Balakot air strike: Were there female IAF pilots?
The news turned out to be false. There were no women pilots among the IAF squad sent to bomb Balakot. But why not?
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Were there female pilots among the 12 Mirage 2000 aircrafts that flew into Pakistan, executing what we now know as a surgical strike part 2 on 26 February, 2019, in the aftermath of the Pulwama attacks?
A photograph going viral on the Internet claims so.
However, a bit of research and some fact checking later, it can be confirmed that there were, in fact, no female pilots on the surgical strike team.
If the news of the capture of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman of the Indian Air Force was not enough to make our hearts stop for a second, this fake news, propagated by what can only be termed as frisky elements, is the pits.
The photograph, that shows a woman pilot in uniform, holding her helmet in one hand, is captioned as, "आज हुए स्ट्राइक में हीसा लेने वाली १ मात्र महिला चालक १ बार जय हिंद ज़रूर लीखे (The one and only woman pilot who participated in the surgical strike. Comment 'Jai Hind' below)"
No, this forward isn't real. (Source: Facebook screenshot)
Given the power of social media, and the nation's collective mood, the photograph was shared several times, without so much as cross checking if it was at all true.
Turns out the woman in the photograph is Flying Officer Avani Chaturvedi. And no, she wasn't creating history on the surgical strike team. She, in fact, had already created history last year.
Avani became the first woman fighter pilot to fly solo last year after she flew a MiG-21. She, along with two of her cohort, Mohana Singh and Bhawana Kanth, were inducted into the Indian Air Force fighter squadron in June 2016. Once she completes stage III training, she will be able to fly fighter jets like the Sukhoi and Tejas.
This lone photograph isn't even the only fake news doing the rounds on social media.
Another social media forward, particularly circulated on WhatsApp, claims that Surat-based Urvashi Jariwala led the IAF team of 12 Mirage 2000 aircraft that carried out the multiple air strikes in Balakot, dropping 1,000 kg bombs, on 26 February, reportedly eliminating several Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) training camps.
And neither was this forward. (Source: Facebook screenshot)
But a fact check reveals that the woman in the picture is actually Squadron Leader Sneha Shekhawat, the first woman to lead an IAF marching contingent at the Republic Day Parade in 2012.
Yet, for the most part, as we tracked this fake news, we were hoping this turns out to be true.
After all, it's been 70 years since India became independent. We have women taking charge in every field — from saving lives as doctors to fighting crime as cops. Isn't it time that we have women leading IAF teams into battle?
Yes, most certainly it is.
What this news, albeit fake, does is only inspire us to work towards making this a reality. It only pushes women that much closer to breaking barriers and ceilings that stop them from flying. So that, the next time our phones buzz with such a forward, we are not forced to question its authenticity and fact-check. So that we can proudly say, "Yes, of course. But why not?"