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Do Women Make Better Military Helicopter Pilots?

One in ten Army helicopter pilot is a woman, yet men account for 97% of injuries in helicopter accidents.

TIME‘s Mark Thompson (“Army Women: Better Chopper Pilots Than the Guys?“):

Ten out of every 100 Army helicopter pilots are women — but they account for only 3 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 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 in May while a student at the School of Advanced Military Studies at the Army’s Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

SAMS is the Army’s premier planning course, attended by an elite group of C&GSC graduates. The “report” was Peña-Collazo’s master’s thesis. He’s an AH-64 Apache pilot

In general, women are involved in less aircraft accidents than all male crews — comprising only 3% of incidents. As women comprise roughly 10% of all aviators, the evidence suggests that women may operate aircraft more safely. As it pertains to just AH-64 aircraft, 100% of all accidents, both in garrison and in theater, involve all-male crews, at least suggesting that female attack pilots may be even more safe in the performance of flight duties.

Here’s the breakdown by aircraft type and accident rate:

Women-Helo-Pilots-1.png

This chart is missing a rather crucial third variable: sorties flown, flight hours, or some other measure to use as a divisor. As best I can tell from a quick scan of the paper, the only indicator we’re given at all is that “roughly 10 percent” of all Army aviators are women. So, if we are to assume that they fly an equal number of hours, the fact that only 3 percent of injuries have been to women versus 97 percent to men might be interesting. But it might not! The data presented don’t even tell us who was flying–the men injured might have been co-pilots or passengers!

I’m of course prepared to accept the possibility that women make safer pilots. But Peña-Collazo’s thesis doesn’t demonstrate that. Nor, incidentally, was that his objective; he’s just including this data among scads of others to draw insights into the performance of women in the military generally during the post-9/11 conflicts. Thompson:

[H]is report doesn’t hypothesize what might account for the different crash histories of the Army’s female and male pilots. The samples could be too small to make valid comparisons, or the female pilots may be less aggressive in the air, perhaps because they have less flying time.

There are also no details on whether or not commanders found female pilots as good as — or better — than their male comrades when it came to accomplishing their assigned missions. In any event, a sortie — especially in combat — that ends with the crew and aircraft safely back on base is a good thing.

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?”

 

Without a lot more information, my instinct is the latter. Or, more precisely, I don’t think looking at the raw numbers of injured crew members does anything more than give us insights that might lead to more investigation.

First, as noted before, we’d want to look at crashes per hours flown, rather than simply total injuries.

Second, “crashes leading to injury” is likely a more useful variable than number of injuries, since the latter is a function of crew size and largely irrelevant to the question anyway.

Third, we’d want to examine the situations in which the accidents occurred. Maybe the crashes are occurring mostly in specific sets of circumstances and either male pilots are much more likely to be assigned to fly under those circumstances or, more likely, they occur infrequently enough that lumping in flight hours under oher circumstances just clouds the picture.

Fourth, we’d likely want to isolate the effects to the actual flight crew—those who actually fly the chopper or directly interface with the pilot. That is, it’s plausible that it makes a difference whether a man or woman is flying. It’s also plausible that a male pilot will perform differently if there’s a female c0-pilot (or vice versa). It’s rather dubious that the presence of a woman somewhere else in the crew impacts the behavior of the pilot.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Aaron says:

    It might be reasonable to compare against the similar cohorts of drivers. Men (especially in the 18-25 age group) face higher insurance rates than women, due to higher accident rates. Mostly, it seems, due to greater risk-taking (pushing the envelope well past the safety point).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Aaron: I think it’s quite possible that women are in fact less likely to crash helicopters. Whether that comes at the cost of being less aggresive in combat—or whether being less aggressive is better for the mission—is another question.

    My point here, though, is that the “report” in question doesn’t give us nearly enough information to go on. TIME is extrapolating way too far from what’s in there.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  3. Davebo says:

    Fourth, we’d likely want to isolate the effects to the actual flight crew

    Exactly. if they haven’t then passenger injuries would be included in data and I would imagine the ratio of male versus female passengers is much more skewed towards males than flight crews.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  4. In general, women are involved in less aircraft accidents than all male crews — comprising only 3% of incidents. As women comprise roughly 10% of all aviators, the evidence suggests that women may operate aircraft more safely. As it pertains to just AH-64 aircraft, 100% of all accidents, both in garrison and in theater, involve all-male crews, at least suggesting that female attack pilots may be even more safe in the performance of flight duties.

    Stupid question, where women allowed to fly combat helicopters prior to September 30, 2013 (the data set runs from FY 02 to FY13)? If so, how many female combat pilots were there flying AH-64s? How many total flight hours did they accumulate during that time?

    Further, the data set is labeled “Soldiers Injured in Army Aviation Accidents”. The broad wording of that label would indicate that this includes all soldiers injured, not just pilots. This is particularly important when it comes to transport helicopters, where, particularly in combat zones, men are more likely to be the passengers. In addition, transport helicopters have crew chiefs, etc., how many of them are male versus female? Injuries involving transport helicopters (including the HH-60L, used for MEDEVAC operations) make up 69.1% of total male injuries and 71.4% of total “in theater” male injuries.

    In addition, for some reason, the “total” value is not the sum of all the numbers before. Is there an explanation for this discrepancy?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  5. James Joyner says:

    @Timothy Watson: Yes, women have been allowed to fly all helicopters and fixed wing planes since the 1990s. But, yes, the data are largely worthless as compiled.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  6. Aaron says:

    @James Joyner: Agreed, there’s a lot to question on that. How aggressive is enough, and how much is too much?

    I have heard that in California, the flight crews on the CalStar and Stanford life-flight air ambulances are not told details about the patient until they’re on the ground in the landing-zone in the field (where it’s hard to hide them, anyway). This was because pilots were taking too many risks trying to land in precarious conditions to pick up children. This doesn’t appear to be a nation-wide policy (based on a quick perusal of air ambulance accident rates).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  7. bill says:

    if they drive like my mom did they won’t get into accidents, they’ll cause them!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 5

  8. john personna says:

    If this had been the first example I might have been surprised:

    Women drivers better than men in the mining monster trucks

    It might be possible that for women the driving is less about them.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  9. OzarkHillbilly says:

    It occurs to me that this data flies in the face of everything I know about the male psyche, ie the propensity of all males of all species to show off when ever a pretty female is around (I suspect any female at a FOB is pretty by virtue of being female).

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  10. john personna says:

    Oh, and

    Behavioral economics show that women tend to make better investments than men

    Lol, the downsides of testosterone.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  11. grumpy realist says:

    Not enough information to figure out the error bars on the measurements, hence useless.

    If they’re including the patients in there as well, then the most likely reason is more patients ARE men (because more men are in combat situations), hence–> more crashes have men in the wreckage. Duh.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  12. Anonomouse says:

    If you compile this as a contingency table, there is no association. That would be super naive, to make that table, for the reasons that everyone has mentioned above.

    Too little data.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  13. PJ says:

    @Anonomouse:

    Too little data.

    Agree.

    We Need More Wars!

    ;)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  14. Seneca Pena-Collazo says:

    As was mentioned in the article, the purpose of the paper was not to prove that women are better pilots than men. That would, as so many have astutely pointed out, require a much deeper analysis of different data sets that are not readily available or even tracked.

    The paper was really written as a response to an article that claimed that women were wrecking the military. As female attack aviators were really the only sample I could pull from with any level of depth or detail from the past decade, that’s what was used.

    Either way, I’m glad to see the discussion and am genuinely shocked that people actually read the whole paper!
    -Seneca

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  15. C. Clavin says:

    @Seneca Pena-Collazo:

    The paper was really written as a response to an article that claimed that women were wrecking the military.

    Yes, yes…and gay marriage will destroy families…and Obamacare will destroy the Health Care Industry…and legalizing marijuana will lead to a nation of zombies…etc., etc.
    De-bunking the BS…in any small way…is always an admirable quest.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  16. john personna says:

    America. Where science denial is an industry, and snake handling will get you a tv show (and death, not necessarily in that order).

    [er, wrong thread]

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  17. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Seneca Pena-Collazo: Wha wha what??? You mean to say women aren’t wrecking the military??? They have been wrecking marriages ever since marriage was a thing. Are you sure?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  18. Andre Kenji says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    You mean to say women aren’t wrecking the military???

    Women aren´t wrecking the military. That´s role is being performed by gay people.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  19. James Pearce says:

    I’d chalk this up to “random variation.” They’ve created a category –”accidents from crews with at least one woman”– that is not significantly different from the main category. Could have been “accidents from crews with at least one vegetarian” or “accidents from crews with at least one left-handed person.” I’m sure you could find all kinds of interesting, but ultimately meaningless statistical tidbits doing that.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  20. The other Jack says:

    Also the type of missions is very important. My grandpa who flew the Hump in WWII use to joke about the hours he spent beside his crash planes. It had little to do with his piloting skills but the fact the Japanese shooting at him and his missions. The man could did stuff with his crop dusters that many thought impossible. Also most of the medals given to pilots is due to aggressive actions. Aggression isn’t needed when flying a cargo flight in friendly territory. Flying supplies or troops into a hot DZ or LZ is another story.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  21. MHS65 says:

    @Seneca Pena-Collazo: This is the dumbest thing i have ever heard.This isn’t the Waffen SS we are fighting over there. How many Apaches or Cobras were shot down in these two wars? How many fighter planes? If your gauging how women will do in combat based on anecdotal evidence from Afghanistan and Iraq then your crazy. What’s worse is there are idiots who will place stock in this report. You are good at fiction Pina Colada. You have a future as a writer.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  22. MHS65 says:

    @C. Clavin: He debunked nothing. He says women are in combat. Then combat should be redefined. It should be defined as, fighting an enemy that has no Navy, Air Force , Armor, Artillery, Air defense systems, or body armor. No ability to take prisoners, with one exception. The majority of casualties shall come from IED’s when no enemy is present. When the enemy is present they are generally out numbered and if they don’t back off quickly enough, then call for air support. Also pilots will continue to be in no danger whatsoever of death or injury. Sounds Right.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  23. Al_in_Ottawa says:

    The information in this report is statistically meaningless. The statement “women are involved in less aircraft accidents than all male crews” is not the same as “women pilots cause less aircraft accidents than male pilots”. Children are involved in airliner crashes but children do not cause them, after all.

    First off, there is no proper definition of aircrew. The aircrew can include pilot, co-pilot, gunner(s), load masters, and medical personnel but only one is in command of the aircraft and ultimately determines it’s fate, the pilot-in-command, aka PIC.

    What is needed to make a meaningful comparison is the number of flight hours that female PICs logged versus male PICs in the same type of aircraft in the same time period. Different aircraft are more forgiving of mistakes than others, thus Blackhawks should not be compared to Apaches nor Apaches to CH47s. During the most intense phases of the Iraqi war pilots would have been flying more hours pushing the limits of their stamina. Fatigued pilots make more mistakes which is why commercial pilots have daily and weekly maximum limits they’re not allowed to exceed. Then we need a list of the accidents that were caused solely by pilot error and apportion it out by the gender of the PIC.

    Table 9 is particularly meaningless. The title says it all “Soldiers injured in Army Aviation Accidents”. Since everyone in the army is a soldier, the injured in this chart includes the aircrew, any passengers and the ground crew. It has nothing to do with the gender of the PIC. This chart also doesn’t specify that the accidents were limited to those caused by the PIC. If the fuel truck driver runs someone over it might be counted as an aviation accident but it has nothing to do with the PIC. To draw a conclusion from this table is like the FAA saying that since 60% of airline crash victims are white and only 12% are Oriental the best pilots are Japanese. The 0% female involvement in the AH-64 & AH-64D is particularly misleading as in Appendix G it states that there were 115 Female Warrant Officer AH64 attack pilots versus 4,699 Males for a 2.4% female contingent. What is the ratio of male to female PIC attack helicopter missions and hours in combat? To draw any conclusions without that data is a waste of time.

    I suggest the good Major take a class on statistics or at the very least learn the difference between apples and oranges.

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  24. Grewgills says:

    @MHS65: @Al_in_Ottawa:
    Allowing women to participate combat duty was opposed for quite a long time by quite a few people, supposedly because it would be detrimental to unit cohesion and effectiveness. The study doesn’t claim to be definitive. It doesn’t even claim to show that women are better pilots or air crew. It is however a nice piece of evidence that the previous claims made to exclude women from flying combat missions were/are less than worthless.

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  25. Seneca Pena-Collazo says:

    @MHS65: I would invite you to read the actual report where there is the evidence of female Russian fighter pilots that did fight the warren and earned equivalent medals of honor.

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  26. Seneca Pena-Collazo says:

    @Seneca Pena-Collazo: Luftwaffe

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  27. MHS65 says:

    @Seneca Pena-Collazo: Once again this is anecdotal evidence. The Russians at that point in their history had no choice. If you no choice, you have no choice. We do. The Russians no longer use women in such capacity. The true test for our military both male and female will be an engagement of far larger and more serious forces. Ask yourself this question. If the Russians had supplied the Taliban the kind of AA equipment we gave to them when the Russians were fighting there, where might you and others be right now?

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  28. grewgills says:

    @MHS65:

    Once again this is anecdotal evidence.

    She has presented evidence in stark contrast to your no evidence. Do you have anything other than bald assertion?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  29. MHS65 says:

    @grewgills: She is a he. Secondly, the conflict itself is limited proof on how women will perform in the future.

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