In a first, women pilots to run Chinook supply sorties
Squadron Leaders Parul Bhardwaj and Swati Rathore were flying the Russian-origin Mi-17V5 helicopters before they were moved to CH-47F Chinook units based in Chandigarh and Mohanbari in Assam, respectively.
The Indian Air Force has for the first time assigned two women combat pilots to its frontline Chinook helicopter units that are playing a crucial role in supporting the army’s deployments near the Line of Actual Control (LAC), including transporting light howitzers, in the northern and eastern sectors at a time when India and China are locked in a lingering border row, officials familiar with the development said on Friday.
Squadron Leaders Parul Bhardwaj and Swati Rathore were flying the Russian-origin Mi-17V5 helicopters before they were moved to CH-47F Chinook units based in Chandigarh and Mohanbari in Assam, respectively, said one of the officials cited above asking not to be named.
The multi-mission Chinook, imported from the US, is the latest helicopter in the air force fleet and costs around ₹650 crore apiece. India operates a fleet of 15 Chinook heavy-lift helicopters inducted in 2019-20.
Flying the Chinook is totally different from flying the Mi-17 or any other helicopter in the IAF fleet, said a second official.
“It’s the only tandem rotor aircraft that the air force operates and can carry out a variety of roles. The chopper has a completely unique feel, its controls are different, and flying it provides excellent exposure to helicopter pilots, men or women, operating on the front line,” he said.
The Boeing-made helicopter has been used extensively by IAF in the northern and eastern sectors amid the ongoing 28-month border row with China --- it has been used for moving artillery, battlefield resupply and transportation of troops.
Before taking on their new assignments with the ‘Featherweights’ Chinook unit in Chandigarh and ‘Mighty Talons’ in Mohanbari, both Bhardwaj and Rathore had accomplished feats on the Mi-17V5 transport helicopters they earlier flew, said a third official.
Bhardwaj captained the Mi-17V5’s maiden all-women flight in 2019, and two years later, Rathore became the first woman helicopter pilot to take part in the 2021 Republic Day flypast over Rajpath (now Kartavya Path), flying a Mi-17V5 in a four-helicopter formation.
“Moving from M-17s to Chinooks is a noteworthy development. Women in the air force are moving to the next level in their careers,” said Air Marshal Anil Chopra (retd), director general, Centre for Air Power Studies.
Transporting the M777 ultra-light howitzers as under-slung load to forward locations near LAC is one of the most important tasks being performed by the two Chinook units, army officials familiar with the matter said.
Helipads, capable of operating Chinooks, are coming up in remote areas of Arunachal Pradesh for faster deployment of soldiers and weaponry as part of an overarching infrastructure push to boost military capabilities in the sensitive sector.
The M777 ultra-light howitzer, imported from the US, has emerged as the centrepiece of the army’s weapon deployment along LAC to counter the Chinese military build-up, with the gun’s tactical mobility giving the army multiple options for a firepower boost in remote areas, the officials said.
India ordered 145 howitzers from the US for $750 million in November 2016. M777 manufacturer BAE Systems delivered 25 ready-built howitzers and the remaining guns have been/are being built locally in collaboration with Mahindra Defence under the Modi government’s Make in India initiative.
The 155 mm/39-caliber howitzers have a range of up to 30km, but are capable of striking targets at ranges of more than 40 km in some areas where the geography allows the shells to fly in rarefied air.
Built with titanium and aluminium alloys, the howitzers weigh 4,218 kg. In contrast, 155mm towed guns weigh twice as much.
In April, the Chinook set a record by flying the longest, non-stop chopper sortie in India, with an operational training task requiring it to fly from Chandigarh to Jorhat. It flew a distance of 1,910 km in seven-and-a-half hours.
Bhardwaj and Rathore have been assigned to Chinook units at a time when new doors have been opened for women in the armed forces --- the navy is giving them more opportunities to serve on board warships alongside their male counterparts and will soon start inducting them in the personnel below officer rank (PBOR) cadre, the army has allowed them to fly helicopters, and they are now also eligible for permanent commission in the three services. Women candidates also joined the National Defence Academy this year for the first time. One of the turning points for women in the military came in 2015 when IAF decided to induct them into the fighter stream.