Pakistani air force women pilots
The Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) made headlines recently by commissioning two women pilots to fly military aircraft – a first in the island. The SLAF was the country’s first service arm to induct women into its ranks when in 1972 it recruited women into its volunteer force. It took almost another half a century before it allowed women to fly.In the meantime, several countries in the Asia-Mideast region are ahead of us in this regard. While the SLAF’s pioneer women pilots are flying transport planes, India, Pakistan, China, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, the Philippines, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey have female fighter pilots flying updated variants of the MiG-21 as well as F-15, F-16. Mirage 2000 and other advanced interceptors. Bangladeshi women piloting M-17 transport helicopters have taken part in peacekeeping missions abroad.
Even Afghanistan said to be the worst country in the world to be a woman, has a batch of female military pilots training in the Czech Republic. Capt. Niloofer Rahmani is the first woman pilot in the fledgeling Afghan air force. She graduated in 2013, qualified to fly a Cessna C208 Caravan single-engine utility plane for the Kabul Air Wing. Despite being banned from casualty evacuation flights due to her gender, she became a media star after defying orders to medically evacuate injured soldiers from a combat zone.
Capt. Niloofer Rahmani, Afghan air force
But she and family members came under death threats from the Taleban. Sent to the US for advanced training, she asked for political asylum and got it in 2018. She hopes to join the US air force and claimed she was harassed by male air force colleagues. The Afghan authorities have accused her of lying.
The Indian Netflix movie ‘Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl’ based on the now-retired helicopter pilot by that name who flew rescue missions during the Kargil War of 1999, highlights the obstacles women face in what is still very much a man’s world.
"She graduated in 2013, qualified to fly a Cessna C208 Caravan single-engine utility plane for the Kabul Air Wing. Despite being banned from casualty evacuation flights due to her gender, she became a media star after defying orders to medically evacuate injured soldiers from a combat zone"
She flew an Indian-made Cheetah helicopter, identical to the French LAMA SA315B. But the movie became controversial for its depiction of gender bias in the Indian Air Force (IAF). Saxena had to present an affidavit at the Delhi Supreme Court denying that she was ever a victim of such bias, and stating her gratitude to the IAF for the opportunities it had given her in life.
Avani Chaturvedi, Indian Air Force
Movies, not even biopics, represent real life. Even if the movie had overstated the male chauvinism part, to deny that such gender bias exists in the military would be unreal.
Women make up just 2.5 per cent of the more than 1.4 million active-duty personnel of the Indian armed forces. In February 2016 Pres. Pranab Mukherjee ostensibly opened all combat positions to women in a bid to improve female recruitment. In practice, service on tanks, submarines and other combat arms remains closed to Indian women— though flying combat aircraft is now possible.
In June 2016, the IAF commissioned its first three female fighter pilots -- Avani Chaturvedi, Bhawana Kanth and Mohana Singh. Reportedly, because the IAF worried that pregnancy might interfere with the expense invested in training the pilots, it made the women agree not to bear children for the next four years. Early in 2018, 24-year-old Avani Chaturvedi became the first Indian woman qualified for solo flights in the IAF’s workhorse MiG-21 Bison interceptor, an upgrade of the Vietnam War era Soviet fighter with a Kopyon engagement radar and a helmet-mounted sight allowing it to employ modern R-77 and R-73 air-to-air missiles.
The IAF has at least 100 women pilots flying transport and other types of aircraft. It considers the female fighter pilot program to be “experimental” and will evaluate its success in 2020.
As for India’s neighbour and arch-rival Pakistan, women weren’t allowed into the Pakistani air force except as nurses till the 1990s until the late President Benazir Bhutto decided on a policy change. Even in 2013, there were just 4000 women in Pakistan’s armed forces, with 300 in the air force. But these included 20 women pilots, with the first batch taken in 2013.
Out of the 20, five are combat pilots. Some of them wear hijabs under their helmets, others do not. Flight Lt. Ayesha Farooq carried out a bombing raid against the Taleban in Waziristan. She flew a Chengdu J-7, The Chinese version of the MiG-21.
If this generation of Indian and Pakistani women fighter pilots ever go up against each other in a future war, they would be pretty evenly matched as far as their aircraft are concerned. Pakistan too has upgraded this agile but ageing aircraft, in this case with an Italian Grifo fire-control radar, GPS navigation, an extra cannon and an improved radar warning receiver.
"Even Afghanistan said to be the worst country in the world to be a woman, has a batch of female military pilots training in the Czech Republic. Capt. Niloofer Rahmani is the first woman pilot in the fledgeling Afghan air force"
Bangladesh inducted its first two female helicopter pilots in 2014. Flight Lieutenants Nayma Haque and Tamanna-E-Lufti have taken part in a peacekeeping mission to the Congo, flying Mi-17 and Mi-171 transport helicopters.
Female combat pilots are rare among the former-Soviet states in Central Asia. One exception is Lt. Ardan Botay, who has flown Antonov An-26 transports since 2010 for the Kazakh air force. In 2018, she was qualified to fly the L-39 trainer.
China allowed women to fly military aircraft long before any other Asian country – way back in 1952, when the
Chinese women combat pilots
People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) graduated its first class of 55 female flight crew, including 17 pilots as well as flight engineers and navigators. This is ahead of the US, which opened pilot training to women in the mid-1970s, and inaugurated its first female combat pilots in 1993.
This group performed an aerial fly-by of Tiananmen Square before
chairman Mao Tsetung in six Li-2 transporters, Russian-built copies of the American C-47. When China detonated its first atomic bomb on Oct. 16, 1964, a Li-2 piloted by Fu Lan and other women pilots flew through the mushroom cloud twice to collect air samples. Otherwise, they were limited to flying charter flights and disaster relief missions.
Despite this early start, by 1987 the Chinese air force had only trained 208 female flight crew, all for non-combat aircraft. In 2005, the PLAAF finally began to train female combat pilots (behind India and Pakistan), selecting 35 candidates out of 200,000 applicants. Sixteen made it through the four-year training program involving 116 different tests. The graduates included one member of the Hui minority.
Six women from this group went on to fly JH-7 (MiG 21) fighter-bombers, and another four underwent an additional year of training to fly Z-9 utility and attack helicopters.
Four pilots — Yu Xu, Sheng Yifei, He Xiaoli and Tao Jiali — trained on J-7 fighters before transitioning to China’s most advanced jet fighter, the Chengdu J-10 which resembles the F-16 Fighting Falcon.
One PLAAF woman pilot, Yue Xicui, now holds the rank of major general.
Taiwan’s air force graduated its first five women pilots in 1993. They are qualified to fly F-5 Freedom Fighters and the French Mirage 2000, while others have served in maritime patrol and transport units, including Lt. Col. Chen Yueh-Fang, commander of the 439th Wing of C-130 Hercules transports.
Singapore, too, has two women pilots to flying F-15SG and F-16 fighters, along with the Philippines which recently inducted an unspecified number of women to be trained as military pilots, including Monessa Balzhiser flying the Fighting Falcon.
Japan’s military has played a low-key, self-defence role since World War II. But the Japanese air self-defence force now has one woman pilot, Misa Matsushima, flying the F-15 after Prime Minister Shintaro Abe’s government decided to allow women to fly combat aircraft as a way of creating job opportunities.
After Turkey’s air force opened its doors to women pilots in 1992,
several dozen women are flying F-16 interceptors. The Turkish Stars aerobatics team is commanded by Maj. Ezra Ozatay. Interestingly, Turkey may have produced the world’s first female combat pilot. Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk adopted a 12-year-old girl called Sabiha Gökçen. As an adult, she joined Turkey’s 1st air regiment and flew bombing missions against Kurdish rebels in 1937.
The United Arab Emirates surprised the world by allowing F16 pilot Maj. (now Lt. Col.) Mariam Al Mansouri to lead bombing raids against the Isis in Iraq and Syria. She became a star on Twitter, but Fox News referred to her disparagingly as ‘boobs on the ground,’ and she was disowned by sections of the extended Al Mansouri family.
It is hoped that Sri Lanka too, will have women fighter pilots before long. While there is no wish to go to war with anyone, it is hoped too, that any enemy they may have to engage in future will be external rather than a section of our people. Let’s hope too, that the next intake of women combat pilots will be multi-ethnic, reflecting our complex and attractive ethnocultural heritage.