NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Another one of the many military jobs on the front lines of combat may be opening to women: Flying the high-tech helicopters that move special forces under cover of darkness for missions like the one that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
The Army's most elite aviation unit has proposed a test program to let women serve as pilots and crew chiefs, pending congressional approval. The 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, based at Fort Campbell, Ky., and known as the Night Stalkers, decided to give women a trial as pilots and crew chiefs as part of a military-wide review on gender policies last year that preceded the Pentagon's announcement on Jan. 24 to lift a broad ban on women fighting in smaller ground combat units, which include many artillery, armor and infantry jobs.
The military announced last year that it would open up about 14,000 new jobs for women in units below the brigade level. But the aviation unit is the first among Army special operations units to move toward more unrestricted roles for women, well ahead of a 2016 deadline to integrate women across the services.
Women have been able to fly attack helicopters since the 1990s, and many women serve in the Army's aviation brigades that have been heavily used in Iraq and Afghanistan to fire on enemy positions, transport troops in and out of hot zones and pick up the wounded on the battlefield.
Lt. Col. Dave Connolly, a spokesman for U.S. Army Special Operations Command, said women already serve in a variety of enabling jobs within special operations forces, primarily as support staff positions, such as administration and intelligence.
"This test program is a natural transition as these occupational specialties are already open to women in conventional Army Combat Aviation Brigades," Connolly said.
Steven Hartov, an author who wrote two books about the Night Stalkers, says the regiment was created to fly nighttime special operations missions, often flying close to the ground, all over the world. The pilots who are considered for this unit have extensive combat experience as well as advanced technical skills to fly with night-vision goggles, he said.
"A lot people don't realize the physical strength required to fly a special operations helicopter for long periods of time, in low altitude flying," he said. "There is a physical aspect to it."
The regiment participated in the raid by Navy SEALs on a Pakistani compound in 2011 that resulted in the death of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden. Hartov wrote a book with former 160th pilot Michael Durant about his capture after two helicopters from the regiment were shot down during a 1993 mission in the Somalia.
Durant's bruised and bloodied face was on the cover of Time magazine, a sight that would have been harder for Americans to bear if it had been a female pilot, Hartov noted.
"One of the things that has always been a concern within the regiment is a female pilot being shot down, captured, or tortured," he said.
Women have served in aviation for decades in the military, dating all the way back to when women volunteered to serve as civilian pilots to ferry troops and supplies during World War II.
But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have pushed female aviators much farther into the front lines than ever before by putting them in direct combat from the air with enemy forces or under fire as they assist troops on the ground.
As an example, U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth was a Black Hawk helicopter pilot in Iraq in 2004 when the helicopter was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade. She lost both her legs and partial use of one arm and received the Combat Action Badge.
At the 159th Combat Aviation Brigade also based at Fort Campbell, Ky., women serve in many different roles including pilots, flight engineers, door gunners and crew chiefs for the light OH-58D Kiowa helicopters, the heavy lifting CH-47 Chinook helicopters and the versatile UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters.
Sgt. Keesha Everett, a Chinook flight engineer, said working on a helicopter is a team effort and everyone contributes equally.
"Crew members tend to work arm-in-arm to make sure the mission gets done as quickly as possible, so we all pull the same weight as far as moving thousands upon thousands of pounds of cargo," she said. "That's really the most strenuous part."
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Caroline Bernabei, of Princeton, N.J., is a Kiowa pilot who deployed last year to southern Afghanistan. She said some missions involved no combat at all.
"There were also many missions where we did get shot at, and we did have to return fire and a lot of those missions involved protecting ground forces."
She said the job is demanding because she has to maintain her focus for sometimes as much as eight hours straight during missions. "It's a lot more mental," she said.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said this week that the qualifications for these new ground combat jobs will not be lowered and acknowledged that not all women will meet them. Female aviators in the Army meet the exact same physical and professional standards as their male counterparts, from flight school all the way through their careers.
"For aviation, I can say there is absolutely no difference in standards," said Bernabei. "I get evaluated the exact same way as any other guy would."
But still the combat experiences between aviation and ground infantry forces are different, said Bernabei.
"Yeah, I have been in combat, and I have engaged the enemy and been engaged, but the difference is I fly a helicopter and I fly back to my base every day," she said. "With infantry guys, I have supported numerous ones that were out in the middle of nowhere and had to ruck with a 100-pound ruck many miles back to their base, which can be very dismal conditions, to be honest."
Everett, the flight engineer, said that while there may be concern about opening more jobs to women in the military, it's the same as those that were voiced over allowing women to serve in the Women's Army Corps during World War II.
"People will surprise you if you give them a chance," she said.