Three women training at the Air Force Academy near Hyderabad have been found suitable to fly warplanes, bringing them a step closer to becoming India’s first female fighter pilots, a top officer told HT.
None of them would have dreamed of flying combat planes when they joined the academy in January as doors to the fighter stream were thrown open to women only two months ago.
A high-powered board of officers carried out detailed assessment of the flying capabilities of the 125 cadets training at the Dundigal-based premier academy and selected 45 of them for the fighter stream, including the three women.
The cadets will graduate from the academy on December 19 before those selected for the fighter stream head for Hakimpet near Hyderabad in early January for stage-II training on Kiran Mk-II planes for six months.
As first reported by HT on November 22, six female cadets were 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.
The remaining three women are among the cadets who have been assigned to the transport and helicopter streams.
“The 16-member board of officers worked hard to shortlist the cadets for the fighter stream. The three female trainees performed splendidly in flying and ground subjects too,” said a top fighter pilot, familiar with the combat experiment for women.
One of the three women is the daughter of an air warrior. The other two are from civilian backgrounds, though one of them has a brother serving in the army.
The decision to allow women to fly warplanes – a watershed in the air force’s 83-year history - has been taken on an “experimental basis” and the government will review it after five years.
Stage-II training in the fighter stream at Hakimpet will be critical as the performance of the cadets there will decide whether they are fit for the final stage of preparation.
Those who make the cut will then go to Bidar in Karnataka in June 2016 for stage-III training for a year on British Hawk advanced jet trainers, before they can fly supersonic warplanes. Some wastage can take place at the last stage, too.
The course that passes out on Saturday began with 140-plus cadets but at least 15 of them, including a female trainee, failed to make the cut for flying duties. Wastage rate during training usually hovers around 10-15%.
Flight cadets at the academy train on the Swiss Pilatus PC-7 trainer aircraft for six months, with the stage-I syllabus requiring approximately 55 hours of flying training.
The trifurcation into fighter, transport and helicopter streams takes place after the performance of cadets during stage-I training is measured against clearly laid down parameters.
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 military outside the medical stream for the first time in 1992.