IAF sources said the ‘experimental scheme’ to induct women as fighter pilots, which will be reviewed in December 2020 after being launched in December 2015, will be examined on several fronts before a decision is taken on whether to extend it or not for the long term.
This comes soon after Flying Officer Avani Chaturvedi became the first-ever Indian woman to fly a MiG-21 ‘Bison’ jet all alone in February, which was followed by a similar solo sortie by her colleague Bhawana Kanth. They still have a year to go before they become fully fledged fighter pilots ready for combat missions.
Mohana Singh, the third woman from the first batch, will graduate to supersonic fighters after she completes her flying syllabus on Hawk advanced jet trainers (AJT). The other three from subsequent batches — Pratibha Poonia, Shivangi Singh and Meghana Shanbough — are at different stages of their AJT training to learn the basics of the arduous and inherently dangerous art of combat flying.
“Women are selected as fighter pilot trainees, like their male counterparts, only if they make the grade and volunteer for it. Data on their training, operational conversion and utilisation is being collated on a regular basis for analysis,” said a senior officer.
With it taking around Rs 15 crore to train a single fighter pilot, IAF had for long resisted inducting women in the combat stream because it felt it would disrupt “tight fighter-flying schedules” if they got married and had children.
Consequently, the “impact of absence from active flying duties, whether for domestic or medical reasons, on the combat efficiency and readiness of fighter squadrons” will be one of the factors under consideration, said sources.
IAF will also study other reasons that may be considered ‘restrictive’ for women pilots, ranging from aeromedical issues, like performance under ‘high G-Force manoeuvres’, different physiological aspects and response to aviation stress, to ‘cockpit ergonomics and survival clothing’.
“The response of women candidates applying for fighter flying as a professional choice will also be assessed. Then, with the presence of women in fighter squadrons, the IAF will also consider the ‘cultural fit’ as well as the impact on unit functioning, if any,” said a source.
Avani and Bhawana, incidentally, were posted to MiG-21 squadrons rather than units of easier-to-handle modern fighters like Sukhoi-30MKIs or Mirage-2000s. IAF’s women helicopter and transport aircraft pilots, who number almost 100, have proved their mettle innumerable times by flying to high-altitude areas as well as undertaking high-risk missions during disaster relief operations.