A minimum weight requirement of nearly 10 stone (63kg) on the ejector seats in planes used to train Irish Air Corps members is to be changed after being identified as one of the main barriers to women joining its ranks as pilots.
There is currently just one woman among the roughly 100 trainee and active pilots in the Air Corps and only three female military pilots have qualified since women were first allowed to join as officers in 1980.
All trainee Air Corps pilots are taught to fly on the PC-9 aircraft, a single-engine, two-person trainer plane equipped with ejector seats in case of emergency. For years the minimum weight requirements for the aircraft’s ejector seat was 63kg (just shy of 10 stone) or 70kg with a full equipment load.
Any pilots lighter than this faced a risk of serious injury if they have to eject due to the strength of the ejection mechanism.
Military sources said that this meant many potential female cadets could not operate the aircraft and therefore could not qualify as commissioned pilots. It is understood that several female cadets have struggled to keep their weight up during training since the PC-9 was introduced in 2004.
In response the Air Corps is to work with the seat’s manufacturer, the UK based firm Martin-Baker, to lower the weight requirements over the coming year.
The minimum weight for new officer cadets is being lowered to 51kg (eight stone) in the expectation that this work will have been carried out before they start their flight training in about 18 months. An open recruitment competition for officer cadets was launched last week.*
The Defence Forces said the "ejector seat minimum weight requirement is an issue that affects other military organisations".
“The Irish Air Corps, to our knowledge, are the first military organisation to tackle it,” a spokesman said. “Lowering the boarding weight to 51kg will reduce the barriers for potential female military pilots worldwide.”
Air Corps flight officers must complete training on the PC-9 before going on to specialise in helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft. The Defence Forces operate eight PC-9s, which are often seen flying in formation over State ceremonies.
A military source said the modification of the seats would require new and less powerful explosive cartridges to be fitted to accommodate a broader range of weights. They said safety assessments would have to be carried out and new documentation drawn up, which could cost a “significant” amount.
Like the rest of the Defence Forces, the Air Corps has struggled to retain personnel in recent years, particularly pilots and engineers who are in high demand in the private sector. It is currently about 100 people short of its establishment strength of 886.
The Commission on the Defence Forces is examining how the Defence Forces can attract more women and more people from minority groups.
"Equality and inclusion are priorities for the Defence Forces and there are no restrictions with regard to the assignment of men or women to the full range of operational and administrative duties," Minister for Defence Simon Coveney said recently in response to a parliamentary question on the number of female pilots.
Recent initiatives to bolster the number of pilots have seen some success, with about a dozen flying officers who previously left returning under a recommissioning programme.
A number of pilots and trainee pilots are currently undergoing training with the US and Australian Air Forces due to a lack of capacity in Ireland.
*This article was amended on May 3rd, 2021