When I became an air force pilot, my mother told me fly low and fly slow—both very dangerous things to do for a pilot. That was her world view. My daughter doesn’t think like that," says Air Marshal S.R.K. Nair, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Training Command, making the point that Indian women have changed dramatically since the 1980s.

Now 2016 will forever be marked as the year the Indian Air Force changed. Flying officers Avani Chaturvedi, Bhawana Kanth and Mohana Singh became the country’s first female fighter pilots to be commissioned, entering a world that was thus far reserved only for men. The last time the air force did something so dramatic as far as women are concerned was 21 years ago, when it said yes to female helicopter pilots.

“Finally they have decided." That was the first thought that crossed Gunjan Saxena’s mind when she heard the news. Saxena became one of India’s first female helicopter pilots in 1996, the second batch of women to fly a Chetak and Cheetah. Until a few years ago, women were only allowed to fly these single-engine helicopters; now they fly twin-engine Mi-8s too, expanding the scope of their duties. 

But this year the air force took a big leap and shrugged aside its largely sexist fears about female fighter pilots: How will she handle high G conditions if she’s menstruating? (When you’re pulling G, or heading away from the earth at a certain speed, blood starts moving away from your head and down because of gravitational forces.) What will happen if she gets pregnant and doesn’t know it yet and flies a fighter? If she does get pregnant, that’s a two-year time-out from flying. Then she has to be retrained when she returns. After investing crores (the government calculates the cost of training a fighter pilot by adding up the hourly cost of operation—which runs in lakhs—of her aircraft), what if she decides she doesn’t want to be a fighter pilot? Yet male pilots quitting for more lucrative opportunities never qualifies as a gender issue.

The flight cadets being trained in a Kiran aircraft at Hakimpet, Karnataka, before they were commissioned.
The flight cadets being trained in a Kiran aircraft at Hakimpet, Karnataka, before they were commissioned.

India joins the ranks of countries such as China, Pakistan, Israel, France, Turkey, Greece, the US and, best of all, the former Soviet Union.

Their all-woman 46th Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment flew 24,000 combat missions in wooden Po-2 biplanes during World War II. The Germans feared their after-dark aerial tactics and nicknamed them Nachthexen or “Night Witches". This and countless other adrenalin- soaked stories are narrated in Flying For Her Country where author Amy Goodpaster Strebe tracks the courage of the American and Soviet women military pilots of World War II.

Also Read: The rise of a brave singer

The Indian Air Force’s most exciting human experiment in recent years is under way in Karnataka. Along with their 43 male coursemates, Chaturvedi, Kanth and Singh will be allotted to a fighter squadron after their training is completed next year. The women have been advised to delay marriage and pregnancy. Women must volunteer for this job and are then selected for their flying performance and acumen. 

The interview requests haven’t stopped flowing in since the announcement was made in June, but the women are off bounds for now. It would only distract from the intensive training which often begins with wheels up at sunrise. They are learning to exit a spin in their Pilatus and Kiran training aircrafts. A spin is a situation in which an aircraft plunges suddenly, all the while yawing, rolling and pitching. Air Marshal Nair uses a cellphone to demonstrate the stomach-churning action. “They learn to identify the characteristics of a spin and to look at the indicators to figure out how to come out of a spin," he says. “Later on if they are manoeuvring in a dogfight, they need to be able to recover the aircraft."

Recalling her first solo spin in a Kiran aircraft, flight officer Kanth said that at 20,000ft the doubts started creeping in. What if the aircraft didn’t recover? “Then I told myself that if I don’t do it now, I will always be afraid of it. I spun the aircraft and to my surprise, the spin was more vicious or so it seemed. But the fighter pilot in me took over and I told myself come what may I will recover…the aircraft recovered from spin and so did my confidence," she said in a statement released by the air force earlier this year.

Learning how to exit a spin is not the kind of story you would associate with women when they were first commissioned into the air force in 1993. Back then, a prolonged discussion ensued on what the new recruits should wear during physical training. One female officer asked what all the fuss was about. “We will wear what the men wear," she said, ending the debate.

“The women always complain. You don’t treat us at par with the men," says Air Marshal Nair.

In 1999, Saxena and her colleague Srividya Rajan were the only two female pilots in Kargil and they got a lot of attention. Their role in the war was mainly casualty evacuation and sorties to conduct aerial reconnaissance missions. She still recalls the time she was walking back towards her helicopter with her brother, an army officer who was also posted in Kargil, when she heard the sound of something propelling through the air. The missile landed in the mountain range a little beyond her helicopter.

In any story about women breaking barriers, the best part of the story is the women themselves. Chaturvedi, Kanth and Singh (from Satna in Madhya Pradesh, Darbhanga in Bihar and Jhunjhunu in Rajasthan, respectively) embody the fierce ambition of small-town women who decide they won’t live in the box that India has picked out for them. They chose to “fly like a free bird". That was the reason Kanth gave when she was asked why she joined the air force. “All three of them are the variety of person who feel we can take on anything. They’re not infatuated by the idea of being a fighter pilot," says Air Marshal Nair. Chaturvedi and Singh were inspired by family members in the Armed Forces.

In recent years, we have seen this same drive and determination in the female wrestlers of Haryana, who have single-handedly changed the way we think about that woman-unfriendly state, and who have influenced so many girls into pursuing sports seriously.  The fighter pilots are likely to be a new kind of role model for the next generation of girls who are determined to chase their impossible dreams. And if any one of these women should turn out to be like Marina Raskova, who helped so many women to fly and who single-handedly convinced Joseph Stalin that women should be utilized in World War II, who knows what could change next.

Close