Navy’s first women combatants to take to the skies; Sub-Lieutenants Ambica Hooda and Seema Rani Sharma set to create history

Putting an end to debates over the induction of women into combat roles in the Armed Forces, the Navy on Friday will script history when it enlists two women officers as observers on board its fleet of maritime patrol aircraft (MPA).

With the coveted ‘wings’ conferred on them at a passing-out ceremony here, Sub-Lieutenants Ambica Hooda and Seema Rani Sharma, both 22, will become the first women airborne tacticians of the Navy, which has taken the lead in according equal opportunities by starting entry for women in the observer cadre as Short Service Commissioned Officers.

“Having commendably completed their training, the officers will now be posted to the Dornier maritime reconnaissance squadrons as Electronic Warfare Sensor Officers. And, on a maritime patrol aircraft, observers carry out operation of radar, electronic sensor systems, electronic warfare systems, anti-submarine warfare systems, maritime air operations for independent search and tracking, coordination with the Air Force, and the like,” said Commander P.V.G.K. Nambiar, Officer-in-Charge of the Observer School in INS Garuda, who has overseen the 27-week flying training taken by the women officers, part of a mixed batch of four.

“Their training on the avionics fitted on the Dorniers will stand them in good stead when they get converted to the IL-38 and the TU-142 at a later stage, where they will be required to carry out tactical operation of weapons,” said Commander Sridhar Warrier, Chief Instructor of the Observer School.

The training lasted 16 months, starting with a six-month orientation course at the Naval Academy. The officers also got attached to professional schools INS Shivaji in Lonavla, INS Hamla in Mumbai, and INS Satavahana in Visakhapatnam prior to their final training at the Observer School.

“During the course, we flew 17 sorties, each of three-hour duration,” Sub-Lt. Seema, hailing from Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh, told The Hindu. Her father served in the Navy and her brothers are currently doing so. “I am feeling proud that I’ve set the course for young women to follow,” she said of her choice.

Sub-Lt. Ambica, from Rohtak in Haryana, didn’t have a clue when she filled up the application form after graduation that she would go down in history as one of the first two women combatants in the Navy. Her father served in the Army, but an uncle in the Navy encouraged her to strive for a different role. Still excited about their first Dornier sortie, she says a gender-sensitive infrastructure had already fallen in place when their training commenced. “I am ready to handle any role I am asked to perform,” she said.

On Monday, the duo flew their 18th sortie under the watchful eyes of a Qualified Navigation Instructor from the Aircats (Aircrew Categorisation and Standardisation Board), the nodal agency in naval aviation to test the degree of professionalism of the air crew.

As Sub-Lts. Seema and Ambica emerged from the aircraft after their three-and-a-half hour standardisation procedure, during which they flew over the southern peninsula, a delighted Commander Satish Kumar, their Aircats examiner, told The Hindu: “They were supposed to take the aircraft from point A to point B and were expected to fix its position at any point in time. They did way above average.”

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