Just how many of the six women flight cadets training at the Air Force Academy near Hyderabad stand a chance of becoming the country’s first female combat pilots will be clear in a month.
A 16-member board of officers will assemble at the Dundigal-based premier academy in December for a detailed assessment of the flying capabilities of the 125 cadets there, including the women, an IAF source said.
The evaluation will decide who gets to fly warplanes and who is assigned to the less glamorous transport and helicopter streams. Women are taking a shot at becoming fighter pilots after the government approved an IAF plan in October making them eligible to fly warplanes from June 2017, ending a rigid combat exclusion policy and propelling them into the limelight.
“There’s a possibility that all the six women could be assigned to the fighter stream. But there’s an equal chance that only one or two make it,” said a top fighter pilot, familiar with the combat plan for women.
The course began with 140-plus cadets in January 2015 but at least 15 of them, including a woman trainee, failed to make the cut for flying duties, HT has learnt.
“There’s no evidence to suggest a gap in capabilities between male and female trainees. The academy has a syllabus and performance is measured against clearly laid down parameters,” the officer said.
Wastage rate during training usually hovers around 10-15%, and there’s been no departure from the pattern in the current batch, too.
Flight cadets at the AFA train on the Swiss Pilatus PC-7 trainer aircraft for six months, with the syllabus requiring approximately 55 hours of flying training. Those struggling with the curriculum can be given six extra hours to get their act together, but rejection follows four warnings. The six women have cleared this stage and now the trifurcation into fighter, transport and helicopter streams will take place.
The cadets selected for the fighter stream, the cream of the batch, will be dispatched to Hakimpet near Hyderabad to train on Kiran Mk-II planes for six months. Those who make the cut will then go to Bidar in Karnataka for the final stage of training for a year on British Hawk advanced jet trainers, before they can fly supersonic warplanes. Wastage can take place at the last stage, too.
The headcount of women in the armed forces is upwards of 3,300, including 1,300 in the air force, but combat roles were off limits to them until the IAF took the lead in crushing internal resistance to grant them equal opportunities.
Warships, tanks and combat positions in infantry are still no-go zones for women, who were allowed to join the armed forces outside the medical stream for the first time in 1992.