India Air Force had started inducting women pilots in 1994 but it was restricted to helicopters and transport aircraft. In October 2015, the IAF opened its fighter plane cockpits for women cadets. They were given the choice to be fighter pilots, on an experimental basis for a period of five years.
This was a historic leap because till date most combat roles in the Army and the Navy are off-limits for women due to operational concerns and logistical constraints.
However, following the commissioning of India’s first women fighter pilots – Avani Chaturvedi, Mohana Singh and Bhawana Kanth – comes an unexpected development. None of the lady cadets in the subsequent two flying courses has followed into the footsteps of the trio who broke all barriers and etched their names in the history of Indian Air Force.
An IAF official explained: “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,” according to Indian Express reports.
Avani, Mohana and Bhawana were from the 197th flying course of the Air Force Academy (AFA) at Dundigal near Hyderabad. Women cadets have to train here for a year before getting commissioned as Flying Officers. After the training of first six months they branch into the three streams — fighter, transport and helicopters.
In the 198th flying course which had four trainee cadets one of them chose to be a transport pilot and three opted for the helicopter stream. In the 199th course, one woman cadet is training to be a transport pilot and two cadets have chosen to be helicopter pilots. In the 200th course, which is only three months into training, officials believe none of the four women cadets are likely to opt to be fighter pilots either.
An IAF official explains “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.” Officials at AFA Dindigul told 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.
Women officers in the IAF’s ‘Flying branch’ are allowed through the short service commission which implies they have a maximum term of 14 years with IAF. There are entitled to greater opportunities for post-retirement civilian employment than transport and helicopter pilots than there are for fighter pilots.