MiG-21 and gender integration through eyes of women pilots
There are no gender barriers, and the workplace is inclusive, said Squadron Leader Mohana Singh, one of India’s first women fighter pilots.
Nal Airbase (Bikaner) The phasing out of the Indian Air Force’s ageing MiG-21 combat aircraft next year has put a spotlight on women pilots who have thus far in their careers flown only the rugged Soviet-origin fighter plane whose checkered safety record has frequently triggered a chorus of concern and calls for its early replacement.
The three women fighter pilots posted in the No 3 Squadron “Cobras” here are flying as much as their male counterparts, performing duties by day and night, and symbolise successful gender integration in the IAF’s crucial fighter stream, the pilots at this front line airbase said.
There are no gender barriers, and the workplace is inclusive, said Squadron Leader Mohana Singh, one of India’s first women fighter pilots. “In IAF, we have embraced gender equality in the truest sense. The three of us work alongside our male colleagues to accomplish the tasks assigned to the squadron,” she said.
IAF, the world’s fourth largest air force, currently accounts for around 20 women fighter pilots. The service opened its fighter stream to women, a watershed in India’s military history, in 2016.
It has opened all frontiers for women and is giving them opportunities on a par with their male counterparts. On December 2, IAF inducted them in its non-officer cadre for the first time as 153 Agniveervayu (women) passed out from the Airmen Training School Belagavi, Karnataka. They were among the 2,280 recruits inducted into the service.
IAF has also allowed women officers to join the elite Garud commando force, provided they meet the criteria for selection. Earlier this year, a woman officer, Group Captain Shaliza Dhami, took charge of a front line IAF combat unit for the first time. Dhami, a helicopter pilot, is commanding a missile squadron near the India-Pakistan border in Punjab.
In her seven-year air force career, Singh has flown only one fighter aircraft --- the Bison, the latest MiG-21 variant. No 3 is one of the only two remaining MiG-21 Bison squadrons of IAF, which will move on to the locally produced light combat aircraft. The other squadron is in Suratgarh, also in Rajasthan.
The workplace is equal for women fighter pilots who are performing the same roles and pursuing professional growth as men, said Flight Lieutenant Pratibha Dahiya, who was posted in the squadron in February 2019. She has designed the squadron’s new patch that depicts its 82-year history and the various types of aircraft it has flown. It features a MiG-21 Bison with a cobra wrapped around it.
The fighter pilots, both men and women, in the squadron fly missions in the same formation, and regularly undertake sorties in the twin-seat MiG-21 trainer aircraft, said Group Captain Chetan Sharma, the commanding officer of the squadron. “The women fighter pilots lead the formations too. The squadron works as a team. I find no gender-related difference in performance or competence,” he said.
The aircraft doesn’t care about gender, said Wing Commander JS Sandhu, a senior pilot in the squadron. “What matters is flying skill. And every pilot in our squadron has plenty of it,” he added.
MiG-21 flying operations are in full swing at this sprawling desert fighter base. IAF is exploiting the full potential of the last of its Soviet-era interceptors before bringing the curtain down on the iconic fleet that has served India for six decades. IAF chief Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari announced on October 3 that the MiG-21 was being phased out, and the process is likely to be completed by 2025.
Every pilot in the squadron digs the MiG-21 for their own reason.
“No sortie on the MiG-21 is the same. That’s the best part. Also, when you are flying the plane, you feel one with it. There is this fascinating connect. It’s almost as if the fighter is an extension of your body. Another thing that fascinates me is that the MiG-21 has one of the highest landing speeds in the world. Almost 340 kmph. I like to brag about it sometimes,” said Singh.
For Dahiya, it is the capability of the MiG-21 to do a lot despite its conventional flying controls and relatively older design. “I am not exaggerating when I say every MiG-21 pilot has some mesmerising stories to share,” she said.
The squadron, raised in 1941, has been equipped with a variety of aircraft such as Audax, Hurricane, Spitfire, Tempest, Vampire, Ouragan and Mystere. But the Cobras have been flying only the MiG-21s since 1972.
Men or women, nostalgia abounds in the squadron as the farewell nears.
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