September 04, 1994, Soma BasuZipped 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 Chandigarh 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 hour maneuvering 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 spontaneous 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 centers, 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 colors is unquestionable. 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 fathers 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' License and one her Commercial Pilots' License 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.