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

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

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.

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