By Jessica Ruttenber
“So we’ve got new hairstyles and maternity flight suits…Pregnant women are going to fight our wars. It’s a mockery of the U.S. military.” Tucker Carlson
It might be a surprise to some that female aviators have been successfully performing their in-flight duties for over 20 years. In 2018, the Air Force had 400 pregnant aviators. Not all of these warriors were eligible, or opted in, for flight duties but many with healthy pregnancies desired to continue executing the mission.
Flying while pregnant not only preserves foundational readiness by preventing the loss of qualifications requiring expensive retraining postpartum, but also contributes to day to day non-combat operational missions stateside and abroad. This helps alleviate some of the Air Force’s enduring pilot shortage. Aircrew ineligible to fly for personal or medical reasons remain mission focused by running the day-to-day operations of a flying squadron. By freeing up other aircrew members from their additional duties such as a scheduler or academic trainer they now have more time to fly.
Often women struggle with balancing their desire to serve and with wanting to have a child. There is fear that their career will be penalized for having a baby and they want to continue to fly and contribute to the mission. By providing the right uniform the Air Force is sending a message that they welcome their pregnancy and helps remove the stigma associated with it. No longer do you have to choose between career advancement or a family.
During my three pregnancies I flew as an instructor pilot. I trained other pilots as well as flew operational missions until my third trimester. During my third trimester I switched to instructing in simulators and remained current in my own requirements preventing retraining upon returning from maternity leave.
As my midsection expanded during the second trimester I would require larger flight suits. The only problem with going up a size or two is that the legs and arms also get larger causing the required safety duty uniform to not properly fit. This often caused a tripping hazard or the excess material would catch onto the controls during flight inadvertently actuating a switch. Yikes!
When Captain Chelsie Jones, a pregnant C-130 pilot at Little Rock Air Force Base, designed, sewed and filmed her own maternity flight suit to try and obtain funding is when I had my “ah ha” moment. Why didn’t I have a properly fitting uniform to do my job? Connecting this innovator to the Pentagon’s Chief of Aircrew Support Branch, Lieutenant Colonel Christi Opresko validated it as an operational requirement. Over the next several months Colonel Opresko advocated support from senior leaders until it became a reality.
In March of 2021, Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson accused senior leaders of “feminizing” the military. “So we’ve got new hairstyles and maternity flight suits,” Carlson said, also referring to recent updates to Army and Air Force hair regulations. “Pregnant women are going to fight our wars. It’s a mockery of the U.S. military.” After watching this I realized that we need to do a better job educating people. These “female issues” are more than a diversity topic or politics, it’s about properly fitting uniforms and equipment important to our National Defense. Women need body armor that properly fits them when they deploy to combat zones that don’t have potential gaps in openings and cause skeletal injuries when worn over time. These invisible barriers if not addressed add to the many paper cuts that over time send a message to women that they don’t belong here.
So does the Air Force really need Maternity Flight Suits? The Maternity Flight Suit helps open the eyes of possibility, not only for potential future female aviators, but maybe even for Mr. Carlson’s like-minded audience.
Cover Photo of Major Mary Lea Bordelon by Jaimee Freeman
Edited by Tiffany Behr
Air Force aviators can fly until the 28th week of gestation in non-ejection seat aircraft. Air Force Instruction 48-123 (2020, Dec 8) Medical Examinations and Standards
The Air Force service is reviewing occupational hazards in aviation to see if more opportunities can be expanded for pregnant airmen on all platforms.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) does not consider “pregnancy under normal circumstances” as a disqualifying condition.
400 pregnant aviators derived from Aeromedical Services Information Management System (ASIMS). ASIMS is a web-based application that provides the Air Force the capability to track medical readiness, including immunization data, through a web portal for all personnel both in fixed or deployed facilities.