On a cool, crisp morning, everyone looked to the sky and prayed. It would rain, the weatherman had warned.
As those gathered at the tarmac readied themselves to witness the ‘Combined Graduation Parade’ of the 197th course at the Air Force Academy (AFA), it was clear that this would be no ordinary affair. From the enhanced visitor count to the commensurate security detail to the handful broadcast vans of news networks to the curiosity in its run up, the distinction was measurable in more ways than one.
Before the day could mature any further, it was over.
At 9am, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar announced, reading from a written speech, “It is a red letter day. The Indian Air Force (IAF) has inducted three women pilots as fighter pilots”. Before ending his five-minute speech which was followed by the young officers taking oath and then marching off, he paused and said, “Yours is the noblest and most honourable of all professions.”
The crowd seated before the iconic Sekhon block was in rapt attention and history, as the cliché goes, had been made.
Reflecting back at the last six months during which Flying Officer Mohana Singh, one among the three women fighter pilots, not only made the decision to opt for the fighter stream mid-way through the course but also worked hard at her training, her mother Manju Singh said, “She did not discuss too much. She hardly had time. The training must have been very intense. Yes, there were moments of stress and when she told me so, I told her she had made her choice and that she should believe in herself”.
On October 8 last year, during his customary Air Force Day parade address, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha said something which despite years of litigation and activism could not be said. The IAF, he mentioned, was opening its doors in a manner unprecedented. It was planning to induct women as fighter pilots. Raha conveyed a radical shift in the softest of terms the impact of which will be felt for decades to come.
The words even resounded in the distant Dundigal where inside the 6700-acre campus of the AFA, then flying cadets Avani Chaturvedi, Mohana Singh and Bhawana Kanth picked them up. The trio, a part of the 197th course, was inching closer to completing their ‘Stage One’ training which included among other things successfully completing 55 hours of flying the Basic Trainer Aircraft (BTA) Pilatus.
A beaming Bhawana recounted, “To share a secret, I always wanted to be a fighter pilot but when we joined the option was not there. So when it came to us in December 2015, I knew I was going to grab it with both my hands.”
The three volunteered, as the regulations required.
IAF’s evaluation of their physical and mental aptitude, which the force insists has been gender neutral, found them fit. In the next stage, which culminated in today’s ‘Combined Graduation Parade’, the trio, along with 90 other flying cadets successfully completed their ‘Stage Two’ which also involved flying the vintage Kiran intermediate trainer aircraft for 87 hours.
Will the IAF’s women fighter pilots, once qualified, carry out cross-border raids, should the situation so demand? How will the country respond if one of them were to be captured as Prisoners of War (PoWs)?
Parrikar was not his usual direct self while answering.
He said, “I see no reason why they can’t do what their male counterparts can however their numbers will be relatively lower.” Standing in a corner, DP Chaturvedi, an engineer in the Madhya Pradesh government and Flying Officer Avani’s father took the question head on, “It was my daughter’s call. Her natural instincts propelled her and we will always admire her. I am a firm believer of the Gita. What is in the destiny will happen and nobody can stop what is destined”.
When the final round, ‘Stage Three’ commences, it will require the Flying Officers to report at the air force station in Bidar, Karnataka. Their next examination will be on the Advanced Jet Trainer (AJT) Hawk. It promises to be the longest of all and will take about a year to overcome. If they fail, the dream of flying the fighter will die. “Whether male or female, if the officer does not qualify the stage in that one attempt then the fighter stream is not for them. The IAF may, based on a variety of factors, allow them to qualify for transport or helicopters, but not fighters,” clarified Air Marshal GP Singh, AFA Commandant.
For now, the trio and their 127 course-mates have earned themselves a break, ranging between two to four weeks.
How heavy is the burden of being who they’d now become?
Avani was quick on the response. “There are many women pilots who have flown Pilatus and Kiran before us. Till now, we have not done anything special. What we will now do will be special and we hope we will do good,” she replied.
The fighters indeed are firmly on the ground.
VIDEO LINKS FOR THE STORY: