Air Force policy changes help female aircrew remain competitive, relevant

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Natalie Fiorilli
  • 1st Special Operations Wing Public Affairs

When she first arrived at Hurlburt Field, Florida in October 2022, Capt. Katie Parker worried she may have to put her Air Force career on hold.

A combat systems officer on the MC-130J Commando II, Parker had just found out she was pregnant.

“I was really nervous,” Parker said. “During my first pregnancy I didn’t get to fly at all.”

Before, female flyers were only eligible to apply for a waiver to fly during the second trimester, and were otherwise placed on Duties Not to Include Flying status.

Since then, the Air Force has clarified its policies for female aircrew.

Aircrew are now able to voluntarily request to fly through all three trimesters of their pregnancy. Additionally, under certain circumstances there is no waiver requirement during the second trimester.

“It used to feel like you had to make the choice between your career or deciding to start a family,” Parker noted.

During her first pregnancy in 2020, Parker experienced complications early on and was unable to continue flying. After spending several weeks in the hospital, she gave birth to her son, just 29 weeks into her pregnancy.

At the time, Parker said she felt guilty for not being able to perform her job, despite the support she received from leadership and other members of her team.

“It was rough,” she expressed. “I probably put a lot of pressure on myself and felt more guilt than I needed to, but that’s just who I am. It was really hard.”

Consequently, Parker said she worried that her previous complications could affect her eligibility to fly during her second pregnancy.

Upon arriving at Hurlburt, Parker went on to make the necessary medical appointments to apply for a waiver. And though doctors deemed her pregnancy to be high risk because of her previous complications, she remained eligible to voluntarily request to continue flying.

Along with consulting with the medical team at Hurlburt, Parker reviewed the Aircrew Voluntary Acceptance of Risk, or AVAR, a three-part document that works to ensure aircrew make an informed decision on whether they should continue flying during their pregnancy.

“I spoke with my doctors about my previous pregnancy and about the other potential risks,” Parker explained. “The Air Force isn’t making you fly, it’s your choice and you have to go over all of the possible things that could happen and decide what is best for you and your baby.”

Under the Air Force guidance for pregnant aircrew, local medical personnel are not authorized to refuse consideration for a waiver request. Additionally, all waivers must be sent to the individual’s major command surgeon general to determine flying eligibility.

The waiver process involves a flight safety risk assessment that includes input from medical personnel including the obstetrics provider and flight surgeon. When reviewing a waiver request, medical personnel are required to consider the individual’s medical conditions, as well as the potential impacts that flying could have on the individual and baby. Aircrew are also able to appeal initial waiver decisions.

To Parker’s surprise, the surgeon general approved her waiver.

“I was really excited,” she said, adding that overall, her experience of flying while pregnant wasn’t very different than usual.

“I felt a little more tired and a bit more queasy than normal, but nothing that made me want to stop.”

As a CSO assigned to the 15th Special Operations Squadron, Parker supports missions including low-level and low-visibility flying, in addition to air refueling, among others.

For her, the policy changes mean much more than an opportunity to enable pregnant aircrew to fly - it’s an opportunity to stay relevant.

“Being able to fly and at least keep some of that time where you can stay competitive in the Air Force and in the flying field is definitely beneficial,” Parker said.

As part of the policy changes, the Air Force is also working to ensure that aircrew that choose not to fly during their pregnancy are still able to continue to progress their careers. Crews are able to maintain their currencies using simulators and are able to assume other duties including training and instructing opportunities.

“These things are really helping female aviators find balance in their careers and families,” Parker said.

Months later, Parker has officially put her flying duties on hold as she and her husband await the arrival of their daughter in early April.