Australia could soon have its first woman fighter pilot and is likely to have at least five women in the cockpit of the Joint Strike Fighter when the cutting-edge warplane comes into operation at the start of next decade.
The Chief of the Air Force, Air Marshal Leo Davies, told Fairfax Media he was witnessing an "evolution" in attitudes towards women becoming fighter pilots nearly 30 years after the elite RAAF role opened to women.
First female fighter pilot for the RAAF
Australia's first female fighter pilot is poised to graduate. It looks like we are finally catching up to the rest of the world.
Women have been eligible to become RAAF pilots since 1987, but fighter jet cockpits have nonetheless remained the RAAF's last all-male domain, Air Marshal Davies said, akin to the army special forces or navy clearance divers.
The RAAF has one "fast jet trainee" at the NSW Williamtown base with 76th Squadron, training on Hawk jets. She is "progressing well", he said.
She was expected to complete that section of fighter training at the end of June, after which she will graduate to training on Hornet fighter jets, which are currently being used to bomb Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria.
Another woman is due to start training around the middle of this year.
Air Marshal Davies said both women were a "great chance" to become Australia's first qualified fighter pilots. But he said the more exciting story was the number of young women in the pipeline.
"That basis is starting to grow and … I actually think our best chance is that we've grown a better pool from which to pull. Rather than having one female fighter pilot in a year or two years, I reckon we'll have five or six in five or six years' time.
"It's a more positive picture than two women in pilot schools."
He said they would be "eligible to go to JSF". Australia expects to start operating the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter from 2020. The latest Pentagon report points to continuing problems with the project but Air Marshal Davies said nothing in the report suggested the RAAF would need to changes its schedule.
Air Marshal Davies said with women poised to start flying fighters operationally, others entering the RAAF could see that "maybe that big, blokey, fighter pilot attitude is starting to dilute a little".
"So it bloody should," he added.
The increase in women entering the JSF program has also come despite another potential hurdle, which is Defence's restriction on pilots weighing less than 62 kilograms from flying the F-35 due to an increased risk of neck injury during ejection.
Since 1987, 42 women in the RAAF have graduated the pilot's course and gained their "wings", flying planes such as C-17 Globemasters, C-130 Hercules and Wedgetail airborne early warning and control planes.
Other countries including the United States, France, Turkey, Israel and Jordan have female fighter pilots. Colonel Jeannie Leavitt became the US's first in 1993.
Air Marshal Davies said the RAAF had made a "really strong" effort to convince young women that the job was an option. But also the generational changes in gender attitudes were helping.
"I would've given a fair wad of cash, I would've given a couple of free flights in a Hornet, if someone could give me that key."
Former Labor defence minister Stephen Smith announced in 2011 that all military roles, including the SAS and 2nd Commando regiments would become open to women over the next five years.