Chiemelie Ezeobi who had a chat with five out of the six Nigerian Air Force female pilots, an elite group which boasts of fighter, helicopter, transport and ISR aircraft pilots, writes that the Service keeps shattering the glass ceiling with its female inclusiveness in a somewhat male-dominated military
For the first time in the history of the Armed Forces, value beyond desk jobs (manning the schools and hospitals etc) have been emplaced on its female personnel, thus breaking the mould of gender discrimination. Championing this laudable feat is the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) as it has engaged its female personnel to operational and combatant roles.
Presently, NAF has six female pilots who have distinguished themselves in a field often seen as the exclusive preserve of their male counterparts. From Flight Lieutenant Blessing Liman and Flight Lieutenant Chika Ani to Flying Officer Genevieve Nwaogwugwu, Flying Officer Olubunmi Ijelu; Flying Officer Kafayat Sanni, and Flying Officer Tolulope Arotile, they play combat support roles. Unfortunately, Ani was indisposed during the interview.
These six female pilots have proven to be a new breed of high flyers whose passion push them to soar the skies in service to nation and mankind. The feat has again reinforced the fact that their dreams remain valid as they are nurtured and also harnessed for greater heights.
This year, the theme of the recently marked 2019 International Day of the Girl was “GirlForce: Unscripted and Unstoppable”. For NAF, this was quite instructive given the premium it has given to its female officers and airwomen, especially under the present leadership of the Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Marshal Sadique Abubakar.
To sum up the capabilities of these female personnel who have been tagged the Nigerian Air Force Wowen of War, the last appellation ‘WAR’ was described as ‘Willing, Able and Ready’.
Women of War
Aside those in operational areas that involves flying, NAF, which is arguably the most professional and largest air force in sub-Saharan Africa, has also placed premium on its women as was highlighted by a recent documentary produced by the Director of Public Relations (DOPRI), Air Commodore Ibikunle Daramola.
Tagged ‘Nigerian Air Force Women of War’, the documentary was a documentation of the increasing active participation of female personnel in various departments in the force. While highlighting the gender inclusiveness in NAF, it also chronicled the increasing involvement of women in combat and core support functions in the service.
While giving credit to CAS, the documentary pointed out that the this present NAF under the leadership of Abubakar has recorded more women involved in active operational areas.
Recently, NAF scored another milestone with the winging of its first female fighter and first combat helicopter pilots, Flying Officer Kafayat Sanni, and Flying Officer Tolulope Arotile respectively. That in itself is a testament to the premium the NAF under the present CAS places on the feminine gender.
THISDAY who covered the winging ceremony also had an exclusive chat with five out of the six power females.
Flight Lieutenant Blessing Liman
On what informed her to join the military and become a pilot, she said: “Ever since I have been a child, I have always aspired to be a pilot. I remember at an early age when they ask us in school what we want to become, some said they want be a doctor, engineer and all, but I said from time that I want to be a pilot.”
On how the journey has been so far she said: “I finished from the Nigerian Aviation Technology in 2011, then I join the Nigerian Air Force and it has been interesting and challenging. But I will say I am enjoying it so far. So far, I have flown over 1070 hours”.
Liman who is deployed to work at the Presidential Air Fleet also shared her experience as a female in a male-dominated field. “Again, its been interesting and challenging like every other field women venture into. It will not be easy at first but with time, things will get better. I advice other females to be their best and not think they won’t get to their destination. They should be inspired and as long as they have a dream, they should work towards it, then the sky will be their limit”, she added.
She noted that as a pilot, her aspiration is to be a good female captain, and “I will also continue to show women that they can do anything”.
Flying Officer Genevieve Nwaogwugwu
For Flying Officer Genevieve Nwaogwugwu, she enrolled into the Nigeria Air Force Academy October 8, 2011 and graduated on October 8, 2016 into NAF. According to her, after her graduation, she was first posted to 401FTS, Kaduna where she did her ground school for three months, after which she was selected to do her basic training in South Africa, which she completed on December 2017. She works at the 307 Executive Airlift Group and her posting has seen her at Maiduguri and also Katsina.
With over 650 flight hours, her love for flying started from childhood. Recalling it she said: “I have always loved to be a pilot right from childhood. I remember when I was a kid, I used to tell my dad I want to enter the aircraft and fly. So when I joined the NAF, my vision was to become a pilot. When I did the medicals and was selected, I was so happy about that”.
When asked why she chose the air force given that she can as well be a commercial pilot she said: “ I love the military because of the discipline. The way they dress and all made me choose the military. Also, my uncle inspired me a lot so I always look up to him because he is in the military as well.”
On being a female working in the military she said: “Being a female in the military I won’t say it’s easy. It’s so challenging but you just have to push yourself. You must be ready to face challenges and whatever that comes out of it. It has not really been an easy one but I have gone through it and I am what I am right now and also grateful to God. I hope to keep flying. My dream is to become a captain very soon. Maybe next year by God’s grace I should be a captain. I also want to be an instructor pilot. I will love to mentor other pilots.”
Flying Officer Olubunmi Ijelu
Although Flying Officer Oluwabunmi Ijelu’s sojourn into the military was basically her father’s idea because he is also in the military, she has always had passion for the air. According to her, she had always wanted to be a pilot, although she also aspired to be an Aeronautic Engineer.
On her experience she said: “My experience so far has been fun after I graduated from the Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA) in 2016. Then in January 14, 2017, we left for South Africa, I and Flying Officer Nwaogwugwu, to the Westley Aviation for both our Primary and Basic Training then came back December 2017. So there, after we were winged in January 2018 and then after we were posted to different units.
“I flew the Beachcraft with 307 Executive Airlift Group, thereafter we were sent to the Aviation School in Zaria to get our commercial pilot licence. In December 2018 we went to Abu Dhabi, UAE for type-rating on the aircraft and since then we have been flying. As of today, I have a total of 663 flight hours. It has been a wonderful experience especially when we are in the North-east where we have to fly at high altitude with the jets to survey the landscape and report our findings back to base. We go for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and that’s basically all we do, which makes it the fun part for us when we do the back-support.”
She also adviced young ladies to spread their wings, fly and follow the path they desire as they can do anything.
Flying Officer Kafayat Sanni
Flying Officer Kafayat Sanni recently made history as the first female fighter jet pilot in sub-Saharan Africa and also in the 55 years of existence of NAF.
Speaking with THISDAY on what inspired her to join the military she said: “Personally, I have always seen that people in the military are always being respected, and I felt I had that capabilities to dream. My father was fully in support of me, giving me all the support I needed, and my mum as well. They really supported me, and I felt there was no need to have any boundaries.
“I was an Air Force Cadet while I was in the academy, and being in the air force , they made us understand that your first priority should be to be a pilot. And that was what I went for. When we were yet cadets training in Kaduna, I was the first to solo, and I also became the best in flying during our graduation, and I think that was what prompted the Chief of the Air Staff to send me for the course I went for in the United State of America, which I really appreciate.
“My course was a specialised undergraduate pilot training, under the aviation industry programme in the United States Air Force. It’s for fighter training and I stayed in the US for a total of 18 months.”
On what really goes through her mind when she is flying and doing aerobatics she said: “What is actually going through my mind is just for all my parameters to be correct. To be sure that my airplane is still there at every point in time. Like most times, when you go solo, they expect you to do most of all the aerobatics because the aim is to give you confidence. Those aerobatics are not just for fun, they are skills that are going to be used at the war front when they are targeting you.
“You need to know how to get to them and manoeuver away from them easily. Those are actually the reason why aerobatics are involved in our training. Although I have not gone to the war front yet, but I am very ready. Once I am done with my training, off I go. I am still undergoing another training here in Kanji, Niger State, Nigeria where I am doing my conversion”.
On how it feels to be the first female fighter jet flyer she said: “Of course it wasn’t planned at any point of my life until, recently when it dawned on me. It is overwhelming, but I think it is a lot of responsibility on my shoulders going to a place almost 100 per cent male dominated. So I am not going there to perform any magic but to do the same thing that they have been doing. It’s just that, I am a female, but I don’t think that should cause any changes or difference. Because, no one knows who is in the aircraft. They are only seeing the aircraft. No one knows if it is a male or female that is flying it.
“My advice for young females is for them not to say no to opportunities, never to look down on themselves. They should never think that there is something that they can’t do, but always try to give their best. Because one of the things I want to become is an instructor pilot. I would definitely love to train female young pilots.”
Flying Officer Tolulope Arotile
For Arotile, she also made history as the first female helicopter pilot. At 22, Arotile graduated as the best flight student from the NAF Academy, which qualified her for the helicopter training she received in South Africa. For one who has always been passionate about the military, she went to the Air Force Primary and Secondary Schools in Kaduna, where she grew a strong interest for flying.
She said: “Throughout my training I have always looked towards flying. So, in the fifth year during our training we were selected for the Basic Flying Training, we were five cadets at the Nigerian Air Force Base Kaduna. So, we started flying there, after we completed the ab-intio flying course in 2016/2017, then after a year I proceeded to South Africa for training. The journey has been very interesting and nice.
“Now, I have about 460 hours of flight within 14 months with the helicopter and the major thing I have come to realise in my field is that there is just no break in my career, you just have to keep pushing and doing your best. My advice to younger ones out there is that they should keep doing their best, they should keep running the race until they finish and they should not set limit for themselves because the only limit they have is the one they set for themselves.”
It would therefore be stating the obvious that these crop of females have made the CAS proud. Known for his giant strides in the NAF, ranging from trainings to acquisition, Research and Development, welfare and curbing capital flight through domestication, the CAS, Air Marshal Sadique Abubakar’s push to groom female pilots has drawn accolades from all quarters, thus earning him the sobriquet ‘champion of gender inclusiveness’.
At the recent winging of Sanni and Arotile he said: “Today indeed marks another milestone in the history of the NAF and I am gratified to be part of it. I am particularly happy because out of the 13 pilots to be winged are two female Regular Combatant officers. Not only because they are female officers, but they are also outstanding aviators. While one of the two pilots is the first female fighter pilot in the 55 years history of the NAF, the second one is the first female combat helicopter pilot in the history of the service.
“The first female fighter pilot trained at the United States Air Force following an excellent performance during her initial flying training course at 401 Flying Training School in Kaduna, while the second graduated from Starlite International Training Academy. They both performed excellently well during their training.”
Also lauding the feat by the airforce, the Minister of Women Affairs and Social Development, Mrs Dame Pauline Tallen, who was the special guest of honour at the winging of Sanni and Bello expressed happiness at the history made by the winging of the female pilots.
She said: “I am particularly happy that history is being made here with the winging of the first ever female fighter pilot as well as the first ever female combat helicopter pilot produced by the Nigerian Air Force. It attests to the laudable achievements and transformation taking place in the Nigerian Air Force.
“ It also portrays the Nigerian Air Force positively as it has shown that it is an equal opportunity establishment that encourages all its personnel to achieve excellence in their career. It is obvious that the chief of air staff is providing the right leadership and guidance to ensure the realisation of the primary key driver of his vision, which is hinged on human capacity development. We are indeed proud of the milestones reached by the NAF and the achievements of the Chief of the Air Staff.”
Also shedding more light on the feat of female pilots, the DOPRI in an exclusive interview with THISDAY said: “In the Nigerian Air Force, there is no discrimination in terms of gender. What is emphasised is your capacity; what you can bring to the table, and how you are able to perform professionally.
“And so, a level playing field is created for whatever speciality. Especially, since female officers are now admitted into the Nigerian Defence Academy, they become a regular officers. So, there is nothing stopping them from aspiring to any level or height in the NAF and that means, joining any speciality. For instance, we have female regiment personnel and we have special forces officers in the NAF.
“And of course, let’s not talk about other specialities like engineering, armament and others. But maybe the combat arm in terms of operational flying, you will now begin to see a gradual inflow of female officers. And for the regiment, it’s for both officers and the airwomen. For the pilots, before now we had female pilots who flew transport and ISR aircraft, but this the first time we are having female pilots trained to fly NAF aircraft to attack enemy targets. She is now being converted on the Alpha Jet to conduct attack missions.
“Same thing with the helicopter pilot (Arotile), it is the first time we are having a female helicopter pilot in the NAF, who will now fly combat missions with an attack helicopter. What she just needs to do now is to gain a number of flight hours and additional combat training. It is the same thing that Sanni is doing in Kanji; converting the Alpha Jet”
At the end of the exclusive chat, it became obvious that if these female warriors, who have given their all – youth, intellect, passion, dedication and selflessness, in the service of the nation, do not make you proud of the Armed Forces, I don’t know what else will.