Bhawana Kanth is one of three of India’s first women fighter pilots. Photo: Twitter/IndianAirForce
This year’s Republic Day parade at Rajpath, Delhi comes with a slew of coronavirus-induced restrictions: no kids and no more than 25,000 in attendance (it’s usually over a lakh), smaller contingents, shorter parades. There’s one shining light that will make R-Day 2021 truly memorable: for the first time, a woman fighter pilot will be part of the Indian Air Force’s tableau in the annual show of India’s military strength and cultural diversity.
On 22 May 2019, Flight Lieutenant Bhawana Kanth became the first female fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force (IAF) to qualify for day-time combat missions on a fighter aircraft. On 26 January 2021, the 28-year-old will take part in the IAF’s mock-ups of light combat aircraft, light combat helicopter and the Sukhoi-30 fighter jet.
Kanth is from Baur village and grew up in Refinery Township in Begusarai, Bihar, notes The Indian Express. She graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering (Medical Electronics) from Bengaluru’s BMS College of Engineering in 2014, and joined Tata Consultancy Services before applying to the IAF. Her father, an electrical engineer, told The Indian Express that Kanth had been interested in flying even as a schoolgirl, and was inspired by their neighbour, Manas Bihari Verma, an aeronautical scientist who helped develop the light combat aircraft Tejas.
Being a fighter pilot wasn’t even a viable profession when Kanth was growing up. In 1999, Flight Lieutenants Gunjan Saxena and Srividya Rajan became the first Indian women to fly Cheetah helicopters for the IAF in a combat zone, during the Kargil war.
Kanth joined the first batch of women fighter pilots in the IAF in November 2017, and clocked the second solo flight by a female pilot on a MiG-21 Bison in March 2018. Along with Kanth, Mohana Singh and Avani Chaturvedi (who completed the first solo fighter aircraft flight) were inducted into the academy in January 2015. In October 2015, the IAF opened the fighter pilot stream to women, and the three pilots became the first women to join the IAF fighter squadron in June 2016. Kanth is posted at an airbase in Rajasthan.
“It is not the right time for it now, it has always been the right time for women to become fighter pilots.” Kanth said in a 2016 interview with NDTV, “I am only grateful that it at least happened now. All three women fighter pilots received the government’s Nari Shakti Puraskar in March 2020.