The Air Force Wants More Aspiring Pilots to Take Advantage of Height Waiver Program

FILE PHOTO -- A 21st Airlift Squadron C-17 Globemaster III pilot simulates aircraft procedures at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., March 14, 2017. (U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Sam Salopek)
FILE PHOTO -- A 21st Airlift Squadron C-17 Globemaster III pilot simulates aircraft procedures at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., March 14, 2017. (U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Sam Salopek)

Too small or too tall, the U.S. Air Force says you can still have a chance to earn your wings.

Even if individuals interested in becoming pilots fall outside the set height restriction window, it's possible to get a waiver, according to the 19th Air Force's top general. While the waiver has existed for awhile, officials want to see more people taking advantage of it.

"We've gotten a lot more aggressive about trying to make sure that everybody gets a fair shot to serve the rated capacity if they can," said Maj. Gen. Craig Wills, commander of the Air Education and Training Command unit that trains more than 32,000 U.S. and allied pilot students each year.

The service revised its standards in 2015 to give people the opportunity to apply for a waiver if they were shorter than 5'4" or taller than 6'5" (64-77 inches). The initiative, led by then-Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, was meant to give an opportunity to those who were otherwise qualified to become pilots, and to include more diverse officer recruits -- particularly among women.

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AETC, citing the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, said that roughly 43.5% of U.S females ages 20 to 29 have a stature of 64 inches or less.

Since that change, the 19th Air Force and Surgeon General's office have processed 223 waiver requests and have approved 87%, according to an AETC release.

The service is even looking to update its height standard policy, Wills said.

"If it turns out that five-foot-three is a better [threshold] and that works, that would be great for everybody involved. So we're looking at that part and then we're also looking to update the rules that our own internal policies," he said.

One of the smallest pilots approved is 4'11. The tallest is 6'9", AETC officials said.

"It became very clear at our discussions over the summertime that the height thing was a much bigger deal than maybe a lot of people realized," Wills said in an interview with Friday. "So anecdotally, we believe there are a lot of women and men who simply didn't apply because they didn't meet the requirements.

"What we didn't have connecting to that [waiver] process was knowledge of the process. So we got pretty motivated," he said.

The Air Force has measured each aircraft cockpit using lasers to get the precise assessment of pilot height restrictions, Wills said.

A pilot gets the full anthropometric measurement: buttocks to knees, knees to ankles and full seated height, which should be between 34-40 inches. The measurement also includes "functional reach, wingspan, body mass, weight-to-height ratio, waist-to-hip, hip-to-knee and more," the release said.

"We put all of that stuff into a software program, it spits out the dimensions of the prospective pilot and then we compare it to all of those dimensions we have for every airplane in the Air Force," Wills said.

Air Force Academy cadets with a pilot slot receive their medical exam typically during their junior year, as do those in Officer Training School or Reserve Officer Training Corps. Those commissioning by other means who are beyond the requirements head to Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, for a class-one flight physical.

The Surgeon General's Office oversees the waiver process, Wills said.

"The beauty of the way the system is set up right now is, if you're measured and you fall below the height requirement, you're automatically entered into the waiver process and the measurements are [contrasted with the aircraft cockpit] software program," he said.

But that doesn't mean once officers get a waiver, they can fly any plane they choose.

"You know from the very beginning that you're going to be limited to certain airframes," Wills said, noting that weight plays a role in the calculation for ejection seat aircraft. "[For example], if you don't have the height requirements of fit inside of an F-15 [Eagle], you'll never be an F-15 person."

Well before a pilot is assigned to an aircraft-specific formal training unit, Wills said officials make sure they're compatible with a trainer such as the T-6 Texan II or the T-1 Jayhawk. Roughly two-thirds of students will go through training in the T-1, said Wills, an F-15 pilot.

There are measures in place to make sure prospective pilots are comfortable in the T-1, which Wills said has an awkward cockpit configuration for even most standard-size pilots. If they're not suited for the T-1, the student pilot will head to Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, to be evaluated even further.

In some cases, a pilot is given a seat cushion to help properly fit inside, he said, but emphasized that's solely for the T-1. "We don't use cushions on ejection seats because... the opportunity for spinal injury goes way up. That's just a nonstarter."

An instructor pilot observes how a pilot manipulates the T-1 flight controls and checks to make sure the individual is tall enough to see over the glare shield. If the student can fully -- and safely -- work the flight controls with an adequate field of view, then the waiver package moves forward to Wills for final approval.

Wills said the service is looking forward to the T-7A Redhawk -- formerly known as the T-X trainer -- because it will be much more accommodating to a wider range of body shapes and dimensions.

The entire process could take a few weeks or a few months depending on the circumstances, he said.

And it's not just stature but proportionality, too.

"You and I could both be five-foot-two, and I might get the waiver and you might not," Wills said.

Wills said the command recently received an applicant who had a tall torso but short legs.

"That's a bigger problem because although they can see over the glare shield pretty well, they couldn't reach the rudder pedals adequately," he said. "Meanwhile, the neighbor sitting next to them with the overall same height might have long legs in a short torso. So the ratio has to work, too."

The goal of the waiver process is to secure more talent, not about "making quota," Wills said.

"We're working to make sure that we don't turn any person away who wants to serve if they can serve," he said.

"This isn't a medical issue, this is an operational issue. We know that a diverse force is a better force. So it would be crazy if we didn't take some steps to try and make sure we have access to more of those folks who may be interested in serving."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.

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