Friday, October 26, 2012

Menstruation, Accidents, and Pilots

In 1938, Jacqueline Cochran won the Bendix Air Race against a bunch of male pilots as she flew the Seversky P-35 prototype plane.  The concept of "female pilots" was an oxymoron until they proved themselves in the military.  Going abroad to England, women fought and carried the same weight as their male counterpart pilots.  The American government was aware that in 1940, female pilots served in the British Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA).  In June of 1942, 25 female American pilots went to England to serve on the British ATA, with Jacqueline Cochran leading the group.  In 1942-1944 England, women ferry pilots worked under an 18-month term contract employment for British Overseas Airways Corporation.  Jacqueline Cochran was amongst them, but she volunteered and did not get paid.  She had permission to go back to America whenever it was deemed necessary.

Jacqueline Cochrane
(1906 - 1980)

In the summer of 1941, women were recruited to the U.S. Army Air Forces (AFF) training program for pilots.  The goal was to see if women could be pilots, to relieve male pilots to go overseas, and to decrease the Air Force's demands.

There was a Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) program that was started at this time.  At the start of the program, it was a generally held belief that because of menstruation, women were automatically handicapped and would pose time-off increments of time whenever their periods occurred.

From the time of the early female pilot pioneers Ruth Law, Harriet Quimby, Amelia Earhart, Jacqueline Cochran, and Nancy Love, these were unprecedented waters, to assess females as pilots.  Cochrane later wrote her infamous report as Director of Women Pilots, based on medical reports kept by the Civil Aeronautics Administration.  She found that women pilots lost no more time than the males.  At Avenger Field at Sweetwater, female pilots between the ages of 18 and 27 inclusive, volunteered for flight training.  Presumably, if a woman suffered immeasurably from her period, she would not have applied for this program at all; therefore, some natural selection of a selective group of women were enrolled.

There were six female instructors who actually had less time off than the male instructors, who lost about one half day per month from their duties.  When discussing Operational Time, women had a negligible time off due to menstruation, and Cochran states that "in no degree" did their periods interfere with their jobs.

Cochran evaluated flight accidents in training.  There were 112 nonfatal, and 11 fatal accidents; no relation to menstruation was found.  430 women were interviewed about their periods and followed over a period of time with respect to coordination, concentration, reaction, and tenseness.  No change in these parameters was noted 81% of the time, and in 19% there was a "slightly noticeable lowering".  She cites that there were "practically no cases" where women felt that menses interfered with training, but no numerical or statistical data are reported.  For the women that did have menstrual symptoms, she cites that after flying, the women felt "actually better".  This post-flying aura has been described in other aviation medicine circumstances as the "sedation of flying".

When discussing either operation or flight time fatigue, women reported this less often than men.  They underwent extreme changes of weather, discipline, crowded barracks, as well as flight times and training schedules that were back-to-back at times, in order to stay on schedule for training graduation.  Women frequently flew until 0400 and then woke up at 0800 for training; this was changed when a Medical Officer ruled that 8 hours of sleep were necessary between these times.

Some called into question whether the low reported rates of fatigue were because women did not want to report it.  Cochran cites that "...the fact is that women 'can take it' and, while not as strong as men, can stand as much or strain and discomfort."  She thought that the lack of reporting fatigue was in fact accurate, and not an underrepresentation due to the scrutiny on women's performance evaluation.

The important contributions of Jacqueline Cochran on the evaluation of women pilots and their periods, and women pilots and flight accidents was a great contribution to aviation medicine.

Hat's off to Jacqueline Cochran and the Seversky P-35 prototype plane!


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