High Flyers: Women in Aviation

Last week was Sankranti and all eyes were turned to the skies as the colourful kites soared and dipped, drifted and sailed with the breeze. Also in the sky were the avian kites, riding the thermals. From time immemorial, humans have gazed up and dreamed of soaring the skies too. The same week there was a news item about a young Belgian-British teenager who flew her single-seater Shark ultralight plane around the world in 150 days. 19 year old Zara Rutherford thus became the youngest woman to circumnavigate the world solo. One of the objectives of her mission, she says was to infuse young women and girls worldwide with the spirit of aviation. 

In the day and age when women are soaring high in all spheres, it is interesting that she feels that more women need to take to the skies. And even more interesting that India has a fair share of women, who have made their dreams of flying come true, not only today, but almost hundred years ago.

Google Doodle honouring Sarla Thukral on her 107th birthday on 8 August 2021

Sarla Thukral was the first Indian woman to fly an aircraft. Born in 1914 in Delhi, she later moved to Lahore, in what was then British India. At the age of 16 she married an airmail pilot PD Sharma who came from a family of fliers. The young bride was also smitten by the aviation bug, and encouraged by her husband, she started flying lessons. Having completed 1000 hours of flying time she earned her flying license, and did her first solo flight in a Gypsy Moth, a small, double winged plane at the age of 21, dressed in a sari. She was preparing to become a commercial pilot but the Second World War broke out, and civil aviation training was suspended. Tragically, around the same time she also lost her husband in an air crash. Sarla was grounded, but not her creativity. She took up with equal passion her love for the arts. She started studying fine arts and painting at Lahore’s Mayo School of Arts. She returned to Delhi after Partition, where she continued to paint. She married RP Thakral in 1948. She also started designing jewellery and clothes and set up a successful business which she ran till she passed away in 2008.

Sarla—high flier, in the sky and on the ground! And an inspiration for many young girls in India who have over the years taken to the skies.

One of the concerns expressed by young Zara is that there is still a big gender gap in the field of aviation in many western countries. Globally, according to the International Society of Women Airline Pilots, around 5 percent of pilots are women. In India, the share of women pilots is significantly higher – at over 15 percent, more than twice as high as in most Western countries, including the United States and Australia. According to one report India has a total of 17,726 registered pilots out of which the number of women pilots is 2,764.

We have, in the last few years, always experienced a surge of pride when we hear a woman’s voice introducing herself as the pilot on a commercial flight. Even more uplifting is the increasing number of women who are flying shoulder-to-shoulder with men in the armed forces.

Women pilots have been flying transport aircraft and helicopters in the three Forces for a long time. As far back as 1994, when many people had reservations about allowing women pilots in the Indian Air Force, Gunjan Saxena, along with Srividya Rajan, defied convention, and took up the challenge; they were two of the 25 young women to form the first batch of women IAF trainee pilots. The Kargil War of 1999 was a real test of the true grit of these women. They fearlessly flew helicopters in the combat zone, and into hostile territory to drop supplies, evacuate injured soldiers and spy on enemy positions. Gunjan and Srividya’s contribution in this critical war effort was highly commended, and an inspiration for many young women who dreamed of a career in uniform.

In October 2015, the Indian Air Force opened the fighter pilot stream to women. The first three female pilots to be inducted in the fighter squadron in June 2016 were Avani Chaturvedi, Bhawana Kanth and Mohana Singh.  These young women, were fuelled by the sense of adventure as well as the spark of contributing to the defence of our country.

Today the Indian Air Force has 111 women pilots who fly transport planes and choppers, and 10 women fighter pilots.

As Bhawana Kanth said “It is not the right time for it now, it has always been the right time for women to become fighter pilots.”

Last year Flight Lieutenant Bhawana Kanth on 26 January 2021, became the first woman fighter pilot to be take part in the Indian Air Force’s (IAF’s) tableau at the Republic Day parade at Delhi’s Rajpath.

This year, as we mark the many strides forward that our Republic has made, and salute with pride the accomplishments of its citizens, let us put our hands together for all the young women who dare to dream, and who make their dreams come true. Soar high, sisters and daughters, and may even the skies not be your limit.

–Mamata

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