As Japan faces the expansion of neighboring military powers and its own dwindling population, its defense ministry has in a historic decision cleared women to serve as combat helicopter pilots and to join the growing ranks of their peers worldwide, according to a media report.
The Japan Times said March 16 that the Ground Self-Defense Force will permit women to pilot anti-tank helicopters like the AH-1S Cobra and AH-64D Apache Longbow, and to serve in chemical protection units. It added that women "have already applied and their aptitudes for the jobs will be evaluated" for service. The defense ministry’s decision, which also included permitting women to pilot maritime patrol planes, came in line with the government's push to empower females and followed a similar decision last November by the Japan Air Self-Defense Force to clear women for flying fighter jets and spy planes.
The expansion of military roles for Japanese women comes as that nation increasingly seeks to defend against neighboring threats with stagnating manpower. According to the International Business Times, "China is reportedly expanding its military and staking claims to the South China Sea, and North Korea has flaunted its nuclear missile program in recent months. Part of the incentive of opening roles to women may be to help expand the defense force while the country's population is shrinking."
Though the U.S. claims many distinctions with regards to promoting women in aviation roles, it is Europe that holds the honor of having both the world's first female military helicopter pilot and the first to fly into combat. Valérie André, a veteran of the French Resistance, was a neurosurgeon with the French Army during the First Indochina War. As a medical captain, André learned to pilot helicopters to better fulfill her duty of retrieving wounded soldiers from remote areas of Saigon, Vietnam. She is said to have flown a total of 129 missions in combat zones, using her personal Hiller to transport more than 160 wounded.
Social progress, rather than external pressures, led the U.S. to clear women for service as both combat and noncombat military helicopter pilots starting in the early 1970s. Now-retired Col. Sally D. Murphy in 1972 became the first female U.S. military pilot to graduate the Army Aviation school at Fort Rucker, Alabama. She went on to fly Huey helicopters for the 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kansas, and commanded the 62nd Aviation Company in Germany and the 78th Aviation Battalion (Provisional) in Japan.
Maj. Marie T. Rossi held the honor of being the first female U.S. military pilot to fly combat missions—as an aviation unit commander and Boeing CH-47 Chinook pilot during the Persian Gulf War. At 32, Rossi was also the first female pilot to give her life in combat when her helicopter crashed in Saudi Arabia on March 1, 1991.
Capt. Vernice Armour of the U.S. Marine Corps became the first African American female naval aviator in 2001. Two years later, she also became the first African American female pilot to serve in combat, deploying to Iraq with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 169 as a Bell AH-1W SuperCobra pilot. Armour completed two tours of duty in the Persian Gulf.