“Those Damn Women

Canadian female fighter jet pilots first took to the skies 30-plus years ago—but few have followed in their vapour trails

In the early 1980s, a man who signed himself as “Ex Aircrew Earl Everson” had a lot to say about the 1979 Servicewomen in Non-Traditional Environments and Roles (SWINTER) Aircrew Trial. Conducted over six years, the purpose of the initiative was to test the effectiveness of mixed units in operation, as the roles for women in the Canadian Armed Forces continued to expand. However, many airmen such as Everson didn’t take too kindly to the evolution of what some considered to be “the most exclusive boys’ club in Canada.”

“I sure don’t go for the Air Force having these girl pilots,” wrote Everson in a letter to the editor of a military newspaper in 1981. “I don’t feel too safe underneath with women pilots. “You know what they’ll be doing, don’t you? All the time the aeroplane is trying to land, they’ll be patting down their hair and pulling out their eyebrows and looking into their mirrors and putting on eye-makeup and all during the whole landing, that’s what.”  This was the cultural climate that greeted the trials’ female applicants.  “There was me with my volunteer hand,” said Deanna (Dee) Brasseur, “and I got picked.”

Born in 1953, Brasseur grew up to the sights and sounds of Chipmunk trainer airplanes taking off from her father’s air force base near London, Ont. She joined the forces in 1972 and was selected for the initial SWINTER Aircrew Trial. As a result, she was the first of three women to earn her operational military wings and became Canada’s first female fighter pilot. “It’s been a heck of a road,” she told Legion Magazine. “It’s been a long and challenging and hard course.” For women such as Brasseur, the road to equality was, and remains, a bumpy one, despite the services’ goal to increase female representation in the military to 25 per cent by 2026. In fact, the air force has only had seven women fighter pilots since 1989.

By 1971, Canadian women had been in uniform for more than 85 years, though their roles had been primarily limited to wartime nursing. While female employment opportunities in the military expanded out of necessity during the Second World War and the Korean War, such growth remained largely temporary and the future of woman in the forces was uncertain. Following the 1970 report from the Royal Commission on the Status Women in Canada, the Defence Department lifted its cap of 1,500 servicewomen and gradually expanded employment opportunities for them to non-traditional positions such as vehicle drivers and firefighters. Nevertheless, females still couldn’t fill combat positions (like piloting or aircrew), be on sea duty or in remote locations.

When the Canadian Human Rights Act passed in 1977 and with the military facing the very tangible reality of recruitment shortages in the 1980s, in January 1979 the defence minister announced “a limited experimental basis in near combat roles on land, sea, or in the air” for women. And yet, despite calls to create greater employment options for females in the military, women didn’t jump at the new opportunity dangling in front of them. In fact, out of some 6,000 women in the armed forces in 1979, only 11 applied to the SWINTER trials (including those for army and navy), Brasseur among them.

So, it became the first of many hurdles the program’s women had to overcome. “You knew you were on trial. Every step you took, people were watching,” said Brasseur. “If you had one button on your uniform undone, somebody would notice that. “It’s like being thrown to the wolves.”


You knew you were on trial. Every step you took, people were watching. It’s like being thrown to the wolves.”

When SWINTER began, though, Air Command made a firm declaration: women would be treated the same as men. Circumstances, though, proved this would be impossible; female participants were working against more than just their sex.

A media blitz followed the announcement of trials and the program’s female students became the centre of attention. With non-stop calls, interviews and photo sessions, jealousy eroded potential friendships between male and female co-workers.

“The boys were saying, ‘If we’re all supposed to be equal, how come you guys are covered by the media and we’re not?’” said Brasseur. “Oh, poor boys!” What’s more, because many of the women who joined the program were already ranking military officers well acquainted with most of their instructors, there was a perceived power imbalance with the mainly young male recruits in the trial.

“We saw that as brown-nosing,” one former male colleague of Brasseur’s was quoted as saying in Shirley Render’s No Place for a Lady: The Story of Canadian Women Pilots 1928-1992. “We had our own problems trying to adjust to military life and worrying about washing out. Most of us saw them as ‘those damn women.’”

With so many factors complicating men’s adjustments to the new culture, the reception to female recruits was mixed, with beliefs ranging from “it was high time that women were admitted” to “the military was going to pot.” Indeed, the airmen even went so far as to refer to the last all-male class to graduate as the “LCWB,” or the “last class with balls.”

“I have all these people telling me I shouldn’t be doing it,” said Brasseur. “They think I should be barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen.”

Retired Royal Canadian Air Force pilot Micky Colton, who joined the SWINTER program in 1981, said attitudes during the initiative’s early years were sour.

“There was this misconception,” she said, “that if girls were meant to fly, they would have been born with wings on their back. “My wings were quite hidden.”

Both female and male trial participants had difficulty understanding what was expected of them. With no role models to imitate, many women experienced loneliness and had to experiment with different behaviours to be taken seriously, from acting like “one of the boys” to employing a healthy sense of humour.

Meanwhile, instructors were worried about going too hard or too easy on the women (though they often leaned toward the former) while getting over preconceived notions of what women could and couldn’t do. Similarly, male students were confused about whether to act like colleagues or gentlemen with their female counterparts, especially during the program’s social events.

Sexual harassment and assault were also a reality for some of the women. One reported that instructors “kept humming songs like Let’s Get Physical or You’re Having My Baby to get a reaction out of me…we put up with a lot of shit and abuse.” Colton noted that men engaged in sexually inappropriate conversations in front of her (such as talking about their genitalia while she was in the cockpit), while Brasseur confronted sexual assault when a commanding officer tried to grope her at a restaurant. “You feel betrayed,” said Brasseur, “by somebody you thought you liked or was a nice person.”

They toppled the popular masculine myth about the alleged shortcomings of women in a man’s world. They became good solid military pilots.”

Colton recalled a poignant memory that best summarized the attitudes and perceptions women had to overcome at the time. While stationed in Europe, her crew met another crew for dinner. As everyone loosened up after a few drinks, the other crew’s first officer, who was older and outranked Colton, began disparaging her. “There was a lot of profanity in it,” she said, ‛you know, you effing woman; you shouldn’t be on airplanes; what the eff are you doing? you should be at home.’ “It was, like, biblical,” she laughed. “The whole table went quiet. Nobody even breathed.”

Anti-female sentiment gripped more than just the air force’s culture, however. Sexism was a systemic issue that affected more than just the military’s policies and procedures. From ill-fitting uniforms to doctors who knew relatively little about women’s physiology, the very fabric of the military had been built for men. This was particularly true regarding policies on marriage and family. Officials viewed marriage as potentially problematic. While wives traditionally followed their military husbands who occupied different postings, female pilots whose husbands were also pilots faced the possibility of not seeing their spouses for months. Colton, who was, and remains, married to a pilot remembered their time apart none too fondly.

“We spent some time apart,” she said. “There was some separation anxiety in there. It was a really long year. Let’s just say that.” Even female pilots with civilian husbands still faced the same mobility issues, with their husbands usually having jobs that made it more difficult for female officers to transfer. Worse, though, was the air force’s inconsistent policies on pregnancy, with some pilots claiming that the military often punished women for motherhood. Female pilots faced limited maternity leave, no paternity leave and rejections to requests to be put on the ground to ease bodily strain during their pregnancies. “I only got four months off when I had my baby and then I had to go back to work,” said Colton. “It was very hard to turn over somebody that small to daycare.”

In October 1985, the SWINTER Aircrew Trial concluded and the results were, for all intents and purposes, deemed successful. Twenty-one women got their wings and proved that females had their place in the air force. “They toppled the popular masculine myth about the alleged shortcomings of women in a man’s world,” wrote Render. “They met the standards and became good solid military pilots.”

While Defence Minister Perrin Beatty declared that women could serve as pilots, navigators and flight engineers in July 1986, other questions remained: Could women go into combat? Could women become fighter pilots? Citing a lack of evidence on the operational effectiveness of mixed-gender crews in action, the CAF announced another trial. But while Air Command prepped for a 10-woman combat program—with Brasseur once again being one of the first to sign up—so few female pilots volunteered that by July 1987, the trial was cancelled. All areas of air force employment, including fighter pilot, were now open to women.

Sexism was still a challenge, however. “We don’t get basic training and say to the guys, ‘Okay, guys, you have to hate women; they’re no good; they can’t do anything,’” said Brasseur. “We get attitudes, values and perspectives toward women from the general population.” And even though Brasseur opened the door for future female fighter pilots, few have even dared to step onto the welcome mat.

With the number of female fighter pilots since 1989 left in the single digits, an overarching question remains: why? For Brasseur, the answer is based on changing cultural attitudes toward values of service. “It makes it harder to recruit forces,” she said, “if your societal value of service to the country is not part of your makeup.” More than that, though, a paper published by National Defence in 2022 asserted that the forces fail to provide female-specific recruitment strategies and sustainment plans so that women join and stay in the military. Brasseur, for her part, recommended more fleshed-out and publicly known incentive programs.

For instance, inflexible and fragmented policies spur women to choose between work and their family lives and service couples or women in non-traditional families/marriages often get little support from the CAF.

“We need more family-friendly help,” said Ontario MPP Karen McCrimmon, who was the forces’ first female navigator and the first female to command a squadron, “like military family support networks and military family resource centres. I don’t think we fund them well enough yet.”

Even strategic documents are too generalizable and aren’t usually developed to an operational level. According to the 2022 paper, policies need to be truly holistic and ensure they don’t unfairly disadvantage certain military members.

McCrimmon also believes these policies can be informed by greater health and sociological research on serving women, an area that’s sorely lacking in scientific literature. “We need research,” she said. “The fighter pilot, it’s hard on the human body. I don’t think people who’ve never done it realize how challenging it really is because none of that research is there.” “Until you get equality in numbers,” said one female pilot, “you don’t truly get equality in attitude.”

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