different perspective. This is not about your !@#%* career or your @#!%$&* ego, male or female. War is evil and people die.

    December 29, 2009 at 5:47 pm | Report abuse |
  25. davidofthestone

    A wonderful picture and great story. I wish those ladies great success in Afghanistan by taking our just fight to the enemy. They will be supporting the proud men and women in the US Armed Forces, British Armed Forces, and other Coalition Armed Forces serving in Afghanistan. All, who know and understand the true value of serving one's country.

    For the clarity of some of the audience – please understand that the U.S. Armed Forces have hundreds of female pilots, rotary wing and fixed wing. I went to school with several and saw many in Iraq. This specialty maybe a new development in Britain over the last several years or more, but U.S. has been sending female pilots into combat and they have done extraordinary things at the rotor. So please do not live under the misconception that the U.S. does not have female pilots, for we have hundreds, many who have triumphed in the heat of battle and several who have made the ultimate sacrifice. Thanks to them all for their service.

    December 29, 2009 at 5:47 pm | Report abuse |
  26. Sam

    I'm all for women flying combat sorties, so long as they have to meet the same requirements as their male colleagues and treated the same (i.e. not given any special treatment).

    December 29, 2009 at 5:45 pm | Report abuse |
  27. Phil

    I've done two combat tours on in Afghanistan and one in Iraq. It's not uncommon to see women serving as aircrews. The commander's of the 25th infantry division had a female pilot during both tours. I'm sure they will do a great job

    December 29, 2009 at 5:43 pm | Report abuse |

    More amazing woman serving in Afghanistan I salute my fellow sisters in arms. Stand Tall! Be proud!

    December 29, 2009 at 5:43 pm | Report abuse |
  29. Diane

    Hooooya! Show what you're made of ladies. The positive attitude and professionalism of these women is super. I salute them.

    December 29, 2009 at 5:35 pm | Report abuse |
  30. Leilani

    I am equally proud of both our men and women serving in the military so we can still have our rights of freedom of speech and all that other good stuff that come with it, God bless you all and your families for making the sacrifices. It is equally great to see women willing and able to fight as good as the men. I have a niece in the USAF who has been flying/piloting C130 over these danger zones for the last 10+ years and I am proud of her. I now have a daughter that is in the USAF who has been training for almost a year in Special Ops/her flight will be C130 as well and I am so so darn proud of her, it's nerve wrecking as a mother thinking about her job but I am not alone, there's thousands of other parents, families worrying just the same. So God Bless ALL of us and All our Men/Women seving so protect our FREEDOM and RIGHTS! You are truly HEROES!

    December 29, 2009 at 5:29 pm | Report abuse |
  31. Stacy

    Rock on!! What a great story and a great thing to see!

    December 29, 2009 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse |
  32. C Clark

    Did anyone consider that making a big deal about this would make it more dangerous than it will already be? Terrorists could single these women out and destroy them just because they know we value our women more than they do. So, for the sake of a sensational story and lots of "atta boy" comments, you've put these brave women more in harm's way than they would have been if they had been allowed to do their job in anonymity.

    December 29, 2009 at 5:15 pm | Report abuse |
  33. pfcpat2

    Way to go, ladies!! I'm so proud of young women who take on tough challenges such as these. If I was their age, I'd join up too!! When I was young, women didn't have the chance to do anything such as this in the military. Although I didn't get to do things like this, I couldn't be happier to see them get the opportunity. My Dad told me that if a woman could do the same job as a man equally well, there should be no barriers to her having the opportunity to do it! My Dad would have supported me if I had wanted to fly helicopters in combat, as long as I was capable of the challenge.

    December 29, 2009 at 5:13 pm | Report abuse |
  34. RUBE


    December 29, 2009 at 5:08 pm | Report abuse |
  35. Ingrid

    I'm a Proud American...Thank you for stepping up in this war on terror to help protect our freedoms...we have to win in Afganistan...I don't want to ever see another 9/11 ....To everyone in the entire world one should have to ever live under the threat of terror all the men and women in uniform you will be in my thoughts and prayers for your safe return home....Again Thank You...

    December 29, 2009 at 4:58 pm | Report abuse |
  36. KC


    give me a there isn't a male kindergarten teacher somewhere in America busting his butt to teach kids?

    Come on....have a little perspective, outside of your feminist blinders.

    December 29, 2009 at 4:56 pm | Report abuse |
  37. KC

    Nzeworld wrote: Go and show the world that what a man can do a woman can do it better.

    Is that sort of comment REALLY necessary? And they are sitting here calling ME jealous and defensive....

    December 29, 2009 at 4:54 pm | Report abuse |
  38. Logical

    Let these brave women serve here protecting our borders. More American blood shed into the sands of the Middle East will yeild: nothing. Lets stop buying oil and get out of that insane part of the world for good.

    December 29, 2009 at 4:54 pm | Report abuse |
  39. Randy

    Makes me proud to call myself a feminist. Now if we could just get men to stop devaluing "women's work," like teaching and caring for children. Can't wait for the CNN story that says,

    "Male kindergarten teachers eager to mentor children."

    December 29, 2009 at 4:52 pm | Report abuse |
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