Why the IAF’s induction of three women fighter pilots is a landmark move

NEW DELHI,ANIL CHOPRA : The Indian Air Force commissioned on Saturday its first batch of three women fighter pilots. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar was the Chief Guest at the combined graduation parade at the Air Force Academy Dundigal, Hyderabad. With this, the IAF has become the first to open all branches of the Service for women. Effectively, women can now engage in combat.

Earlier in October 2015, in a landmark move, six women were short-listed for the initial selection and grooming. Having cleared the initial two stages of training and gained over 150 hours of flying experience each, Bhawana Kanth, Mohana Singh and Avani Chaturvedi will now proceed for a six month Stage-III, dedicated fighter training on Advanced Jet Trainer, the BAE Hawk at Bidar in Karnataka. On completion, they will be assigned different fighter aircraft and they will join the mainstream fighter squadrons.

Getting the aircrew badge, the ‘Wings’ worn over the left breast pocket is any aspiring aviator’s dream. But to be a ‘Fighter Pilot’ is a different ball-game altogether. It’s the most highly regarded position in any air force and the selection process only accepts elite candidates. It requires high academic ability, physical fitness and a strong mental drive to get selected. Fighter pilots have to display strong leadership qualities and team work in any combat mission. Decisions have to be made in split seconds, especially so at very high speeds and under high forces of gravity in ‘G’ manoeuvres. All Air Forces have only Commissioned Officers as pilots. One has to volunteer to be a fighter pilot and there are no differences in physical and mental standards between men and women. Some concerns include studies in the West that indicate women have 45 to 50% less upper body strength which may make them more prone to fractures and bone injuries. Fighter pilots also require strong muscle tissue along the extremities and abdomen for better ‘G’ tolerance, and a woman’s body structure may have lesser tolerance.

Air Force fighter pilots

Scripting history: India’s first batch of women fighter pilots inducted in IAF fighter squadron
Women have had their role models. Sabiha Gokcen of Turkey was the first women fighter pilot ever in 1936. USSR had fighter pilots in WW II and Lilya Litvyak became an ‘Ace’ with 12 aerial kills. The real thrust for women becoming fighter pilots took place in the 1990s when all Western Air Forces inducted fighter pilots to fly high ‘G’ modern jet fighters. In 1989, Canada was first to induct fighter pilots. Jeannie Leavit of USA flew 300 combat hours in Iraq. China had its first batch of six women fighter pilots in 2013, and Ayesha Farooq became Pakistan’s first fighter pilot, also in 2013. More recently, we saw UAE’s Mariam al-Mansuri fly combat missions against ISIS in an F-16. A progressive democracy like India delayed the final induction in 2016.

In 2013, the US Army passed an order that allows women same opportunities as men in combat arms which led to elite commando jobs for women. In December 2012, the US had its first three female submariners.

Former Indian President Pratibha Patil made India proud by flying the Su-30 MKI in a 30-minute sortie at the age of 74 with minimal emergency training on 25 November 2009. By inducting women fighter pilots, IAF has hit the right notes in terms of equality and opportunities for women. Women have excelled in all branches of the IAF. Breaking the last glass ceiling will now put pressure on the Army and the Navy to open more roles for women. The initial approval is for a test period of five years. But the same would inevitably be extended. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar however clarified that the induction would be in a “phased manner” as necessary facilities for accommodation and training need to be created.

Unfortunately, the number of women applying to join the armed forces has seen a decline in the last few years, as per a parliamentary report. I feel the numbers should finally go up to around 30 fighter pilots in the next 10 years. The same may be reviewed every 5 years. The issue of Command of Combat units may also be visited in years ahead. Indian women are resilient and strong and our aim should be to find ways to induct women rather than deny them opportunities.

The author is a retired Air Marshal.