Air Force Drops Pilot Height Requirement

Women and men outside the Air Force’s previous height ranges are being urged to apply for pilot positions.
Women and men outside the Air Force’s previous height ranges are being urged to apply for pilot positions. ( Samantha Mathison/US Air Force/)

The US Air Force still needs more pilots, despite the effects of the COVID-19 virus on the rest of the aviation industry. Last week, the Air Force removed one more barrier to recruiting the pilots it so badly needs by eliminating the height requirement for applicants. Under the previous Medical Standards Directory requirement, a pilot applicant was required to stand between 5'4" and 6'5" with a sitting height between 34 and 40 inches. While the service said its goal in dropping the height requirement was to attract a more diverse group of candidates, it admitted in a news release, “The previous height screening criteria eliminated about 44 percent of American women between the age of 20 and 29.”

According to the Air Force Times, “Instead of a blanket height requirement, the Air Force said that it will apply an ‘anthropometric screening process’ to figure out which specific aircraft applicants would be able to fly. These measurements, in addition to standing height, also measure an applicant’s eye height while sitting, buttocks-to-knee length, and arm span, are entered into a computer to determine which aircraft the applicant could and could not safely fit in.”

Flying During A Global Pandemic

The Super Cub belonging to the Tiger Club in the UK.
The Super Cub belonging to the Tiger Club in the UK. (Courtesy Sarah Rovner/)

On March 8, 2020, I stepped out of G-SWAY and onto the soggy British mud at Damyn’s Hall Aerodrome an hour east of London. G-SWAY is a Super Cub that belongs to one of Britain’s most famous and historic flying clubs—the Tiger Club. I was the newest member of the Tiger Club, having completed my checkout with an instructor and then soloing an EU-registered airplane for the first time since completing my EASA pilot license in Iceland. At the time, I was flying to London every few weeks with my job as a Boeing 757/767 pilot for a US airline. The future was bright and the skies were clear; but a rumbling was developing throughout the world of a new virus that would threaten our very existence.

A mere 3 days later, the first of many restrictions upon travel was announced. Initially, this excluded the UK. However, only days after the first European travel restrictions, the ban spread to the UK and Ireland. I was still flying back and forth as a pilot for the airline, and I immediately noticed the effects. Our flights going to Europe started to become empty, and citizens overseas were rushing to return home. The first time I came back to the US as a crewmember on the 767, it was like a scene out of a post-apocalyptic movie with full-gear representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and customs screening passengers for any sign of the virus. The world was starting to change before my eyes.

My last flight on the 757 was to Las Vegas, Nevada, a town near and dear to my heart. At the time, the Las Vegas tower had closed down because several controllers became ill. The captain that I was flying with hadn’t been to a non-towered airport in a while, so it was a good learning experience for him. The casinos on the strip were closed and the strip itself was abandoned, making for an eerie sight on our drive to Henderson where there was an open hotel. We had barely 10 paying passengers on the flight. We had gone from full flights to 10-percent occupancy in a few days.

Sarah Rovner flies on a recent ferry mission.
Sarah Rovner flies on a recent ferry mission. (Courtesy Sarah Rovner/)

With the drawdown of international flying, I soon found myself with more time off than I wanted, so I returned to ferry flying. While most overseas business had shut down as countries closed their borders, I still found myself ferrying within North America. Canada had become nearly militant with their restrictions, often claiming that general aviation flights and ferry flights were not essential until fully explained to customs officers. Uber drivers had become scarce and the few that continued driving created plastic barriers in their cars to separate passengers. Hotels had put up plexiglass barriers like bank tellers, and there were no longer courtesy shuttles. People would jump back if you accidentally got too close, as if a ghost had crept up on them unexpectedly. The fear spread like wildfire, and not even the experts had devised a strategy to put it out.

Between March 7 and April 1, I flew almost every day as a ferry pilot or as a commercial airline pilot. Some states would make passengers fill out quarantine forms if you arrived from certain other states. I landed in El Paso, Texas, to find the National Guard waiting and asking for paperwork stating where I would be self-quarantining. I found that many FBOs were closed or had different procedures in place in order to follow CDC guidelines. After landing in Texarkana, Arkansas, in a Cirrus, I was told that I had to fill out a form to tell them how much fuel to add, and then had to give my credit card number verbally from across the room since they would not touch credit cards. Some cities, like El Paso, mandated that everyone would wear a mask in a public building. I started to keep one in my pocket for local restrictions. Some notams would show closures, but often you would either hear it on the AWOS (such as at Midland Airpark) or see a sign posted on the door that an FBO was closed, making logistics challenging. At one point, I was told I could not use the bathroom in the FBO because of local restrictions while the employees sat inside, which made for an awkward scene!

I did find that the experience differed dramatically between states and even US customs stations. Some states are starting to open, and after a recent delivery I had an excellent steak dinner with my student in Omaha, Nebraska. It was my first time eating at a restaurant in 2 months, and one of the most exciting moments of my recent adventures.

Meanwhile, the flight school that I’ve been occasionally instructing at is also starting to open but taking precautions for student training. I’ve started to find that fear is moving more toward reason and mitigation of risk, and human resilience has become the motivation for our decisions. While for now the future seems uncertain for pilots and the aviation industry, the unwavering commitment to recovery and strength that I’ve witnessed shows that together we will overcome the obstacles presented by this calamity. This is only a temporary setback. The industry will continue to rebound and I have no doubt that we will see the same or even greater prosperity in time as we relentlessly pursue our passion for aviation.

In Depth: Cyndhi Berwyn

"It is imperative to maintain situational
awareness in the sky and in life, be
self-confident while remaining humble..."
"It is imperative to maintain situational awareness in the sky and in life, be self-confident while remaining humble..." (Nick Wood/Orbis International/)

While studying meteorology at the University of Hawaii in the 1970s, Cyndhi Berwyn began flying gliders. In her senior year, the US Air Force decided to allow women to become pilots in the service. After she competed for a slot and was selected as one of the first women in that program, she became an Air Force instructor, flying T-37s and T-38s. Her career made a roaring start.

During her Air Force years, Berwyn continued to build general aviation experience by flying hot air balloons, seaplanes and helicopters, before joining the Air Force Reserve flying KC-10s once her active duty was over. At about the same time, she was hired as a pilot for FedEx, where she has been employed for the past 34 years. Through her career at FedEx, she’s been a flight engineer, first officer and/or captain on the Boeing 727, Douglas DC-10, Airbus A300, McDonnell Douglas MD-11 and Boeing 777, respectively.

Berwyn’s career has always been pegged at VY, and with a logbook now stuffed with more than 15,500 hours, you’d think she might contemplate slowing down—but that’s not how she’s wired. Instead, she spends her off-duty time as a captain on the Orbis International Flying Eye Hospital, a one-of-a-kind McDonnell Douglas MD-10-30 that travels around the globe bringing needed medical training to doctors so they can learn new ways to treat avoidable blindness or vision impairment in underserved countries. Destinations on her Orbis FEH flights have included Panama, the United Arab Emirates, India, Singapore, Ethiopia, Chile, Peru and Jamaica, as well as numerous static-display trips inside the US. This spring, she will be bringing the FEH to the Sun ’n Fun airshow in Lakeland, Florida.

The Orbis Flying Eye ­Hospital is a 1973 DC-10 that was converted to an MD-10-30 in 2001 and donated to Orbis by FedEx in 2011.
The Orbis Flying Eye ­Hospital is a 1973 DC-10 that was converted to an MD-10-30 in 2001 and donated to Orbis by FedEx in 2011. (Nick Wood/Orbis International/)

Success in Berwyn’s career has come from having a full understanding of what it means to be a professional pilot, both mentally and physically. “Being a pilot is more than just a physical skill,” Berwyn says, “and so many of the things we learn while developing aviation skills apply to life in general. It is imperative to maintain situational awareness in the sky and in life, be self-confident while remaining humble, stay aware of the inherent risks involved in flying, and exercise good judgment when faced with tough decisions.”

The job of flying the Orbis FEH around the world has to be one of the most unique challenges any captain can have in professional aviation. It’s a full-on surgical hospital set up as much for training as for performing life-altering eye surgeries. Moving a hospital around the world takes a team effort, and Berwyn is proud to be an integral part of that group.

Read More from Dan Pimentel: In Depth

The FEH is a 1973 DC-10 that was converted to an MD-10-30 in 2001 and donated to Orbis by FedEx in 2011. It took several years to convert the interior to the teaching hospital we see today, and because FAA certifies an MD-10 as being an MD-11 for pilot ratings, the FEH is flown under an MD-11 type rating.

Long before the wheels are up and the FEH is headed to another three-week medical program somewhere around the world, an intricate dance has to be performed to transition it from “hospital” mode to “flight” mode. After Orbis sets up the programs, the pilots get involved several weeks before departure with specific preflight planning. “We arrive at the airplane at least two days prior to a flight in order to preflight the airplane and check the loading of the equipment. In flight mode, everything has to be properly stowed, locked and strapped down,” Berwyn says.

The Orbis Flying Eye Hospital is a full-on flying surgical teaching facility.
The Orbis Flying Eye Hospital is a full-on flying surgical teaching facility. (Nick Wood/Orbis International/)

Berwyn explains that the preflight process on the FEH is a very important element of each flight. “When it’s in hospital mode, there are operating rooms, equipment and medications that are out and available to doctors—nothing is strapped down. After the team transitions it back to flight mode, before we take off, the pilots must come through and put our hands on everything. We tap and touch, make sure doors are locked, straps are tied down and there’s nothing loose,” she says. “Plus, we have everything downstairs in the airplane—support equipment and spare parts—so we’re self-sustaining wherever we go.”

After Orbis volunteer pilots deliver the FEH to its destination, they are free to return home to their jobs. “Like many of our pilots, I arrange my work schedule so I can stay and help in any way I can,” Berwyn explains. “If someone needs a power cord, I’m on it. To me, the most rewarding part is working with the people who are so grateful for the opportunity to have their operation because they can see their child for the first time, or their child can see them. They look at you with so much love, and to me, that’s really cool—totally gratifying.” Two years ago, her first granddaughter was born with a very rare condition that resulted in blindness. “That has made the Orbis mission even more personal for me,” she adds.

With today’s emphasis throughout the industry on encouraging more young women and girls to seek careers in aviation, it can be hard to imagine that, decades ago, when Berwyn first began flying, gender bias was not only prevalent, it was generally accepted. So you might consider it exceptional that she was able to push through the mark of being a woman in a “man’s world.” But it’s important to understand that she achieved her goals not because she is a woman, but because she is a great professional pilot.

Capt. Cyndhi Berwyn on the flight deck of the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital.
Capt. Cyndhi Berwyn on the flight deck of the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital. (Nick Wood/Orbis International/)

Berwyn’s opinion toward overcoming gender bias in aviation is an eloquent explanation of how any pilot can melt it away. “Credibility is extremely important, and I believe that comes from being honest and competent—but also [from] being accountable,” she says. “Once you become known for delivering a consistent, strong performance, the personal biases evaporate, and you become trusted. This is a career field where it is extremely evident that you did your work to prepare because you can’t fake it as a professional pilot.” This rings true regardless of what that bias might be.

When you ask Berwyn what the one desirable airplane she has not yet flown is, the instantaneous answer is “P-51 Mustang.” What her answer says is—regardless of what we fly, our gender, age or experience—we as pilots all share similar aviation DNA. Berwyn just happens to fly a hospital in her spare time, making a difference and helping to change the world.

That is noble work.

This story appeared in the April 2020 issue of Flying Magazine

Taking Wing: New Adventure

Fortune landed us an undeveloped lot with deeded airstrip rights.
Fortune landed us an undeveloped lot with deeded airstrip rights. (Courtesy Sam Weigel/)

It’s a beautiful late-fall day: warm and clear with a hint of breeze, a cherished last vestige of summer this time of year in the Pacific Northwest. “The Mountain is out,” as the locals say—the mountain in question being Rainier—and its 25 glaciers glittered in the sun as we made our way across the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Other mountains are out too; the jagged wall of the Olympic Range rises above the tree line at the far end of the idyllic 2,400-foot grass airstrip on which Dawn and I are walking. Birds are singing, butterflies are flitting. A dog romps in the tall grass to one side of the runway, a future playmate for Piper perhaps. There is no sign that downtown Seattle is only 16 nautical miles away. One of the hangar doors is open, the nose of a Cessna 180 protruding and a restored Stinson 108 tucked carefully behind. My kind of people, clearly. Two-thirds of the way down the tree-lined strip, a grass taxiway branches to the south. At the intersection of taxiway and runway is an undeveloped plot of land, 2.3 lightly sloped acres in all, with a small meadow clearing ringed by tall handsome firs. In my mind’s eye, I see a cozy timber- frame home rising amidst the trees and a hangar at the edge of the taxiway, an old taildragger of our own out front. This is my dream, but I am not dreaming. An hour ago, we signed the closing papers on this land; it is the site of our future home.

When Dawn and I sold everything and moved aboard Windbird to cruise the Bahamas and Caribbean in 2016, it was never our intention to sail off into the sunset forever. I sold Dawn on the idea by stressing that it was a flexible plan of one to four years; if she (or I) hated it, we’d abort the experiment and sell the boat. It was also a plan with an endgame, an eventual return to land living—the exact nature of which we could figure out during our time afloat. As it turned out, we spent three seasons in the Bahamas, Greater Antilles and eastern Caribbean and, until recently, were planning a fourth and final season in the western Caribbean. But while we enjoyed the sailing lifestyle, we both missed GA flying a lot, especially Dawn. The little bit we managed to sneak in during our busy summers off the boat was never enough, and we found ourselves increasingly drawn to the Pacific Northwest, where we’d lived from 2004 to 2008 and still have good friends. The fact that my airline’s Seattle base has grown and become more junior (and thus easier to hold as a line pilot) in the past few years suggested the direction of our “return-to-land” plan.

This past summer, while Windbird was tucked away on the island of Curaçao for hurricane season, Dawn and I spent five weeks living with our friends Brad and Amber Phillips in Vancouver, Washington. One reason for doing so was to scout out communities in the Puget Sound area. The idea was to narrow our search area, buy land in a year or so, and eventually design and build our own house—something that’s been on my bucket list since my teens (along with flying the Boeing 757 for a major airline and sailing around the world). The really ideal scenario was to find land with a private airstrip or on an airpark. As we investigated potential areas, we began to focus mostly on the Kitsap Peninsula, from just north of Gig Harbor up to about Poulsbo. Other areas were too crowded, too expensive, too far from salt water or too long of a drive to my employer’s base at SeaTac. Unfortunately, there are only a few existing airparks on the peninsula, and all were long since developed and unlikely to have vacant land for sale anytime soon.

Selfies were a must for this occasion.
Selfies were a must for this occasion. (Courtesy Sam Weigel/)

All except one, that is. I’d first seen Leisureland Airpark on Google Earth a few years ago and had grown curious about it. WA96 is situated a few miles northwest of Bremerton in the middle of the peninsula, nestled among forested hills on the north side of Wildcat Lake at 430 feet elevation. None of the local pilots I talked to knew anything about it. County records showed fewer than a dozen existing homes around it, with some land still vacant. When Dawn and I dropped by on a scouting trip, we didn’t get beyond the south fence but liked what we saw. The kicker: There actually was one lot for sale, but it had sat on the market for six months and was well out of our price range, and in any case, we were still a year from being ready to buy.

We put the lot out of mind—until a few days later when the listed price dropped significantly. I was on a Seattle overnight for work and called the listing agent to arrange a showing for the next morning; Dawn drove up from Portland, Oregon, and we took the 8 a.m. ferry over to Bremerton. As soon as we saw the land and walked the airstrip, we knew it was exactly what we were looking for. I did some snooping around and found that it was the last undeveloped lot of only eight with deeded airstrip rights, and I heard scuttlebutt that the sellers were fairly motivated. Dawn and I sat down, took a good look at our finances, and had a long talk about our plans and priorities. Ultimately, we decided that the property was worth moving our timeline up by a year and that we could afford to do so, up to a certain point. We put in an admittedly lowball offer and held our breath. Two days later, the sellers accepted our offer as written.

Read More from Sam Weigel: Taking Wing

Every major life decision involves trade-offs, and purchasing our land a year early prompted an immediate change to our carefree sailing lifestyle. For the past three cruising seasons, I have dropped or traded away most of my work trips from November through May, flying only enough to maintain landing currency, keep our health benefits and occasionally top up the cruising kitty. Now we’ll be buckling down for the next few years, working hard and living frugally while we pay off the land and save for construction. Accordingly, we canceled our plans to cruise the western Caribbean this winter and spring. Instead, in December, we sailed Windbird on a 1,300 nautical mile, 9-day passage from Bonaire to eastern Florida. Around the same time, I bid for, and was awarded, a position as a New York-based Boeing 737NG captain (yes, I’m aware that I just bad-mouthed the 737 a couple months ago in my column extolling the 757’s virtues). I head to upgrade training soon, and assuming I survive the ordeal, I should be getting on the line right around the time you read this. Dawn and I will continue to live aboard Windbird on the East Coast until we build, docking her in Florida the next few winters, and sailing her up to New York City from May through October.

We hope to build in summer 2022, by which time my seniority should be able to hold Seattle 737 as captain. In the meantime, we have plenty to do: designing our new house and hangar, selecting an architect and builder, pulling permits, and preparing the land. We’re still in the early stages of design, but our goal is to build a cozy, chalet-style, timber-frame home that blends well with its Pacific Northwest surroundings. We’ll be keeping it fairly modest, around 2,000 square feet (as befits a couple with a dog and occasional visiting friends), but will build it to be extremely energy efficient and to last well beyond our lifetimes—which, along with the timber framing and the general high cost of construction in the Seattle area, makes saving up now that much more imperative. The hangar too will be an area of increased expenditure, with room for several airplanes, a couple motorcycles and a shop. The home we are designing is meant, above all else, to be a base for future adventures far and wide—aerial, seaborne and terrestrial—with each other and like-minded friends.

As we go through the design-and-building process, I’ll be sure to fill you in on progress made, lessons learned and so forth. Truth be told, I immensely enjoyed the years we spent cruising and find myself a little wistful that it ended so soon and so suddenly. But I’m hugely excited for this next chapter of our life, a grand adventure in its own right, and I’m particularly looking forward to getting back into general aviation and eventually owning another airplane of our own.

This story appeared in the April 2020 issue of Flying Magazine

Unusual Attitudes: My Lips are Sealed

Speaking at the WACO Air Museum dedication, unwillingly.
Speaking at the WACO Air Museum dedication, unwillingly. (Courtesy Martha Lunken/)

The call wasn’t tempting at first, but it improved along the way: “Martha, do you still give speeches or programs telling about your background and experiences? Our new aviation club vice president asked me to contact you. Would you be our guest speaker for the Christmas dinner next December? Dr. Frank Van Graas was our speaker this year.”

OK, that did it.

Dr. Van Graas has been involved with satellite-based navigation research since 1984, is an expert on positioning and timing technologies at the Ohio University Avionics Engineering Center, director of the Consortium of Ohio Universities on Navigation and Timekeeping, fellow and past president of the US Institute of Navigation, and executive branch fellow at NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation Office in Washington, D.C.

C’mon, I fly little airplanes. These days, it’s mostly my Cessna 180, occasionally a Beech 18 or a Douglas DC-3. After 28 years as something of a troublemaker—certainly not a “team player”—in the FAA, I hung up my credentials and talked them into making me a designated examiner. I enjoyed check-riding hundreds of sport pilots to multiengine ATP applicants for eight years, only to be (justly) defrocked after I demolished my Cub by hand-propping it with nobody at the controls. With that checkered “career” in my past, I’m something less than an icon. Oh, I’m a pretty good stick, but I struggle with “glass” and think all that stuff propounded by Daniel Bernoulli and Isaac Newton (who weren’t even pilots) is a feeble attempt to explain the real reason airplanes fly. It’s pure magic (middle initial omitted)—and, OK, money too.

Well, at least I was honest when I begged off this most recent speaking request. Usually, I regretfully decline with some excuse like another trip to Mongolia, a minor surgery or a previous engagement. When I do accept, I end up agonizing for weeks beforehand about what I can say that’s new and interesting. “Talking” isn’t the problem; I can rattle on about almost anything—how to start an R-1830, land in a crosswind, the State of the Union, feeding your sourdough starter, conducting a spot-landing contest, what people should wear to the symphony and the demise of cursive writing. Somehow, I find talking about flying to an audience of fliers and, worse, spouses is challenging.

But speaking requests keep coming, and I’m running out of excuses, so I asked a friend—a true aviation superstar and writer—for advice.

“How much do you charge?” he asked.

“Uh, usually $500, unless it’s a nearby group of friends—you know, a local club or an EAA group. Then I’m free, plus whatever it costs to fly the 180.”

“Oh, Martha, that’s far too low. You should be getting $2,000 plus expenses for an appearance.”

Understand that this guy is hugely accomplished and famous and, unlike me, worth every bit of $2,000. If I lobbed out a figure like that, I’m pretty sure the caller would hang up and scratch his head, muttering, “Who in the hell does she think she is, Amelia Earhart?”

But while I was storing stuff in the basement today, I found a box full of old FAA stuff—my schedules, expense reports, requests, thank-you notes from individuals and groups, newspaper articles, and, of course, my treasured file of reprimands. I’d forgotten how many seminars, meetings, talks and awards banquets I put on in those 20 years as an accident-prevention specialist (later euphemized to “safety program manager”). At the same time, I was flying—a lot. So why, after that talking and more than 10 years writing this column, after everything I’ve lived and seen, all the friends I’ve made and villains I’ve known, having enjoyed a lifelong love affair with flying and fascination with all things aeronautical—why am I reluctant to speak?

It’s just pride…and maybe it’s time I got over it.

The accident-prevention program was seen as a “dead end” for FAA inspectors. Oh, there were some great people in district offices, but because there were few requirements or program guidelines, too many others just sat on their asses and pushed papers. I was delighted to be out of the office, flying around and putting on seminars or meetings. At the same time, unlike most APSs, I was able to maintain my currency in the FAAs flight program, do flight tests, stay current in the DC-3, go for another type rating, and lend a hand with “ops” work and accident investigations. This was rather unusual for an APS, but our office was quite small, and I’d had six years of operations experience. And I believed it made me more credible. But I was “in the field” so much during regular office hours, I often spent weekends (unpaid but undisturbed) doing computer entries and the required paperwork—though not very well…thus the reprimands.

Read More from Martha Lunken: Unusual Attitudes

Whenever possible, I’d try rounding up a speaker for the seminars, but more often I projected good “industry” or FAA programs such as the excellent On Landings series. (Look it up online and watch. It’s not new, but it’s timeless and very good). But too often, I’d screw up the video projector and morph the program into my rambling on about airspace or reexamination rides (known as 709s), NASA reports, those rare ramp checks, what you had to report and what you didn’t, how to handle an accident or violation investigation, and when to call a lawyer. It was extemporaneous, but it was usually a hit, and it was fun.

Today, the FAA frowns on “wings weekends”—those “get three hours of dual and attend a safety seminar for free in one weekend” events. But I think they were splendid, and the letters in that big box downstairs indicate a lot of other people thought so too. For 13 years, we did a three-day program at Hogan Field in Hamilton, Ohio, pairing as many as 200 pilots who just showed up with 70 to 80 volunteer CFIs for three hours of free dual. We put on continuous seminars, issued the certificates and pins on the spot, and threw a Saturday-night hangar banquet with a speaker. It was exhilarating and exhausting, and pulling down those tents on Sunday evening was bittersweet—like seeing Brigadoon fade into the mist.

Thanks to generous support from my friend, Hartzell Propeller CEO Jim Brown, we snagged some great banquet speakers including Sean D. Tucker, Col. Joe Kittinger, Paul Poberezny, Bill Kershner, Neil Armstrong, and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s Phil Boyer and Bruce Landsberg. Some were polished professionals with videos, but I think the most popular were those who spoke “off the cuff”—like having a conversation with friends.

Maybe I’ll quit pussyfooting around and talk. But, no, $2,000 won’t fly!

This story appeared in the April 2020 issue of Flying Magazine