SUJAN DUTTA, Telegraph India, Saturday, March 11, 2006
Lately in Bangalore, Yelahanka and Dundigal: Women in the Indian Air Force have created a gender issue for the government with nearly half the girls in training performing consistently better than the men but still being barred from flying combat aircraft.
Fifteen years after women were first drafted into the force, the government policy reserving fighter aircraft cockpits only for men is being tested. Commandants of training schools, instructors and doctors of the IAF are saying the policy is grossly unfair. The policy is driven by archaic cultural sensitivities instead of military appreciation, they allege.
They also say that most women walking into IAF training schools want to be fighter pilots.
There are 1.1 lakh personnel in the air force of whom only 700 are women.
The loudest signal of the push for policy change — two years after Kalpana Chawla of Indian origin flew and died in a space shuttle — comes from the Institute of Aerospace Medicine in Bangalore where medical researchers are ready to test select women pilots on the human centrifuge, a machine embedded on the ground with a long arm at the end of which is a cabin.
The arm rotates with a rookie pilot in the cabin at speeds at which fighter aircraft fly. Every wannabe fighter pilot must go through the test.
The chief researcher at the institute, Group Captain V.N. Jha, recalls that Rajiv Gandhi was keen that women should be in the IAF and hoped they would also be fighter aircraft pilots.
In an irony of sorts, the policy change impetus is coming from the Bangalore-headquartered training command of the IAF in whose backyard the first woman in the armed forces to be court martialled and dismissed, Anjali Gupta, lived and worked. She trained in the same institutions that are readying to put women in fighter aircraft cockpits.
“We have not been asked and the government’s policy is that only men can qualify to fly fighter aircraft. But if you are asking if the women are capable, the answer is yes,” says the chief of the training command, Air Marshal B.N. Gokhale.
But just how capable the women are proving to be unfolds slowly in the transport aircraft training establishment at Yelahanka, near Bangalore, and in the Air Force Academy in Dundigal, near Hyderabad.
This is not easily revealed because senior air force officers do not want to be seen or heard saying anything contrary to the stated policy. They admit that the policy change involves issues of culture and social custom rather than ability.
“Oh yes,” asserts Group Captain Chetan Bali, an IAF ace with more than 5,300 hours of flying fighter aircraft. Bali monitors flight cadets more closely than anyone at air headquarters in Delhi because he heads the faculty of flying at the Air Force Academy in Dundigal.
“I would recommend that women are put into fighter cockpits on the basis of performance,” he says.
After a year’s training on the rudimentary HPT-32 aircraft, flying trainees — both men and women — at the academy appear before a selection committee that decides who goes to fighter aircraft squadrons and who goes to the transports and helicopters.
There is a “trifurcation” board for men and a “bifurcation” board for the women because they can go only to transporters and choppers.
To be selected for the fighter aircraft, the men have to score 6 out of 10 in each subject besides completing the “solo spin” in the HPT-32, in which the aircraft is deliberately thrown out of control in mid-flight and then recovered.
Bali says it pains him that in every batch, there are women who do not make it to fighter aircraft despite being six pointers. They go on to fly AN-32 transport aircraft or helicopters like the Cheetah, Chetak and Mi-17.
“There is much more involved here,” he reasons. “By the time a fighter pilot is fully operational he could be about 27 years of age. And guess what is on the minds of parents of girls who are 27 years of age? When will they marry, settle down and have children. Guess what, I have a daughter and there will come a time when I will ask the same question of her.”
The head of the academy, Air Vice-Marshal Dhiraj Kukreja, an AN-32 pilot himself, concurs. “We have a girl in the academy football team that represents us in the Bakshi Cup tournament. In the interim flying training plan, we are authorised to take 15 women but more may be taken on the basis of performance.”
It is not necessary that the best pilots go into the fighter aircraft stream but they have the option. Women who have gone into transporters — and the Yelahanka base bears this out — are also besting the men. In its last batch of pilots trained for the An-32s, the topper was Simran Kaur Bhasin who would have made it to fighter grade if allowed by policy.
Now, Flying Officer Bhasin is posted with a transport squadron based in Jorhat, Assam.
Bhasin is married to Flying Office U.P. Singh who topped the batch — she stood second — when they were commissioned. But at Yelahanka, she beat him to the rank. Her husband, too, is based in Jorhat with a different squadron.
An unspoken dread for women in fighter cockpits is of course the unpredictability of combat situations. The scenario that is illustrated is from the Kargil war when an IAF pilot bailed out in Pakistani territory.
What might become of a woman pilot if she has to bail out in enemy territory? This is a question that women pilots in the Soviet air force in World War II also grappled with. By mutual consent they agreed not to wear parachutes and that they would shoot themselves if they were in danger of falling into enemy hands.