A female airman will soon begin formal training to become an Air Force combat controller, the closest any enlisted woman has gotten to breaking that glass ceiling so far.

The unnamed woman recently finished the four-week assessment and selection course needed to progress to specialized instruction in combat control, Air Education and Training Command spokeswoman Marilyn Holliday said Monday.

She is one of four female officers and enlisted members vying to break into special warfare professions that remain dominated by men. The Air Force withholds their personal information to protect their privacy.

“Acting as a one-man attachment to other special forces teams, these highly specialized airmen are trained in a wide range of skills, including scuba, parachuting and snowmobiling, as well as being FAA-certified air traffic controllers in order to establish air control and provide combat support on missions all over the globe,” the Air Force says of combat controllers.

The woman will undergo another four-week class to prepare for combat dive school in Florida, which lasts five weeks, followed by parachuting training, free-fall and battlefield survival training, air traffic control classes, and two other combat control and special tactics courses that include advanced weapons and demolition skills.

A second female airman will start the assessment and selection course at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, in May, Holliday said.

The A&S course is the third step in the process to qualify as a combat controller, after 16 weeks of basic military training and the special warfare preparatory course at Lackland. The Air Force saw its first prospective female combat controller in 2019. At that time about a dozen women had attempted special warfare training. None succeeded.

Another enlisted woman who started down the path toward becoming a tactical air control party specialist has dropped out. She began an apprentice course last summer but left the program and switched to another Air Force career, Holliday said.

On the officer side, one woman is currently in training to become a special tactics officer. While the Air Force wouldn’t say where in the process she stands, the woman has made it farther than any other female officer pursuing that job. She will soon be joined by a second woman on track to enter the STO pipeline after graduation from the U.S. Air Force Academy, said 1st Lt. Alejandra Fontalvo, a spokeswoman for the 24th Special Operations Wing.

“Any airman or recruit aspiring to enter special warfare career fields, regardless of gender, will be accessed and qualified using the current validated standards,” Holliday added.

Air Force special warfare includes some of the service’s most elite and toughest career fields, including combat control, TACP, pararescue, special reconnaissance, special tactics officer, combat rescue officer, and air liaison officer. Those airmen must undergo intense training that prepares them to deploy to battlefields for ground operations alone or with a unit.

They work apart from the traditional air base support, logistics and aircraft sorties handled by the rest of the Air Force. In the case of combat controllers, they set up remote airfields while conducting air traffic control, calling in airstrikes, and more. Special tactics officers handle tasks like directing international coalition forces in assault zones, combat search and rescue, and battlefield trauma care.

The Defense Department opened all combat career fields to women in 2015, but the Air Force’s pipeline of female special warfare trainees remains a trickle. Some opt to leave the training program on their own terms, while others encounter other hurdles like injury or simply the physical requirements of the work. The professions can also be overly daunting or unfamiliar to women considering military careers, winnowing the pool of prospective trainees.

While women have been part of other facets of special operations for decades, the community is preparing to greet more female airmen as they earn the remaining “firsts.”

“I’ve been able to meet a couple of the women. … I am so excited and proud of what these women are going to come do,” Col. Allison Black, vice commander of the 24th Special Operations Wing — the Air Force’s only special tactics wing — said in a recent interview.

She looks forward to the day when women are no longer an outlier in special warfare.

Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.

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