India’s first female combat aircraft pilots are likely to fly the supersonic Sukhoi-30 jets after they complete the last leg of their training in September, Indian Air Force officials told a news agency. The three women are currently training on British Hawk advanced jet trainers at an IAF facility at Kalaikunda in West Bengal.
Bhawana Kanth, Mohana Singh and Avani Chaturvedi were commissioned as flying officers in the IAF last June.“There are varied options but we are working on plans to assign the women fighter pilots to fly Su-30 fighter planes initially. It’s a new generation, twin-seater aircraft,” a senior officer familiar with the plan said.
The women volunteered for the fighter stream after the government ended a rigid gender-based combat exclusion policy in October 2015. The women are part of a batch of 40 flying officers training on Hawks at the Kalaikunda air force station. The batch was supposed to be assigned to fighter squadrons in June itself but the plan has been delayed by three months due to training backlog and weather-related issues. Such delays are not unusual.
Former IAF chief Arup Raha, during whose tenure the fighter stream was thrown open to women, endorsed the plan to let the women begin with flying Su-30 fighter jets. “I would prefer that the women go to a Su-30 squadron. It’s one of the most modern fighters in the IAF fleet and we also have the jets in large numbers. It’s a frontline plane and the women will learn to handle the systems faster,” Air Chief Marshal Raha (retd) told.
He headed the IAF for three years before retiring on December 31, 2016. The IAF has contracted 272 Su-30 MKI fighter planes, out of which nearly 240 have been delivered. The remaining are likely to be inducted over the next three years. The women fighter pilots could be stationed together considering there are only three of them in the IAF. “In the initial stages, the pressure could be high. It’s good to have company. They can learn from each other,” Raha added.
IAF sources said the performance of the women during their training matched that of their male colleagues. However, no female trainee has opted for the fighter stream after the three women.The IAF has advised women trainees to put off motherhood for at least four years after they are commissioned as fighter pilots so that their flying schedule is not disrupted.