Fly Girls Revolt: The Story of the Women Who Kicked Open the Door to Fly in Combat

Fly Girls Revolt: The Story of the Women Who Kicked Open the Door to Fly in Combat
On a wing and a dare


They were allowed to fly but only so far, and for reasons that had more to do with tradition and discrimination than talent and destination.

They are the women in “The Fly Girls Revolt: The Story of Women Who Kicked Open the Door to Fly in Combat,” a readable look at five decades of service in the military before women are permitted – 
only 30 years ago, in 1993 – to pilot a plane in combat. 

“Fly Girls” is a history of policies, politics, personalities, plus author Eileen A. Bjorkman’s perspective as a pilot and retired Air Force colonel. But this is not a memoir. Bjorkman’s interviews with other women propel the story on the ground and in the air.

The “revolt” in the title is a movement that goes into full thrust in 1987 at the Women Military Aviators (WMA) conference. Retired Maj. Gen. Jeanne Holm (former director of Women in the Air Force (WAF)) tells attendees to “show a lot of tenacity,” and Air Force Academy instructor Lt. Col. W. H. Clover – not all males are misguided in this book – suggests that “if you want to be a political force, you have to make people angry.”  

Tired of being on what is effectively a no-fly list, the women go into action in Washington and elsewhere. Subsequently, service by 30,000 women in Desert Shield and Desert Storm shows that “women were part of the team. The U.S. military could no longer go to war without them.” 

All they have to do is change opinions about an “archaic” 1948 law – a revolting regulation – that says women “may not be assigned to duty in aircraft while such aircraft are engaged in combat missions” and women cannot “be assigned to duty on vessels of the Navy except hospital ships and naval transports.” 

Enlightening folks in and out of uniform requires stamina, which the women have and Bjorkman documents. “There are household names” in the book, Bjorkman admits, “but most of the women who kicked open the doors to fly in combat are not famous.”

 For example, the former Army captain and Army spouse Carolyn Becraft, later an assistant secretary in the Department of Defense, helps enlist others to “come to Washington in uniform to tell your story” to Congress members and staffers in 1991 

When hearings begin on the 1992 defense budget, Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) and Rep. Beverly Byron (D-Md.), take the cockpit and the helm, Schroeder on the air and Byron on the sea. Next stop is the Senate, where Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and World War II veteran Sen. William Roth (R-Del.) lead the effort. 

Roth says equality would allow “the Secretary of Defense maximum flexibility to fill the {flight} job with the best-qualified person” instead of only with a male. 

Eventually the Senate agrees, but not before veterans John Glenn (D-Ohio) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) obtain votes for another women-at-war study, whose commission later votes to retain the aviation restrictions. 

However, also in November, “U.S. citizens cast their own votes.” Bill Clinton becomes Commander in Chief, and in April 1993 military services receive orders to train women to fly combat aircraft. By 
year’s end, another policy permits gay people to serve – so long as they don’t tell and nobody asks.

 The legislative fight plan you have just read about might seem more procedural than passionate. But “Fly Girls” blends pathos and playfulness:
Emma Riley, commissioned during World War II, anticipates the donuts and coffee at a USO stop in Tennessee while traveling to Fort Oglethorpe, Ga. But the USO volunteers, expecting males, refuse to serve the women. “The slight stung” Riley, who later heads WAF.

In 1951, WAF intelligence officer Yvonne C. Pateman briefs pilots before they head to Korea. Her commander refers to Pateman as “my China watcher,” his “expert on Chinese military and political leadership.” His wife is relieved that “they found a job for women in the service – in the kitchen watching the china.” 

Because she is female, 20-year-old Claire Griffith needs parental approval to join the Air Force in the 1960s. Her father had served as a Navy civilian, working on top-secret radio towers, and Griffith is shocked when he disapproves her considering the military: “You’ll become a whore!”

In the 1970s, Jeanne Holm encounters a “ridiculous” policy. If a woman is pregnant, she is kicked out – but a woman who marries has the option of deciding to leave the service. “The military was drafting men who didn’t want to serve, while simultaneously letting women volunteers go just because they got married.” 

Kathy Rambo (yes, Rambo) is at Lackland Air Force Base when she and others learn that a woman may not fly during menstruation. Their solution? The women keep mum. “As far as the men knew, they were the only 10 women in the world to collectively go without a period for 10 months without being pregnant.” Rambo marries an airman and is a pilot who is accustomed to male pilots’ perusing pornography at cruising altitude. She is appalled, however, when the men use the intercom to describe the naked figures. During a layover, she and another female procure a “Playgirl” magazine. “The next day, they laid Mr. August out on the center console and began discussing his attributes – over the intercom.  “The guys got the message.” 

  If only delivering and receiving messages were so simple. “Fly Girls” is a success story that is not complete.

  “There are still challenges,” Bjorkman says. “Stories of misogynists inside and outside the military fill my Twitter feed almost daily,” and “women and people of color are still underrepresented in the ranks of military aviation. 

  “Fixing this problem isn’t just about equality. It’s about ensuring that the military has the best people available to recruit and retain.”


  “The Fly Girls Revolt: The Story of the Women Who Kicked Open the Door to Fly in Combat” by Eileen A. Bjorkman, Knox Press, 288 pages, $30


 Huffman’s book reviews received the Military Reporters and Editors’ 2018 award for commentary. He is secretary of the board of Student Veterans of America and co-edited “The End of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (Marine Corps University Press, 2012).