In 2016, the Indian Air Force (IAF) inducted the first batch of women fighter jet pilots — Avani Chaturvedi, Bhawana Kanth and Mohana Singh. It was in October 2015 that the government, spearheaded by the then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, took the decision to open the fighter stream for women on an experimental basis. “The IAF has had women pilots for over 20 years — in the transport and helicopter stream. But it was time the IAF paved the way for women to shatter the ultimate glass ceiling and open up the fighter flying stream for them,” says Air Commodore LK Chawla, the Air Officer Commanding, Air Force Station Ambala.
The IAF has been at the forefront of empowering women. While they were always enrolled in the medical branch, in 1992 the IAF started the induction of women to other branches initially in Ground Duties, and later to train for flying transport aircrafts and helicopters as well. Even though these roles were directed towards combat support ops only, the IAF was the first defence service to do so. Today, there are around 1,500 women in the IAF. And now, it is yet again paving the path for women by enrolling them in front-line combat roles — thereby putting India on the world map.
On a cold February morning, after a month of pursuing this story, ELLE was invited to Ambala Cantt to meet the first batch of recruits. It couldn’t have come at a better time. Just a few days before our meeting, on February 19, Chaturvedi became the first woman pilot to fly a solo sortie for 30 minutes on a MiG-21 Bison, a supersonic jet fighter and interceptor aircraft, in Jamnagar. She’s 24.
When the IAF issued a press release with Chaturvedi’s photograph stepping out of her MiG, a historic moment, it went viral. I asked her if she knew that she is now a hashtag, a symbol of girl power, she was pleasantly surprised and unaffected by all the adulation. “It’s a privilege to be considered an inspiration,” says the girl, who grew up in Deolond, Madhya Pradesh. Her fascination with flying started when she was studying for her B Tech in computer science at Banasthali Vidyapith in Rajasthan’s Tonk district.
“My college had a flying club where I learnt to fly the Cessna 152. It was so thrilling. That’s when I realised I wanted to become a pilot.” That was nearly six years ago.
Circle back to the present. After being posted to a MiG-21 Bison front-line squadron, Chaturvedi quietly shattered the very concept of a gender divide by flying this jet solo. So, what went through her mind while she was undertaking the monumental flight? “It’s a peculiar thing when you are in the cockpit and the canopy is closed. Everything else disappears. It is important to leave everything else — our worries, our joys on the ground — before I fly, as I need to focus on manoeuvring a machine safely,” she says, matter-of-factly.
Her sentiment is echoed by her comrade, Kanth, a happy-go-lucky bikeriding flying officer who (at the time of our meeting) was also being trained to fly the MiG-21. When I met her, around mid- February, she mentioned, “Once I clear the Type 69, then I will fly the MiG-21 Bison on a solo sortie.” On March 16, she became the second woman pilot to fly the fighter
aircraft solo from Air Force Station Ambala.
Kanth, who grew up in Barauni and Kota, in Rajasthan, talks to me about the time she had to choose between taking up a career at Tata Consultancy Services (she studied medical electronic engineering at BMS College Of Engineering, Bengaluru) or make it through the strenuous medical tests required to clear the IAF. “A big risk at the time, and an even bigger transition...I know,” she smiles. “Our training was all about rewiring our brains to think like a cadet and act like a soldier.” Did she always want to do what she is doing? “I never overthink. To me, it was just a fantasy. As a child, I remember seeing a plane, and I wanted to fly it. And here I am,” she says.
Singh, on the other hand, is taking her family legacy forward. Both her father and grandfather served in the IAF. “I have always been fascinated by the uniform,” says the girl, who grew up in IAF stations — Jamnagar, Amritsar, Gwalior and Delhi. After her B Tech in electronics and communications, Singh landed a job with Cognizant in Pune. She took the AFCAT — the common entrance exam to enter the IAF, five times — and cleared it each time. But she got stuck during the SSB (Service Selection Board) interview. Finally, a month before her 23rd birthday (also the age-limit to enlist in the flying branch of the IAF), she took time off from her day job, applied once again through a fast-track selection drive in Pune, Khiwalwhich completes a year-long process of applying to the IAF within a month, and made it. Today, she has been posted to the Hawks squadron. “When we do a sortie, we are essentially signing up for the aircraft. It’s my responsibility to land it back safely,” says Singh.“When I am up, all I am thinking about is doing my best for the country.” Has her grandfather seen her in uniform? “Oh yes,” she beams. “It was a proud moment for him.”
All three girls are stellar examples of humility. Born and raised in small towns, it is the sheer perseverance of their dreams that has got them this far. The best part of hanging out with them is that they are unassuming, and really don’t care about the noise and drama surrounding them. “When we joined the academy, the option to join the fighter jet stream wasn’t available yet. It was when we were in our first stage of flight training that the decision for women to apply for fighter jet pilots came about,” says Chaturvedi.
The fact that women were finally given the option to try out for the fighter jet stream came out of much deliberation on the occupational hazards, both physical and emotional, that the job entails, and the implications of surviving in war zones. (The IAF also has an exhaustive medical examination that rules out all forms of ailments and disabilities. Not only do the tests assess your current state of well-being, but they also have the ability to chart out a futuristic analysis on your health.)
“So, we gave it a shot,” chimes in Kanth. “Luckily, we were at the right time and right place, and got this opportunity,” adds Chaturvedi. The trio was trained on the Pilatus, Kiran and Hawk aircrafts across Dundigal, Hakimpet, Bidar and Kalaikunda, and later posted to their respective squadrons for further training: Chaturvedi and Kanth to the MiG-21 Bison, and Singh to the Hawks. In full uniform, they stand tall, proud and fearless. They look young, but I would worry for the enemy.What is interesting to note is that while the girls are now flying MiG-21 Bisons/Hawks, they will almost definitely get a chance to fly the IAF’s newer and higher performance jets as their flying careers progress. This includes the Sukhoi Su-30 MKIs, MiG-29s, Mirage 2000s and, when they arrive starting next year, perhaps even the Rafale. Just before we left Ambala, we gave them a few gifts from ELLE as a token of our appreciation. They let out a little giggle as they unwrapped their presents. “At the end of the day, we are also just girls,” says Singh.
Image credits: Tarun Khiwal