Nearly a year after Flying Officers Avani Chaturvedi, Mohana Singh and Bhawana Kanth were commissioned in the Indian Air Force (IAF) as India’s first women fighter pilots, the force is faced with a peculiar situation: no women trainee cadets have since opted to fly fighter aircraft. In the next two batches since then, women cadets have opted to fly either transport aircraft or helicopters.
“It is an individual’s choice. Women cadets have to volunteer and then qualify. None of them are opting for the fighter stream. We don’t have any women fighter pilots from the last two courses, but that may change,” a top IAF official told The Indian Express.
Chaturvedi, Singh and Kanth were from the 197th flying course of the Air Force Academy (AFA) at Dundigal near Hyderabad, where women cadets train for a year before getting commissioned as Flying Officers. The trifurcation into the three streams — fighter, transport and helicopters — is made after the first six months of training.
None of the four women pilots in the 198th flying course opted for the fighter stream — one of them chose to be a transport pilot and three opted for the helicopter stream. In the 199th course, which gets commissioned in June, one woman cadet is training to be a transport pilot and two cadets have chosen to be helicopters pilots.
In the 200th course, which is only three months into training, officials said none of the four women cadets are likely to opt to be fighter pilots. “We are trying to motivate and counsel them but we will know more in a couple of weeks once the initial flying training gets over. By then, they can also judge their own performance and capabilities and take a considered call,” an IAF official explained.
Officials at AFA Dindigul told The Indian Express on conditions of anonymity that it is voluntary for women cadets to apply for fighters unlike male cadets who can be directed to join the fighter stream, depending upon their capabilities and performance.
“For women cadets, the choice depends on several factors – personal reasons, clauses in their terms of engagement, pressure from parents not to join fighters and several others,” explained an official at AFA Dindigul. As per the current terms of engagement, women pilots can serve up to 14 years of service and there are greater opportunities for post-retirement civilian employment for transport and helicopter pilots than there are for fighter pilots.
It was in October 2015 that the IAF announced that women cadets would be given the choice to be fighter pilots, on an experimental basis for a period of five years. Though IAF had started inducting women pilots in 1994, it was restricted to helicopters and transport aircraft. Most combat roles in the Army and the Navy are still off-limits for women due to a combination of operational concerns and logistical constraints.