• Abhilasha Iyer

Breaking the Sky-High Glass Ceiling: Women in the Indian Air Force

By Neeru Nagarajan


13% of the Indian Air Force is made up of women, the largest percentage of women among all the armed forces in India. However, women weren’t always given the same opportunities as men.




Source : India's first batch of Women Fighter Pilots


2020 has been a momentous year for women in the Indian armed forces. For the first time, women in the Indian Army won the battle for Permanent Commission — a career in the Army until retirement. Until earlier this year, women were only recruited under the Short Service Commission.


But the Indian Air Force (IAF) has been ahead in this game: This year marks a whole decade since women officers in the Air Force were granted Permanent Commission.


Women fighters have had to prove themselves over and over again to get where they are now in the IAF. Today, let’s celebrate the Indian Airforce Day recalling some of the historic moments in which our women pilots reached new heights — both figuratively and literally!


Brief history of the Indian Air Force


The IAF was established under British Raj in 1932 and played a definitive role in World War II.

After the Independence, the IAF’s mission was clearly laid out in the Constitution as well as in the Air Force Act (1950). Safeguarding the Indian airspace was IAF’s primary responsibility. Apart from that, the IAF also works closely with the Army and in general, the whole country, with its strategic and tactical airlift capabilities. This includes rapid response evacuation, search-and-rescue operations, and delivery of relief supplies to areas ravaged by disasters.


Women in the IAF



Women make up 13% of the IAF’s workforce. They started out primarily in support roles. Interestingly enough, all the nursing officers in the IAF are women. Women make up 21.63% and 20.75% of medical and dental staff in the armed forces.


It wasn’t until 1991 that women were inducted to fly aircrafts. Even then, they didn’t join the ranks of fighter pilots; they were recruited only to fly helicopters and transport aircraft to conduct non-combat missions.


2015 was the first year when women pilots were recruited for frontline combat roles and fly fighter aircrafts, paving the way for many women officers who aspire to defend the country.

Here are some important women and their milestone achievements in the history of the IAF.


Kanta Handa


Flight Lieutenant Kanta Handa was the first medical officer in the IAF to receive a commendation for her service in the Indo-Pakistan War in 1965.


Dr. Padmavathy Bandhopadhyay



Source: Dr. Bandhopadhyay, a woman of many firsts


Dr. Bandhopadhyay is a woman who broke many barriers. Not only was she the first Indian Air Marshal in 2002, she was also the first armed personnel to receive a Padma Shri, India’s highest civilian honour. She was only the second Indian woman in the armed forces to be promoted to a three-star rank and win several prestigious honours, including the Param Vishist Seva Medal.


Gunjan Saxena


Source : Gunjan Saxena sitting shoulder to shoulder with the men, defying gender stereotypes


You’ve probably seen the 2020 Bollywood flick, Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, based on the life of a heroic pilot who flew into combat zones during the Kargil War. In 1999, the real person behind the movie character, Flight Lieutenant Gunjan Saxena flew a helicopter to rescue wounded soldiers and for reconnaissance missions.



Avani Chaturvedi, Bhawana Kanth, and Mohana Singh


In 2018, Flight Lieutenant Avani Chaturvedi became the first woman pilot to complete a solo flight in a fighter aircraft. Bhawana Kanth and Mohana Singh joined her in flying fighter airplanes. In addition, Kanth was the first woman to qualify for combat missions in a fighter jet in 2019.


To mark International Women’s Day in 2020, all three women were awarded the Nari Shakti Puraskar by the President of India, Ram Nath Kovind.




Source: Avani Chaturvedi , Mohana Singh, Bhawana Kanth, and , the first women fighter pilots.


“The aircraft is a machine—it does not know if the person controlling it is a woman or a man. Be it a woman or a man, they have to be equally competent and equally professional to fly that aircraft to its limit.” — Avani Chaturvedi


The future of women pilots in India


Source : Sarla Thakral, the first Indian woman to fly an aircraft


Since the first Indian woman to fly a plane even before World War II, India has come a long way. Apart from women making history in the IAF, India also has the largest percentage (12.4%) of women airline pilots in the world — and that is more than twice the global average (5.4%).

When it comes to Indian women soaring to new heights, the future is already here!

Here’s wishing every Indian girl (and boy) the ambition to reach new heights on this Indian Airforce Day. Onward and upward!


About the author

About the Author


A recent MFA Creative Writing graduate, Neeru Nagarajan writes fiction, tech stuff, the occasional poetry, and lengthy Twitter threads (@poonaikaari). She loves cats and reality TV surrounding food.