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Research Questions

  1. What challenges might women and racial and ethnic minorities face in entering and completing Undergraduate Pilot Training?
  2. What are some demographic differences in attrition rates and reasons for attrition?
  3. Can any individual characteristics account for differential rates of attrition?
  4. How can the U.S. Air Force improve its current policies and practices aiming to raise female and racial and ethnic minority representation among Air Force pilots and, in turn, Air Force senior leaders?

U.S. Air Force policymakers aim to recruit and maintain a force that reflects the demographic diversity of the nation it serves. Prior research has noted that the Air Force officer population tends to underrepresent female and nonwhite personnel and that this gap grows as rank increases. One factor that contributes to this relationship between demographics and rank is an officer's occupation: Officers in rated (i.e., flying) occupations tend to have more opportunities at the senior levels of the Air Force, and data show that women and racial and ethnic minorities are not well represented in rated occupations. The goal of this study was to better understand the barriers to becoming pilots that are unique to minority and female candidates.

This report examines one aspect of the pipeline for becoming a rated officer by looking at demographic differences in Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) completion. The report presents findings from a series of focus groups conducted with current UPT students and instructors to better understand potential challenges that women and racial and ethnic minorities might face in entering and completing UPT. The report also documents findings from a quantitative examination of demographic differences in attrition rates, reasons for attrition, and an analysis of whether certain individual characteristics (e.g., test scores, prior flying experience) account for differential rates of attrition. Finally, the report concludes with initial recommendations for improving current Air Force policies and practices to try to improve female and racial and ethnic minority representation in pilot career fields.

Key Findings

Women and Minorities Appear to Face Unique Challenges to Becoming Pilots

  • Focus groups indicated that female and minority officers have fewer external influences to become pilots and face difficulties adapting to the dominant culture in UPT.

Minority and Female Candidates Have Relatively High Attrition Due to Flying Performance

  • Data confirm that female and minority candidates are at higher risk for attrition in UPT, stemming from eliminations due to flying performance.

Minority and Female Representation Among UPT Graduates Would Be Low Even If All Groups Had Similar Attrition Levels

  • In a hypothetical counterfactual scenario in which all groups had the same attrition rates, representation among graduates changed by less than 1 percentage point for each group.

Candidate Characteristics Could Account for Higher Attrition Among Female and Black Candidates

  • Attrition for female and black candidates was no higher than those for male and white candidates with similar characteristics, but attrition rates for Hispanic and Asian candidates were significantly higher than that for similar white candidates.

More Information Is Needed in Several Areas

  • A full understanding of demographic differences in UPT attrition requires more specific information on what occurs during training, as well as information on the characteristics of USAFA graduates (who were not assessed by PCSM during the time period covered in our data).


  • Improve pilot training experiences for women and minorities.
  • Continue to increase the number of minority and female candidates entering pilot training. Consider ways to raise the TBAS scores of incoming minority and female candidates.
  • Review training progress management policies to determine whether less prepared candidates with potential have the opportunity to succeed.
  • Conduct research to identify the causes of higher attrition rates among Hispanic and Asian candidates and to further assess differences among USAFA graduates.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was commissioned by the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Manpower and Reserve Affairs and the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Air Force for Manpower, Personnel and Services and conducted by the Manpower, Personnel, and Training Program within RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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