Breaking Barriers: The Israeli Women Fighting to Become Combat Pilots

The odds of successfully graduating from the Israeli military's pilot training course are one in nine, and that's even less for women. A revealing new documentary follows six women through the first part of their training

The female flight cadets in the Israeli documentary series "Women in Flight."
Ohad Romano/Yes Docu

In 1994, a young Israeli woman made history when she sued the army for not allowing her to try out for its pilot training course. Being a woman, she argued, was not grounds for disqualification from the most prestigious and selective track in the Israeli military.

Alice Miller won her battle in the Supreme Court, and though she was ultimately rejected from the pilot training course on medical grounds, the South Africa-born immigrant opened a door that had been slammed shut on Israeli women decades earlier.

Since Miller’s landmark victory, 1,268 women have been admitted to the Israel Air Force’s flight academy and 49 of them have earned their wings, according to data provided by the Israel Defense Forces. Roni Zuckerman – the granddaughter of two leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt – was the first Israeli woman to become a combat pilot, in 2001, and now women account, on average, for 5 percent of cadets in each incoming class.

What drives these women and how do they cope with the high-pressure atmosphere of combat flight training, knowing that the odds of success are heavily stacked against them? (Statistics show that only one in nine incoming cadets graduate from the program, and the rate is even lower among women.)

A new Israeli documentary TV series follows six women through the first six months of their three-year training program at the Hatzerim Air Base, near Be’er Sheva in southern Israel.

A scene from "Women in Flight," directed by Tamar Tal-Anati.
Ohad Romano/Yes Docu

Noa, Maya, Sharon, Lior, Amit and Kim are among 26 women, out of a total of 300 cadets, admitted into the 177th pilot training course, which began in January 2016.

Combat pilots are so treasured by Israeli society that, on the rare occasion they appear on television, their faces are usually blurred to prevent enemy forces from recognizing them. Not here. For a television crew to obtain such behind-the-scenes access to wannabe pilots, as well as their instructors, is in itself a major coup.

Directed by Tamar Tal-Anati, “Hatayassot” (“Women in Flight”) provides an unprecedented look at the rare breed of women who gain entrance to the ultra-macho world of combat pilot training in Israel, and how they fare once inside.

Currently airing on Israeli satellite channel Yes Docu (and Yes VOD), the five-part series follows its protagonists from the time they learn they’ve been accepted into the program until the second round of cuts. (Spoiler alert: Most of them will not make it beyond that stage.)

Perhaps the most important contribution of the women spotlighted in the series is the human face they lend to the myth surrounding Israeli fighter pilots – who are widely considered among the best in the world.

Amit, for example, still sleeps at home in a bed surrounded by stuffed animals. She later admits to suffering from a fear of heights for as long as she can remember, and says part of her motivation for applying to the course was to overcome that fear.

Noa, a tennis ace with a gung-ho attitude, breaks down in tears just a few days into the course when she’s told she can’t go home for her mom’s birthday. Kim and Maya, it turns out, never had any burning desire to fly planes, as might have been assumed, and ended up in pilot training school for no better reason than it seeming a meaningful thing to do. Both have left loved ones behind in faraway places: Kim’s family moved to the Welsh countryside several years earlier, trying to get as far away as possible from the pressure-cooker life they had led in Israel, while Maya has a serious boyfriend in Germany.

The right stuff? Female cadets on the fighter training course in the Israel Air Force.
Ohad Romano/Yes Docu

The cameras are there for the little moments in the classroom, the mess hall and the midnight marches. The series captures the cadets falling asleep from exhaustion behind their desks, getting reprimanded for chewing gum, trying on flight suits for the first time, cracking each other up with imitations of their flight instructors, suffering from bouts of nausea while airborne, and hanging out with their parents during visiting days on the base.

The cameras are also there to capture the big moments, including the first test flights, swearing-in ceremonies and announcements on whether they have made it to the next training phase – or not.

Gentler approach

In one of the most telling episodes, a group of flight instructors – all of them middle-aged men – sit around a table in the mess hall sharing their thoughts about training young women.

One of them remarks that the only time he treats women differently is when he’s checking whether their parachutes are in place. “The boys I touch to make sure everything is attached as it should be,” he says, motioning to the area around his crotch. “With the girls, I just use my eyes.”

The women, they agree, tend to cry far more easily than the men. “It’s harder for them to hold back the tears,” one of them notes. “But at the risk of getting myself in trouble, I’m gonna say it’s probably something hormonal.”

His colleague concurs, noting that in order to avoid any tearful confrontations, he tends to be “more cautious and gentle” when reprimanding his female cadets.

Women who ultimately succeed in the pilot training course, another colleague observes, are no different from women who excel in tennis, basketball or judo. “I know I may get myself in trouble for saying this, but I’m going to say it anyway: their character makeup is a bit more masculine.”

For those who fail, though, the experience can be devastating. In one scene, a cadet who has just been told she hasn’t made the second cut calls her father, a fighter pilot himself, to deliver the bad news. “I didn’t want to disappoint you,” she tells him, sobbing uncontrollably.

“It’s OK,” he tries to reassure her. “There’s nothing to do about it. You did the best you could.”

Not all of them take it so badly. Another cadet virtually lets out a sigh of relief as she relays the news to her dad. He, on the other hand, sounds deeply disappointed. “You shouldn’t be sadder than me,” she admonishes him.

Her father, it turns out, had also been accepted to the pilot training course and, like her, never made the cut.

In another informal conversation in the mess hall, the flight instructors discuss whether accepting women is worth the effort, considering their disproportionately high failure rate.

“I do believe it’s important,” one of them says, “because we are also making a social statement here about the importance of gender equality.” If women are having a tougher time than men getting through the program, he says, “then what we need to be doing is giving them some extra help to make the investment worth it.”