India’s first woman fighter pilot dreams of flying Rafale jets

Indian air crews will fly the first lot of the French fighters to the country beginning in September 2019.

india Updated: Mar 08, 2018 07:32 IST
Rahul Singh
Rahul Singh
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
India woman fighter pilot,Indian Air Force,Rafale
Flying Officer Avani Chaturvedi (left) with Squadron Leader Khushboo Gupta.(HT Photo)

India’s first woman fighter pilot dreams of flying French-made Rafale warplanes someday, even as she is cutting her teeth on the extremely demanding MiG-21.

“Right now I am focusing on the MiG-21 I have been assigned to. But as and when the IAF thinks I am good enough and suitable to fly a Rafale, I would love to do that,” said Flying Officer Avani Chaturvedi, who undertook a historic solo sortie in an MiG-21 Bison on February 19. She will become a “fully operational” fighter pilot in a year.

Indian air crews will fly the first lot of the French fighters to the country beginning in September 2019, and the Indian Air Force (IAF) hopes to induct the 36 planes on order by 2022. As for her ability to fly Rafale warplanes, she has an endorsement from the person who counts.

“It’s baptism by fire…if our women fighter pilots can fly the MiG-21s, then they can fly any aircraft in our fleet,” said IAF chief Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa, himself an MiG-21 fighter ace.

Chaturvedi, along with Flying Officers Bhawana Kanth and Mohana Singh, may have emerged as the most recognisable faces of women in the IAF after being assigned to the fighter stream, but the gender integration hasn’t happened overnight.

“It’s the culmination of a 25-year-old journey from the time women began joining the IAF in 1993, outside the medical stream. Today, they are important contributors to a wide spectrum of activities,” Dhanoa said on the eve of Women’s Day.

IAF is the only one of India’s three defence arms to allow women in combat positions. Around a dozen countries including China and Pakistan allow women to fly fighter planes.

The headcount of women in the IAF is close to 1,600, including 104 in the flying branch, but combat roles were off-limits to them until the service took the lead in crushing internal resistance to grant them equal opportunities in 2014.

“When I joined the Air Force Academy, there was no provision for women flying fighter planes. The moment that opportunity arose, I had no doubt in my mind that I wanted to fly fighters,” said Chaturvedi.

The first woman helicopter pilot to land at forward posts on the Siachen glacier agrees that things have changed a lot for women in the IAF during the last 25 years.

“During my training days, my instructor would tell me ‘don’t even dream of getting posted to Ladakh and flying choppers there.’ But here I am landing my Cheetah helicopter on a matchbox-sized helipads at altitudes of nearly 20,000 feet in Siachen,” said Squadron Leader Khushboo Gupta, one of the two women serving in the Leh-based 114 Helicopter Unit, also known as Siachen Pioneers.

The air force’s Cheetah and Cheetal choppers are being stretched to their limit to sustain the army’s high altitude deployments.

“These helicopters are designed to fly at high altitudes but not at the extreme heights we are flying them at,” said Gupta, whose husband Wing Commander SK Pradhan is also with the Siachen Pioneers.

First Published: Mar 08, 2018 07:17 IST