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Winged, but no war space

Should women be in the line of fire? In an interview to Meenal Dubey, senior Army and Air Force officials speak up.

india Updated: Jul 01, 2006 02:07 IST

They have wings and yet can’t fly.

Squadron Leader Manisha Singh (name changed) flies a transport aircraft, but wants to be at the “controls” of a SU-30MKI.

Her mate, Major Seema Sharma posted in the Northeast, would love to be in active combat some day. In this era of electronic warfare, women are keen on more precision roles in the armed forces. But is the Government ready?  In an interview to HT on Saturday, senior army and air force officials refused to go on record. But most of them expressed “doubts”.

A 15-year-old study by IAF’s Aviation Medicine department says “pectoral muscles in Indian women were not developed enough to handle a fighter aircraft” and “gravitational force tolerance in women is low.”

Retired Air Marshal Padmavati Bandhopadhyay, who retired as Director-General Medical Services (Air) doesn’t agree. “I can guarantee that out of 100 Indian women, at least 10 per cent will fit the criteria of a fighter pilot.”

Bandhopadhyay is also the first woman officer to have completed the Defence Service Staff College course in 1978.

According to a senior officer, IAF has had a change of heart. “The study is not applicable anymore considering the technology advancement. The control systems are more pilot-friendly and stress-free. Besides the pilots’ suits are also less restrictive and more comfortable,” he said.

“The recruitment of women fighter pilots is directly proportional to Government aid in terms of budget and infrastructure,” the official adds. “It is a Government decision and we will follow orders.” Ironic, considering that both male and female officers undergo similar training at the Air Force Academy in Hyderabad.

“They are tested on aircraft for high-speed flying, close formation, navigation, practice forced landings and aerobatics,” said Sqn Ldr Singh. “These skills are considered while shortlisting fighter pilots. Lady officers often score higher than their male counterparts and yet we have to be content flying helicopters like Chetak, Cheetah, MI-17 or transport aircraft like IL-76.”

At present, IAF has 575 women of which 50 women fly transport carriers like IL-76 and helicopters like MI-17. The rest are in medical, technical and support services.

Do women officers in IAF face bias? Yes and no. The Government spends Rs 10 crore to train a fighter pilot, while transport pilot training costs Rs 5 crore. Women often seek postings in the same station as their husbands or are uncomfortable with forward area postings. Many quit after five years of service.

Women officers dismiss these “perceptions”. “In a hypothetical situation, aren’t the Government and IAF worse off when a trained fighter pilot leaves for greener pastures. What happens to the budgetary losses then?” queries Sqn Ldr Singh. The IAF brass argues that if women eject in enemy territory during an armed conflict, they “may not always be treated by the army according to the Geneva Convention on prisoners of war (POW).” But that’s a risk many are willing to take. “A woman pilot flying a transport aircraft can also be captured by the enemy. Then what?”asks one.

“Lot of women seeking a job in the IAF show potential, but very few get selected because they are unable to clear their medical tests. Experts feel special psychological and physical tests need to be introduced for women, who want to become fighter pilots.

But before opening the cockpit door to women, people need to open up their minds.

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