One of the best places to hear stories of women breaking traditional barriers is in the Indian Air Force (IAF) and, more generally, women who work in and with the sky. For me, it’s the most exciting subversion of a range of elite jobs—fighter pilot, aerospace engineer, navigator, missile scientist, aviation medicine specialist—that have mostly been linked with men. Those magnificent women and their flying machines has a nice ring to it, don’t you agree? The term air warrior no longer seems like a cliché when the accompanying picture is that of a woman.
In February, some of these stories were on display at Aero India 2019. The Air Devils, a five-women team formed in 2009 that made its debut at the show two years later, parachuted from an Mi-17 helicopter hovering at 5,000ft. Wing Commander Asha Jyothirmai, who has jumped 864 times, told The Times Of India that gender is no barrier for her team of parachuters: “Presence of mind and physical and mental fitness are vital, and women have shown that they can excel at anything."
The Sarang helicopter display team also showcased its acrobatics at the annual aviation jamboree. In December 2017, I heard Sarang pilot Sneha Kulkarni speak at the International Conference for Women in Aviation and Aerospace Industry, organized by the Indian Women Pilots Association. Kulkarni believes everyone is a potential daredevil and that all girls should join the air force. One of Kulkarni’s inspirations, Margie Hobbs, is from the early history of flight.
Wing walker Hobbs (or Ethel Dare, as she called herself later) used to walk along the wings of speeding biplanes and was the first woman to switch planes mid-air. Her speciality was the Iron Jaw Spin, according to OpenCockpit.net: “Dangling from the end of a rope with a special mouthpiece clutched between her teeth, Ethel would twirl dizzily in the plane’s propwash. Up the rope she would climb for a daring series of calisthenics…."
A fake news item that circulated when India conducted an airstrike on Balakot in Pakistan in February only served to demonstrate how comfortable we are seeing women in the IAF uniform. A WhatsApp forward claimed the strike was carried out by a female fighter pilot called Urvashi Jariwala. The photograph used was actually of squadron leader Sneha Shekhawat, and if her face looked familiar it was because Shekhawat, an air force transport pilot, became the first woman to lead the IAF contingent at the Republic Day Parade in 2012. At the 2015 parade, Shekhawat was at the head of the all-service, all-women contingent that marched down Rajpath.
Defence observers point out that at least as far as optics go, the air force has taken the lead in opening up opportunities for women officers. Army chief Bipin Rawat still feels comfortable enough to say publicly and with all seriousness (in a television interview last year) that women are not ready for combat roles and that it would create a “ruckus" if maternity leave was denied.
In the air force too, the combat leg of the journey is probably not as smooth as women would want. When Priya Sharma, the country’s seventh female fighter pilot and its third from Rajasthan, graduated in December, she was the only woman among the 35 fighter pilots in her batch at the Air Force Academy. Sharma discovered jets early thanks to her father, an air traffic controller in the IAF.
Yet it’s clear that women in the IAF represent more than a photo opportunity.
It is early days so you must ignore the fact that almost every reporter asked Flight Lieutenant Avani Chaturvedi, who became the first Indian woman to fly a fighter jet last year, what she thought about when she was flying a MiG-21 Bison. Patiently, Chaturvedi explained to all of them that there’s no time to think about whether or not she had accomplished her dream when she’s flying a jet. “You leave all your thoughts on the ground," she told one reporter. And to another she said, “After the flight, I had a feeling of contentment…that I have taken the first step nicely."
Fighter pilots have got a lot of attention since 2016, when flying officers Chaturvedi, Bhawana Kanth and Mohana Singh became the country’s first female fighter pilots to be commissioned, more than two decades after the air force said yes to female helicopter pilots.
But whether it’s helicopter pilots Gunjan Saxena and Srividya Rajan, whose role in the 1999 Kargil war was mainly casualty evacuation and sorties to conduct aerial reconnaissance missions, or Padmavathy Bandopadhyay, the IAF’s first woman Air Marshall (also the first Indian woman aviation medicine specialist and the first Indian woman to conduct scientific research at the North Pole), the stories go back long before the historic fighter pilot trio hit the spotlight.
“I never played any games till I joined the Armed Forces Medical College," said Bandopadhyay at the same aviation conference where Kulkarni spoke. In school, in the 1950s, when she once told a teacher she wanted to participate in sport, he replied: “You’re a girl, what games will you play?"
One of the modern Indian images etched indelibly in our minds is that of women at the Indian Space Research Organisation celebrating the successful launch of the Mars Obiter Mission (also called Mangalyaan). Later, it turned out that those women were mainly administrative staff but many female scientists had made this mission possible. Ritu Karidhal, deputy operations director, Mars Orbiter Mission, told the BBC website that growing up in Lucknow, she often wondered about the size of the moon, and why it increases and decreases. “I wanted to know what lay behind the dark spaces," she said.
Tell us about your experience of working on Mangalyaan, an audience member with misplaced enthusiasm at the aviation conference asked missile woman Tessy Thomas, whose career at the DRDO (military research hub Defence Research and Development Organisation) began with the late A.P.J. Abdul Kalam reading her project on “gyro-less inertial navigation". Kalam assigned her to work on the Agni series of missiles, for which she eventually designed the guidance scheme.
“I’m from DRDO. I do Agni missiles," she replied. “I fire and forget."
Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.