Air Force Ditches Medical Waiver for Some Pregnant Airmen Who Want to Fly Longer

Stacey Butler (right) a clothing designer with the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center's Air Force Uniform Office, measures Capt. Taylor Harrison's maternity Airman Battle Uniform. ( U.S. Air Force/Brian Brackens)
Stacey Butler (right) a clothing designer with the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center's Air Force Uniform Office, measures Capt. Taylor Harrison's maternity Airman Battle Uniform. ( U.S. Air Force/Brian Brackens)

In acknowledgement that each pregnancy is unique, the U.S. Air Force is allowing some female pilots to stay in the cockpit longer without need of a medical waiver.

Women who are in remotely piloted aircrew, missile operations duty crews and certain fully qualified pilot positions can continue with their jobs without additional restrictions put on their time in service, according to a service news release.

"We're empowering women to work closely with their obstetrician and flight medicine providers to pick a path that is tailored to their individual needs, while ensuring we're doing everything to support them throughout their pregnancy," said Lt. Gen. Dorothy Hogg, Air Force surgeon general.

The Air Force has updated its policy in the Medical Standards Directory, removing some restrictions on flying while pregnant and eliminating the requirement for "a higher headquarters waiver" for airmen with uncomplicated pregnancies to be able to return to flight, the service said.

Related: Air Force Changes Policy on Limiting Orders for Pregnant Reservists

Previously, all female Air Force pilots were removed from flight duty after they confirmed their pregnancy, explained spokeswoman Capt. Carrie Volpe. That included drone pilots who work in operations facilities on the ground. Women would have to file extensive paperwork for a waiver just to be allowed duty time between weeks 1 and 34 of pregnancy, she said.

Similarly, under the old policy, fully qualified pilots who flew dual-seat, non-ejection aircraft -- KC-135 Stratotankers, C-130 Hercules, etc. -- would have to apply for a waiver to fly between 13 and 24 weeks of pregnancy.

While the waiver process is no longer required, airmen will still need a "return to flight status" check if they fly in an aircraft, which is a precautionary step made with a medical professional to certify the pilot for flight, Volpe said. The policy also extends the window in which pregnant fully qualified pilots can fly, allowing them to stay on flight duty from week 12 to 28, she said.

Pilots are still prohibited from flying in the first trimester of pregnancy.

A "return to flight status" check is not needed for remotely piloted aircraft pilots; student pilots currently in training are not considered fully qualified pilots, she said.

Women are still barred from deploying overseas and if they fly ejection-seat aircraft, such as fighter jets.

No airman will ever be forced to fly while pregnant, Hogg said.

Air Force officials stressed that the decision on when and how long to fly is in the hands of the pilot, and is now fully informed by the airman's desires -- with the advice of her medical team -- instead of a blanket policy requirement.

The change also encourages aviators to come forward to medical professionals and their commanders instead of feeling the need to hide their pregnancy or pressure to work longer, Volpe added.

The Air Force for the first time granted 12 weeks of paid maternity leave to all active-duty and reservist female airmen on active orders for at least 12 months, as part of the fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act.

"Pregnancy is a planning factor that our Air Force policymakers and line commanders need to incorporate into daily business," said Lt. Gen. Mark Kelly, Air Force deputy chief of staff for operations, in the release. "As more women join the aviation workforce in the 21st century, we are taking proactive steps to ensure that our policies are revised now -- to effectively execute the mission, retain our current workforce and attract the next generation of Air Force aviators."

The Air Force Women's Initiative Team helped spearhead the reform.

"I am excited that our trained aircrew now have expanded options to continue maintaining their flying proficiency and essential qualifications in the air during pregnancy," said Lt. Col. Jammie Jamieson, Air Force chief of reserve operations integration, who is also a fighter pilot and a member of the Air Force Women's Initiative Team. Jamieson was the service's first operationally qualified female F-22 Raptor pilot.

"Flying is a sport and a perishable skill, so being able to minimize time out of the air helps preserve their individual skills and readiness, and retains the Air Force's significant investment in them," she said.

Volpe said this is just the first step for the Air Force as it continues to review policies that adversely affect women in the service.

"We are also reviewing occupational hazards in the aviation environment to see if we can open up the opportunities for trained aircrew to perform flight duties on the full portfolio of Air Force platforms," said Lt. Gen. Jacqueline D. Van Ovost, Air Force director of staff and an adviser on the Air Force's Diversity and Inclusion efforts.

"We're focused on eliminating barriers in our existing policies that signal to female airmen and potential recruits that becoming a parent and being an aviator, controller or missile operator in our service are incompatible," Ovost said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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