It was on Oct 8, 1932, that the Indian Air Force was founded. Since then, it has been part of several landmark missions that have helped to cement India’s reputation as a military power. The IAF was also India’s first defence service to induct women in combat roles.
Women in the force have been assigned tasks that require them to take some of the world’s most advanced aircraft to the skies in difficult conditions. One among this elite list is Flight Lieutenant Shivangi Singh, the IAF’s first woman Rafale pilot. Flt Lt Singh is someone who handles one of the most significant weapons in the IAF arsenal as part of a mostly male squadron. Shivangi had her maternal grandfather, a retired colonel, to back her dream of touching the skies.
As a kid, she would spend hours at the Air Force Museum, fascinated with those flying machines and aiming to take them to the skies one day. Eventually, she joined the IAF in 2017.
“Ever since I learned about the air force, I wanted only one thing – to become a fighter pilot,” she confesses. The 27-year-old officer from Varanasi is a passionate basketball player and javelin thrower who represented the state, Uttar Pradesh, in many competitions before joining the IAF.
Daughter of a businessman, she attracted the spotlight when she became part of the IAF tableau at this year’s Republic Day parade, only the second woman fighter pilot to get the honour. It was in September 2020 that the world had learnt that an Indian officer would be the first woman to fly the Rafale. Then Flying Officer Shivangi Singh had been training for the role ever since the fifth-generation fighters began arriving on India in July 2020 at the Ambala air force station.
From flying the MiG-21, a small delta-wing, single-seat aircraft used as a specialised daylight interceptor, to undergoing rigorous training on the Rafale, Flt Lt Singh has come a long way. She is now part of the 17 Squadron, Golden Arrows, in Ambala.
About the challenges of flying two very different combat planes, she says, “The MiG-21 needs good piloting skills while the Rafale is a more technology-intensive aircraft. Both have their challenges, but as a pilot, I love both equally.”
Flt Lt Singh has flown the MiG-21 alongside one of India’s best-known fighter pilots, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who shot down a Pakistani F-16 on Feb 27, 2019.
While the debate about equal opportunities for women rages in the world, Flt Lt Singh, a woman in the largely male world of the armed forces, insists she has faced no discrimination and gender lines are blurred now.
“The idea of assigning roles and tasks based on gender appears to have been left behind,” she says. “Equal opportunity is the new normal.”
She insists she has never been trained or treated differently from her male counterparts. “The only thing I know is that I must be a good professional who will continue to give of my best. I am fortunate to be in an institution where gender is just a matter of detail.”
Although Shivangi Singh has had her moments to cheer, from her induction into the IAF to flying the MiG-21 and now being the first woman to pilot the Rafale, her most cherished memory is from the Republic Day parade this year. “It was a proud moment,” she recalls.
“The most remarkable thing was a kid indicating that he will be in my place soon. The excitement on his face had to be seen,” she added.
She also has an empowering message for girls. “I would love to see many girls join the defence forces. It is important for women to believe in themselves and work hard towards their dreams.”
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