Staff Sgt. Emily O’Neil enlisted in the U.S. Air Force after she graduated from Hudson’s Bay High School in 2012.
Even though she’s 5 feet, 11 inches tall, she’s always had to wear the smallest size flight equipment.
“And I’m by no means the smallest woman who flies for the Air Force,” said O’Neil, a flight engineer in the 9th Airlift Squadron based at Dover Air Force Base, Del. “If it was designed for the torso height of a 6-foot pilot and a 5-foot-4-inch female pilot is wearing it, there will be issues.”
Most equipment currently worn by pilots and aircrew was designed based on measurements from the 1960s, when only men were aviators, according to the Air Force.
The poor fit of G-suits, flight suits, urinary devices and survival vests is not just about comfort. It can be a matter of life or death, which is why the Air Force is working to redesign gear for female aviators. O’Neil is among women who were measured to gather new data for that effort.
Take G-suits, crucial anti-gravity gear for pilots of high-performance aircraft. Bladders in the suit fill with air and apply pressure to the pilot’s body. If it isn’t fitted properly, an aviator may have trouble getting enough oxygenated blood to the brain and lose consciousness.
“Our Air Force aviators should not have to be members of the Air Force Boy’s Club to be properly equipped for combat,” Brig. Gen. Edward Vaughan, U.S. Air Force directorate of readiness and training, said in a press release.
‘A readiness issue’
O’Neil works as a flight engineer, which means she performs preflight inspections; monitors the electrical, hydraulic and fuel systems during flight; and runs all the emergency checklists. She flies on a C-5M Super Galaxy cargo aircraft, which is about the size of a Boeing 747-8 and is the largest airplane in the Air Force.
“We don’t have as much specialized equipment,” she said. “We don’t use parachutes. We have survival vests that we carry with us. The only real specialized equipment is the armor vest and armor plates, depending on what country we fly in and out of. I don’t experience a ton of discomfort when it comes to those.”
Other, smaller women have suffered injury from heavy, ill-fitting armor. But poor fit in any equipment can create problems.
“When I was going on a mission, I ran into issues of my seat belt/shoulder harness not fitting properly,” O’Neil said. “It was an extra 40 minutes just for us to take off, because it had to be replaced for safety precautions.”
O’Neil’s career in the Air Force follows in the footsteps of her parents, Anja and Scott O’Neil, who retired with 50 years of service between them.
Women have been on combat flights for decades, O’Neil said, so it’s about time they have equipment that works for them.
“It’s a readiness issue,” O’Neil said.
Finding the right fit
She traveled to Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia earlier this summer to participate in the Female Fitment Event. U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy female aviators gathered to have their measurements taken to aid design of new female flight equipment.
“It was the first time I was able to try equipment on around people whose job it is to figure out how it’s supposed to fit,” O’Neil said.
The problem isn’t confined to the military. Earlier this year, lack of properly fitting spacesuits scuttled the first all-female space walk from the International Space Station.