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Indian Women in Aviation

Kalpana Chawla with the US space team

A high-risk adventurous career has always attracted the young, but it was never thought of as either a hobby or a full-time career for women. But times have changed. The first ever women officers were commissioned into the Administrative and Education branches of the Indian Air Force on 12 Jun 93 and the first ever woman pilots on 17 Dec 94.

Way back in the 1930s, Mrs Urmila K. Parikh opted for the adventurous career of becoming a pilot. She was the first Indian woman to obtain a pilot's licence. After Independence, many more women turned towards aviation. A few names that stand out are:

Prem Mathur, who became the first commercial pilot to fly domestic airlines in 1947.
Durba Banerjee, who became the first pilot of Indian Airlines in 1956.
Saudamini Deshmukh, who was the first lady captain in the world to fly an all-women crew IATA schedule flight on Nov 27, 1985.
Simran Sondhi and Cheryl Dutta, IAF flight cadets who flew a helicopter with an all-women crew for the first time.
Kalpana Chawla, who became the first Indian born woman astronaut in 1997.
Padmavathy Bandopadhyay, was the first woman officer of the IAF to be promoted to the rank of Air Vice Marshal in 2002.

Indian Women in Aviation was the highlight of the philatelic release in 1998. The stamp was brought out to commemorate the contribution of Indian women in the realm of aviation. The stamp does not feature these high profile women pilots, but the concept by designer J.P. Irani has symbolically presented young women as commercial pilot, flier of IAF planes, and as an astronaut.

When flying officers Gunjan Saxena and Srividya Rajan flew into the Kargil combat zone in 1999 it was a sign that women were finally breaking into the male bastion. In less than a decade since the armed forces opened their doors to women on short service commission, 125 have already joined the Navy, 500 have joined the Indian Air Force (IAF) and 500 the Army. However, they have not yet been delegated frontline operations.

Though Saxena and Rajan are both "grateful" to the Air Force for giving them an "opportunity", which came "within the ambit of the base, where they were stationed," they feel differently. Says Saxena, who was in the first batch of women to be inducted into the Indian Air Force, "there is no reason why women should not be allowed active participation in combat.'' But their superiors are still apprehensive: "Combat is an arduous task but with time we may see more women in varied roles like administration in combatarms or in the rear of the unit,'' says Brigadier N. Ticku, Deputy Director General, Recruiting.

In fact, all three forces have adopted a gradual approach towards induction of women into combat, says Gurmeet Kanwal, Senior Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. "This decision has nothing to do with the physical build or lack of competence among women, but more to do with psychological perceptions,'' Saxena says adding, "an ejected woman pilot being picked up by an enemy like Pakistan is not a very palatable thought.'' She continues, "we joined the forces with our eyes open. The fact that we opted for the forces and not commercial flying is an indication of our seriousness, so why should we be denied the opportunity of going into combat?"

Women pilots (pic: Sainik Samachar)

Interestingly, the cabinet committee on security approved the induction of women as short commission officers into all branches of the Navy, only in 1998. But Navy officials say that though they have received permission they are still cautious about implementing the decision immediately on a full-fledged scale. "Implementing this decision is not easy and to take women into combat would also require change of ship design to suit women officers and provide them with the requisite facilities on board,'' says Commodore S. Nath, Director of Manpower Planning and Recruitment. Combat at sea does not only mean fighting the enemy at shore but also dealing with the forces of nature, which could be an arduous task for women, says Nath. The Army too has insulated women from the rigours of combat. "Facing the vagaries of weather is not the only constraint, one also has to consider that once in combat zone one is facing a hostile enemy eye to eye,'' says Ticku.

While difficulties in combat zone are the primary reasons for the Navy and Army's hesitancy, medical reasons are what holding the induction of women into the IAF fighter stream. "Given the monthly cycle of hormonal changes in women, it is hard to predict how they will physiologically handle forces near Nine `G','' former Air Chief Marshal S.K. Sareen had said last year.`G' force refers to the pull of gravity wherein negative Gs exert their pull when a highly manoeuverable aircraft twists, turns, climbs and flings itself around the sky at near supersonic speed. The Navy had inducted women on a seven-year short service commission in 1991 into the education branch, law cadre, logistics and as air traffic controllers. "Women were taken in because we were not getting adequate response from men for these segments. Also, by taking in women we wanted to ensure that men concentrated on combat duties,'' says Nath.

Women officers at work (pic: Sainik Samachar)

Though the Army has had women in the Medical Corps for quite some time, women officers have been taken into the technical and non-technical streams only since 1992, simply because they were needed. Brigadier Ticku admits to the shortage of officers and says the Army's greatest worry is that it is not attracting the right kind of men. "We inducted women because there was a shortage of personnel and we also wanted to improve the overall efficiency of the army by releasing men officers for more vigorous duties and the fact is that women have performed better than men.'' There was also an immense shortage of personnel in the junior level and women now constitute an important component of the support cadre, says Ticku.

The non-technical staff in the Army comprises women engaged in administrative duties which involve ensuring supplies of rations, medical stores, ordinance and equipment whereas the technical staff is involved in telecom, signals and radar operations. Women in the army have also been inducted through the special stream which delegates them duties in the intelligence, public relations and education wings. And the Air Force too has been inducting women from 1992 for carrying out administrative and technical duties. But doesn't the Sainik Service Commission serve as a demotivator for these upcoming women officers? No, says Saxena, noting that the training imparted enriches a person and there is always the option of extension, she adds. (Indian Express 9/8/1999)

Dr Kalpana Chawla

Indian-born engineer Dr Kalpana Chawla became the first professional astronaut of Indian origin when she was launched in to space on the shuttle Columbia Nov 19, 1997 at 2:46 p.m. E.S.T. Who would have thought that a young Indian girl with her feet firmly on the ground would one day fly into the heavens? While for most people outer space is uncharted territory, for Kalpana it became a reality. Just the second Indian to venture in space after Rakesh Sharma's flight thirteen years ago, she became a celebrity back home in India.

'What-you-dream-is-what-you-become' neatly describes 36-year old Dr Kalpana Chawla's soaring leap from Karnal, Haryana to deep space. The skies had always tempted her, as was evident from her school environment project at Tagore Bal Niketan, made up of colourful charts and models depicting the sky, stars etc or her paper on Mars, written in her eleventh standard. Egged on by her father, Banarasi Lal Chawla - a refugee who made his fortune selling soaps - she joined the Karnal Flying Club. But she flatly over-ruled his suggestion for opting 'medicine' as a career and stuck to her only love - aviation.

Since 'aeronautical engineering' was more or less considered a male-domain, her professors' at the Punjab Engineering College vainly tried to push her towards the conventional options - electrical or mechanical engineering. Succeeding against all odds, she became the college's first aeronautical engineer in 1982. Convention again dogged her next step to USA when her father insisted that "going to Chandigarh from Karnal was good enough, don't go further. It's time you got married and settled down here." Kalpana, however, asked her sisters for support and made it.

Flying was still a distant luxury till 1984, during her post-graduate studies at the University of Texas. It was only when she secured a higher stipend during her doctorate studies in aerospace engineering - which she completed in 1988, from the University of Colorado, that she could take up flying again. She not only got her commercial pilot license but also qualified as a flight instructor.

Hired by MCAT Institute, San Jose, California, as a Research Scientist to support research in the area of powered lift at NASA Ames Research Center, California, in 1988, Kalpana was responsible for simulation and analysis of flow physics pertaining to the operation of powered lift aircraft such as the Harrier in ground effect. She modeled and numerically simulated configurations that include important components of realistic powered lift aircraft, both in hover and landing mode, using Navier-Stokes solvers on Cray YMP supercomputers. In 1993 Dr. Chawla joined Overset Methods Inc., Los Altos, California, as Vice President and Research Scientist to form a team with other researchers specializing in simulation of moving multiple body problems. She was responsible for development and implementation of efficient techniques to perform aerodynamic optimization. Smooth Take-off.

She was eventually selected by NASA in 1994 as an astronaut - one of the final 19 from 2962 applicants. All along, she did have a gut feel that she would be chosen due to her technical background and a " strong desire to go out in the blue yonder." Within a year of joining the Johnson Space Centre in March 1995, she was assigned to work on technical issues for the Astronaut office, EVA/Robotics and Computer branches. Kalpana, finally, realised her dream by becoming a mission specialist on the crew of the fourth US Microgravity Payload flight - mission STS87 which took off on Nov' 19. Just the second Indian to venture in space after Rakesh Sharma's flight thirteen years ago, Kalpana's Columbia sojourn lasted for 15 days, 16 hours and 33 minutes. The experiments she carried out will ascertain the impact of weightlessness on several industrial materials.

Her family always believed "she would do something extraordinary some day," as Kalpana had no interest in make-up, hairstyle or cooking like her contemporaries. When her elder sister got married, she wore the same suit for three consecutive days saying " it did not matter at all." Her aunt, Amrit Kaur, is proud of her year-and-half rigorous training regime at NASA where "they would leave her in the jungles without food and water to survive on her own." Kalpana, as usual, topped with flying colours.

All through her string of achievements, she has not forgotten her humble Indian roots. Along with her parents, she also invited her former school principal, Vimla Raheja , to witness the Columbia launch. She also requested her school to send her a souvenir to take along. They did send - a T-shirt. For a girl with hobbies like back-packing and hiking, Dr Kalpana Chawla's dream journey had just commenced. Tragically, Kalpana was killed in a shuttle crash in 2003. More on that here.

Air Vice Marshal Padmavathy Bandopadhyay, AVSM, VSM

Padma Bandopadhyay became the first woman officer of the Indian Air Force to be promoted to the rank of Air Vice Marshal. That, however, is not the only first she has against her name in her career of 33 years in the IAF. Bandhopadhyay, 55, is the first woman Fellow of the Aerospace Medical Society of India and the first Indian woman to have conducted scientific research at the North Pole. As if that's not enough, she is also the first woman officer to have completed the Defence Service Staff College course - in 1978 - and to command the IAF's Central Medical Establishment (CME).

The CME is a premier facility in the field of aviation medicine and provides treatment to aircrew of the IAF, Navy and Coast Guard as well as civilian pilots. Bandhopadhyay, however, joined the IAF for an altogether different purpose. "I had always wanted to be a pilot, so I joined the IAF," Bandhopadhyay told IANS shortly after taking over as the CME's Air Officer Commanding today. A problem with her eyesight forced her to give up that dream and stick to a medical career in the IAF.

"I had what is commonly known as a squint and that made me unfit for flying. So I had to continue as a doctor," she said, adding she had no regrets about not making it as a pilot. "I specialised in aviation medicine in 1975, which was then a new field," she said. Bandhopadhyay's specialisation in aviation medicine finally gave her a chance to fly in some of the IAF's front-line jets. "I had to fly in these aircraft to gain first-hand experience of some of the problems faced by pilots. Over the years, I have flown in trainer versions of the Gnat, Hunter, MiG-21 and MiG-25," she said. "This helped me establish a rapport with the pilots and gain an insight that cannot be found in text books," she said. Over the years, she has completed 23 research projects and has 27 publications to her credit in this field. Born in the temple town of Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh, Bandhopadhyay was brought up in Delhi and studied in Kirori Mal college. A specialist in aviation medicine, she was commissioned in the IAF in 1968 after passing out of the Armed Forces Medical College.

During the 1971 war with Pakistan, Bandhopadhyay, then an intern fresh out of the IAF command hospital in Bangalore, was posted along with her husband, Wing Commander (retd.) S.N. Bandhopadhyay, at the Halwara airbase in Punjab. "After the hostilities started, we had to handle a lot of casualties even before a special surgical team from Bangalore arrived. We performed many life-saving operations and I learnt a lot during this phase," she said. For their contributions to the war effort, both Bandhopadhyay and her husband, an administrative officer, were awarded the Vishisht Seva Medal (VSM), an award for exemplary devotion to duty. This resulted in another first - the first-ever husband and wife team to be honoured with the VSM at the same defence investiture ceremony by the president.

In the late eighties, Bandhopadhyay went off to the Arctic to join an Indo-Russian physiology experiment to determine whether people from tropical Indian climates could acclimatise themselves to extreme cold conditions. "I was then with the Defence Institute of Physiology and Allied Sciences and we spent four months at the North Pole between November 1989 and February 1990," she said. "Our research proved that Indians could acclimatise themselves to extreme conditions," she said. Bandhopadhyay said she gets a special thrill out of the fact that more women are opting for a career as pilots in the IAF. "These young girls are full of life and they are doing just as well as, if not better than, the male pilots," she said.

Admitting that women in the armed forces faced a few problems, Bandhopadhyay said such problems were "social issues that were not insurmountable." "In Indian society, women are either revered or they had treated very badly. They should be treated as equal partners and individuals," she said. And, as for the future, Bandhopadhyay said she would like to repay a debt to society by joining an organisation that helps the visually challenged or the elderly after she retires from service. "I feel for the old and the blind and I would like to do something to help them," she said. More on Padma here.

Cadet Harita Kaur Deol (September1994)
Zipped up in her navy blue overalls and strapped to the pilot's seat inside the cockpit of an Avro aircraft, Flight Cadet Harita Kaur Deol made history when she kissed the clouds at a height of 10,000 feet on Friday morning. The 22-year-old girl from Chandi- garh had become the country's first woman pilot in the Indian Air Force to do a solo. She flitted about in the clouds for half an hourmanoeuvring the aircraft with proficiency as her colleagues and seniors monitored her movements with a great sense of pride. It was indeed a momentous occasion for the five-feet-two-inch tall girl and the Indian Air Force.

With a modest smile, she emerged from the aircraft to a spontane- ous applause, pats, hugs and handshakes. Was she in a state of daze... overwhelmed? "No, not at all. I am happy I was the first to do a solo and that I lived up to the expectations of my instructor," replied Flight Cadet Deol. Having been inducted as a pilot into the IAF fleet of transport fliers, she always had the confidence, and now the solo sortie had only strengthened it further, she added. With her chin up. Flight Cadet Deol faced the glare of camera lights and said: "I will speak to my parents first... and may be celebrate today's success with my friends over the week-end."

Air Commodore P.R. Kumar, Air-Officer-in Command at Air Lift Forces Training Establishment (ALFTE), Yelahanka Air Force Station, Bangalore, who did the solo check, was beaming. "She was confident and in full control of the aircraft. Her take-off and landing were excellent. The standard she demonstrated was much more than my expectation. Girls are much more clear in their expression," he gushed. As the group of visiting media persons from Delhi -- who had come specially to meet the first batch of IAF women pilots -- took off in the AN-32 aircraft, more good news poured in. Two more girls -- Flight Cadet Archana Kapoor from Noida, UP, and Flight Cadet Bindu Sebastian -- too had done their solos on the Avro. The remaining four women pilots -- Priya Nalgundwar, Pamela Ro- drigues, Priya Paul, Anisha Shinh -- were also expected to do their solos by early next week -- two of them on Russian AN-32 aircraft and two on the Avro.

With these seven bright girls -- all in their early 20s and not measuring more than five-feet-five in height -- having reached the final Stage III of flying training, the IAF can now look forward to a competent addition to its fleet of fliers. That their performance as fliers is comparable to their male counter-parts' was a statement reiterated by several officers at Yelahanka. When the IAF advertised for eight vacancies for women pilots in 1992, there were 20,000 applicants from all over the country. About 500 qualified for the written examination held at Mysore, Dehra Dun and Varanasi. From each of these centres, 10 to 12 candidates cleared the written test and were put through a week's physical training followed by a medical checkup. Only 13 candi- dates withstood the strain, pressure and competition and were inducted into the IAF's transport fleet last October.

Since then the going has been tough. At the Air Force Academy in Hyderabad, the cadets underwent three months of pre-flying train- ing followed by Stage I flying training on HPT-32 aircraft for two months and Stage II flying training on the Kiran aircraft lasting for five months. On an average each of them accumulated 120 hours of total flying. However, the hard grind took only seven of the 13 cadets to Stage III. The seven women cadets arrived at ALFTE, Yelahanka, in July this year for pilot's conversion training. On successful completion of their Stage III training on Avro and AN-32, they will get their "Wings" and be commissioned at the Air Force Academy, Secunderabad, in December this year and subsequently posted out to squadron service. Obviously, having come through such rigorous mental and physical tests, their zeal to come out with flying colours is unquestion- able. None of them looks "tough" in their height or build, but they all believe: When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

And of course, the Aircrew Examining Board has been all along validating their "very good performance". Only three of the seven women cadets come from the services' background with fathrs retired as Army / Air Force Officers. The rest are daughters of professionals and businessmen. Three women cadets are from ex- NCC (Air Wing). Two had completed their Private Pilots' Licence and one her Commercial Pilots' Licence before joining the Academy at Hyderabad. The initial obligation of these women pilots is for a Short Service Commission of 10 years, extendable to 15 years, on mutual consent. They started getting a stipend during their Stage III training, like in all other courses. The second batch, also consisting of seven women cadets, is at present undergoing Stage I and II training at the Academy and will come to Yelahanka in January next year. The third and fourth batches are earmarked for conversion on helicopters.

Shaifali Choudhary(1996)
One of the brave spirits whose name has recently been engraved on the scroll of the famous is that of Shaifali Choudhary, one of the first woman chopper pilots of the Indian Air Force. She lost her life while trying to save her colleagues from drowning in the Brahmaputra on March 24 in 1996. Her third death anniversary falls tommorrow. She was honoured with the Sarvottam Jeevan Raksha Padak posthumously by the President of India for her valiant effort. Shaifali struggled current and violent wave threatening to overpower her courageous and saved her colleagues. An exhausted Shaifali, with little stamina to save her life, was swept away by a strong current when she was only five feet from the shore.

Bravery and a magnanimous attitude were her hallmark, evident from an incident her father, Mr Virender Singh, narrates "Owing to bad weather, ailing defence personnel at the border picket could not be airlifted by two helicopters which made persistent efforts. Shaifali volunteered her services and managed to airlift them to a hospital in her `Chetak', helicopter.'' A student of Government College for Girls, Sector 11, she had admitted in a letter to her elder sister, Seema,"When I was in college, I was no extra-ordinary student and did not know what career I would settle in. All I knew was that I would have to do something to prove a lot to the world.'' The college principal, Mrs Vijay Lakshmi, says,"We at GCG see her as one of our best students we sent out into the world. We hope the college and the world gets more persons like her.''

Being a philanthropist, she had pledged her entire body after death for the welfare of humanity. In her poem "Bed Of Life'' penned early in life and also the lead contribution in Sagini '96, an air-force journal, she speaks of her desire to give away her eyes, limbs, organs and even the last drop of her blood to save a precious life. She wished her ashes be scattered "to the winds to help flowers grow.'' She ends the poem with the lines, "If by chance you wish to remember me, do it with a kind deed or word for someone who needs you.'' Her family regrets that they could not fulfil her wish to donate parts of her body. They said "it was all forgotten in our hour of grief and it was too late when her body arrived from Tezpur". Her father has written to the President to seek a pledge from all serving defence personnel to donate organs.

Her memory lives on at the sleepy Lodana village in Buland district of Uttar Pradesh. Shaifali, to build up her strength for the training that would follow once she joined the forces, would plough the field. Her samadhi has been made at her native village and a memorial is also proposed at the place. Meanwhile, the villagers observe her birth and death anniversary every year with a fair and women of the village sing songs in her praise. ( 24/3/1999)

Captain Nivedita Bhasin
Capt. Nivedita Bhasin, of Indian Airlines at 26 became the youngest pilot in civil aviation history to command a jet aircraft when she piloted IC-492 (Bombay-Aurangabad-Udaipur) on January 1, 1990. Bhasin is with the Hyderabad-based Central Training Establishment of the Indian Airlines and become the country's first woman check-pilot on Airbus A300 aircraft. The 36-year-old Nivedita was accorded the Directorate General of Civil Aviation approval as check-pilot on successful completion of stipulated tests and requisite training. The latter involved classroom and field training for operational knowledge, simulator training for flying proficiency, aircraft training for landing/take-off, line flying etc.

The Indian Airlines, in a release, said that a minimum of 500 hours' command experience on the given type of aircraft, total command experience of 1,000 hours and a total flying experience of 3,000 hours is required to become a check-pilot. After proficiency tests and approval by the DGCA, the pilot is declared a check-pilot to carry out route checks for licence renewal, pilot-in-command and performance monitoring of other pilots, besides carrying out Line Oriented Flying Training flights for co-pilots.

Nivedita, who joined the Indian Airlines in 1984, has many firsts to her credit. She was the co-pilot on the first all-women crew flight on Fokker Friendship F-27 with Captain Saudamini Deshmukh in command in November 1985 on the Calcutta-Silchar route. The duo also made the first Boeing all-women crew flight in September 1989 on the Mumbai-Goa sector. In December 1989, Nivedita became the world's youngest commander at the age of 26 on the Boeing aircraft. Later, she led the all-women crew of the Boeing flight as commander on the Hyderabad-Visakhapatnam route. She became a commander on Airbus A300, with over 8,100 hours of total flying experience. On March 8, she had commanded Airbus A300 on the Delhi-Kathmandu route to mark International Women's Day. (Indian Express 1999)

Flying Officer Gunjan Saxena

Flying Officer Gunjan Saxena is among the few women pilots in the IAF. Saxena was the first Woman IAF Officer to fly in a Combat Zone when she took part in the Kargil conflict. FIFTEEN years ago, when Gunjan Saxena first set foot into the cockpit of an aircraft, she felt as if she had stepped into the sky. It was the momentous beauty outside that became her source of inspiration. It was this inspiration which motivated her to guide her helicopter, dodging artillery shells through the steep valleys of Kargil as a Flying Officer in the Indian Air Force. Presently in Lucknow on a short vacation to visit her parents, the first ever woman lady pilot of Indian Air Force who proved her mettle in Operation Vijay, has not only stepped into celebritydom but maybe also history as the Kargil girl.

Not yet accustomed to the new found celebrity status and all the attention it brings, the diminutive girl in blue jeans and T- shirt could pass off for any young collegian. Says Gunjan matter-of-factly, dismissing it to be a great feat: "It was just by chance that I was posted in Udhampur in Jammu and Kashmir at that time and was sent on the operation. I was just doing my work." Modesty and smiles it seems come easy to the 25-year-old, who is quick to admit that it was the constant encouragement of her father which has made her touch the skies, literally. "He would always tell me and my elder brother that he wanted us to ride from a tricycle to an airplane. And when as a fifth grader I was shown a cockpit by a cousin who happened to be an Indian Airlines pilot, I decided that I only wanted to fly," says she, adding that following her schooling she moved on to New Delhi to join the Safdarjung Flying Club while doing her graduation from Hansraj College.

Commissioned into the Indian Air Force in 1996, Gunjan has since then been posted in Udhampur and included in Kargil operations due to her familiarity with the sector. "Our job is primarily FAC (Forward Area Control) guiding fighters to recognise target, casualty evacuation and air maintenance. During the Kargil operations we had to fly 7 to 8 sorties every day and it was always there at the back of our mind that someone was desperately waiting for us and even if we are late by a couple of minutes, it might cost a life," she said, pointing out that all through the Kargil operations she had to fly the chopper through the valleys and watch artillery shells fall left and right. And the most memorable moment for her was when she saw the first shell fall. "It was June 5, I remember walking towards the helipad with another officer and my brother who is in the Army and was posted at Kargil at that time. We heard a strange sound which I had never heard before, and my brother said that a shell will fall nearby. A few moments later it fell a kilometre away, and of course from then onwards I got rather accustomed to the sound," she says with a laugh. "I was just a part of the rotating crew and doing my job when the press people started coming. `Outlook' first took my interview and then the other newspapers," she remarked, showing the October issue of `Savvy' magazine with her on the cover as the Savvy woman of the month.

One of the pioneering lady pilots among the 25 to 30 odd ones in the IAF, Gunjan opted for the helicopter section rather than the transportation division. "I can do mountain flying, sea flying and desert flying and visit places nobody has ever been to. The Cheetah helicopter I fly is very versatile and can land on even very small makeshift helipads," Gunjan adds with all enthusiasm. But then, she reminds, the job is not as rosy as many people think. "Even the training itself requires a lot of physical as well as mental resilience. And then even on the job people do not know how to react to you, and one has to also sometimes face bias," says she, remembering to add that any girl opting for the air force should be totally oriented and dedicated for the job.

Life is of course not without its share of amusing incidents. Gunjan recounts the attention she got after flying with a senior officer to a remote Kashmir village. A large number of villagers turned up, only to see what a woman pilot looks like! "Yet another funny incident was after my photograph appeared in `Outlook' which featured me with an AK-47 which we normally carried during the war. I actually had people asking me on the streets that where was my AK-47," says Gunjan with an uproarious laughter. A frequent visitor to Lucknow where her parents settled a few years back, what Gunjan never misses out on her vacations is the `basket chaat' and `kulfi faluda', before flying off to touch the sky.

Flight Lieutenant Supriya Gurjar
For a girl who had always dreamt of taking to the air, setting a precedent in the scintillating world of flying was nothing out of the blue. At the height of Operation Vijay, Flight Lieutenant Supriya Gurjar of No 48 Squadron here, became the first woman pilot to command an operational sortie to the world's two highest airfields - Thoise and Leh. She is among the three women pilots posted at the Chandigarh Air Force Station, all of whom fly AN-32 transport aircraft. Never before has a woman pilot captained a military transport or a commercial aircraft landing at such an altitude. Though women pilots, both IAF and civil, have been flying to these airfields, both located at over 10,000 meters above sea-level, heretofore they had not flown there "solo", which implies that they have never issued inflight instructions or shouldered full responsibility for a sortie.

Flt Lt Supriya flew solo to Thoise on June 19, with an aircrew of four and a mixed load of supplies and armed forces personnel. The next day she was again in the left hand captain's seat on a sortie to Leh. "The orders to fly solo come more as a relief than an apprehension," said the 26-year-old flier who logs an average of 70 flying hours a month. "The flight was generally uneventful, the only problem being that wind turbulence in Thoise Valley had increased by about 15 knots during approach." With a war on, there was, however, little time for any celebration. "I knew that it was a precedent, but there are so many more important things on your mind," she said. On her feelings after touchdown, she said: "My colleagues congratulated me, but with operational commitments, there was little time to think about anything else." Her husband, Flt Lt Shreya Shukla, too had been on deployment in Kargil at that time.

Daughter of a Pune-based consultant and married to a fighter pilot, who also happens to be posted at Chandigarh, Flt Lt Supriya is the first in her family to opt for a career in the Services. "My father used to take me to the airshows in Pune when I was a kid. I remember MiG-21s being based there then and the aerobatics they performed were enthralling. Ever since I had dreamt of being at the controls of an aircraft," she said. She said she had planned to go in for commercial flying, but by the time her graduation was nearing completion, the Air Force had opened the Flying Branch to women. "Although entry of women officers for ground duty had already been on for some time, I had not opted for that because I was interested only in flying," she said. Belonging to the 2nd Batch of IAF women pilots, she was commissioned into the IAF in June 1995. "Flying in the mountains is a challenge because of the weather and the terrain. It is also the feeling you get on drop sorties -- when you communicate with the eager troops retrieving the supplies -- you feel satisfied that you are doing your bit for the chaps on the ground," she remarked.

Flt. Lt. Archana Kapoor
"IAF - It's All Fun". Those were the words of my father, which inspired me to join the Air Force Academy in July 1993 as part of the first batch of women pilots in the Indian Air Force. 17th December 1994 was the culmination of one and a half years of hard work. It was also the day when I felt special pride as my father watched me don the same uniform and wings that he once wore.

The training in the air force is an experience in itself. It combines moments of fun with unrelenting pressure to perform. The training endeavours to make us professionals as well as good officers. Living together with trainees from all over the country from different backgrounds instills a great sense of camaraderie amongst us. This is the hallmark of the defence services and therefore sets it apart from any other career. The rigorous routine of physical training, flying training and social manners creates the final product of a well-groomed air force officer. The actual challenge for me began once I joined my unit as a commissioned officer. I knew that I was stepping into what had been a male domain for over 60 years. It was important for me to make a place for myself. It was a challenge for me to be just one woman working amongst so many men. A majority of my colleagues and seniors welcomed me with great enthusiasm and helped me feel comfortable and at home.

There were also those who initially had reservations towards my presence. That was understandable, but soon they too accepted me as a colleague. It is important to understand that above the occupation of a pilot is that of an officer. While flying is one part of the job, the other as an officer entails a whole gamut of activities such as conducting oneself in a pleasant manner while dealing with matters which require compassion and equally stern with matters of professional concern like flying, where there is no room for complacency. Over the years, I have grown in experience and confidence as an administrator as well as a manager of men and resources. The job as a pilot in the air force has been a very satisfying experience for me. It generates tremendous sense of pride in me to know that I have been flying with an institution that excels in it. Military aviation being very different from the civil, the varied requirements give an excellent opportunity to experience the thrill of flying in different roles. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have performed aerobatics on jets and also experienced the adventure of landing on far-flung airfields all over the country.

Monotony is a word redundant in the context of flying in the Air Force. It is pertinent to say that the job is not an easy one as you lead your men by example. Flying, as a job, requires tremendous concentration and discipline due to the risk involved. It also requires continuous updating of knowledge to keep abreast with the latest developments. I have flown for over 1400 hours, and today, I can confidently say that my acceptability has grown and I too am well adjusted within the organisation. Besides being an officer and a pilot, I am also a wife and a mother. My help and support comes from my husband, Flt Lt AK Yadav who is the perfect gentleman, officer and pilot. He has been a pillar of strength whose encouragement eggs me on to continue doing well in my job as well as at home. He puts in an equal, if not more, effort in ensuring that our child and home is well looked after. At the same time, both our parents also render us maximum support, which makes it easier for us to perform our duties.

In the services, the social life and the closeness that exists between people is exemplary. Whereas in big cities, interpersonal relationships seem to be suffering a setback due to the fast pace of life, in the air force, social life is pleasantly congenial. My personal experiences with people have been, by and large, good through all the years of my service. I can say with conviction that I have enjoyed my life and work in the air force. It is an excellent opportunity open to the women of our country to actively participate in the defence services while doing something as exciting and exhilarating as flying. At the same time, it also requires a high degree of discipline and willingness to weather tough situations, which arise from time to time. (The Hindu 12/4/2000)

Ms Suranjita Khaund
The first woman IAF Officer From Assam, Ms Suranjita Khaund was selected for the post of Pilot Officer (technical branch) by Indian Air Force. Ms Khaund who has been a product of Assam Engineering College in Electronic and Telecommunication, 1996, is the first Assamese girl to be selected for the post from the Northeast. She is the eldest daughter of Mr Parag Jyoti Khaund and Ms Kanan Khaund of Guwahati. Suranjita had been smitten by the armed forces after seeing battalions march past in Republic Day parades when she was a kid. She knew her goal was the IAF, even as she was pursuing a BE (Electronics and Telecommunication) from Assam Engineering College. "It was probably the idea that the IAF had state-of-the-art technology that tempted me the most," says Khaund.

Flight Lieutenant Manisha Ksheersagar
Morning six am alarm's clarion call. Steaming hot tea. A quick shower. A smart dress-up in a well-ironed blue uniform and shining black Oxford pattern shoes. Tighten the belt, adjust the side cap and grab the briefcase. Reporting time 7.30 a.m. sharp. Smart, punctual and confident, she reports for work. Flt Lt Manisha Ksheersagar is Senior Education Officer, Air Force Station, Pune. She has travelled a long way from slogging in the kitchen. The submissive Indian woman of yesteryears, today stands strong and confident, boldly competing with male colleagues. The winds of change have affected every facet of our life. And the choice of professions by the women reveals the changing attitudes and life-styles.

Besides going in for teaching, medicine and nursing, today the professional options of the young ladies include the money market, choreography, public relations and defense services with even combat flying roles in the Indian Air Force. Cheryl Dutta, an IAF chopper (helicopter) pilot had rightly said, "Nothing is male dominated any more.'' It was the status of an officer, the pride of the uniform and the glamourous life-style which had inspired Manisha to join the Indian Air Force. While for Flight Lieutenant Ela Maiti, Aeronautical Engineer(L), the charm lay in the novelty of the job. The IAF has a very scientific and deep selection process involving tough psychological, physical and medical tests. The strenuous training can vary from six to eighteen months. The job invariably demands duties through long hours, at night and at times, even on holidays. The places for posting are spread all over the country, be it in places with amenities or remote areas like deserts or high mountains. No disparity exists between the male and female officers.

Presently the induction of the lady officers is for Short Service Commission (SSC). However, there is an option to convert it to a permanant one after the initial stipulated term. In the view of Group Captain P.C. Sharma, Chief Administrative Officer, Air Force Station, Pune, lady officers are treated at par with their male colleagues. However, in some cases extra protection is known to have been given to them. "I have no problem in coping up with my male associates, I am perfectly comfortable working with them,'' says Flight Lieutenant Ksheersagar. Though the majority of the male officers in the IAF support and encourage their female counterparts, at times they are hesitant to give women a chance. I have been exposed to various jobs besides my own portfolio. And I have been able to come up to the expectations of my seniors.''

Group Captain R.R. Bhardwaj, Chief Engineering Officer, states, "Initially there were inhibitions. People, who have not worked with women have a typical mind set and may still be prejudiced. But now it has become a fact of life.'' Manisha denies having ever faced male chauvinism. But she does feel that the women in the forces are at times treated as being decorative. But basically it is a tough life. Air Commodore Harish Masand, Air Officer Commanding, states, "The lady officers too, have to cope up with the frequent temporary duties, constant postings and at times late night working hours. Flying Officer Vandana Hatwal, Station Security Officer, has to float around in the Gypsy with her male sub-ordinates to carry out the security checks at odd hours during the night. But, then this falls under her routine job.'' Nevertheless, the lady officers love the Air Force life which they find to be like a compact family. Opting for forces as a career has helped the women to gain confidence, to adjust everywhere and to become more open on the social front.

Air Commodore Masand is all praise for the lady officers working under him. He feels, "They are not only performing well but are even better than their male counterparts.'' Group Captain Bhardwaj asserts that it is premature to offer a concrete opinion as regards their long term working calibre and the efficiency for the kind of jobs they are in." When you want numbers to speak, it has to be a large number from statistical perspective". Full of confidence Tarannum, asserts, "There is nothing which a male officer has done that I can't do''. This kind of belief in self has inspired the women to walk shoulder to shoulder with the man in every arena of life.

Air Force Station, Pune boasts of ten lady officers posted here presently with most of them holding the key portfolios like Senior Medical Officer, Station Adjutant, Station Security Officer or Senior Education Officer. Gender equations are being disturbed as the women are breaking new grounds. The Indian Air Force, which till now had ladies only in the Medical branch has at last opened its gates for their induction in the officers' cadre in many other branches too. The time is not far when we have another `Jhansi Ki Rani' not on a horse, but in a fighter combat aircraft flying high to "Touch the Sky with Glory".

India's Women in Uniform@Bharat Rakshak