March 29, 2020
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That High-heeled Sortie

A day in the life of Cheryl Dutta, chopper pilot. One of a small group of women breaking new ground, disturbing gender equations in the air.

That High-heeled Sortie

IN a man’s world, Cheryl Dutta stakes a claim to the skies. And she won’t have anyone cloud her belief. Quiet confidence has her pronounce: "Nothing is male-dominated any more." A conviction that seems incongruous in her surroundings. As does Cheryl. One of the only two women chopper pilots in the Sirsawa airforce base in Uttar Pradesh. A place teeming with well-built, uniformed men who thrive on a traditionally ‘macho’ vocation. Men who fulfill boyhood flights of fancy to play tough sky-soldiers.

Yes, at first glance, 23-year-old Cheryl seems a slight misfit amidst her male colleagues. Dimunitive, feminine and conspicuous. Always a little on test. When she leads in the morning briefing sessions, as she conducts a pre-takeoff safety check and while she organises a rescue sortie. Constantly proving herself. Charting her way across lonely horizons that can offer her no role models. As all pioneers must.

 "Nine of us girls, batch of December 1995, are the first batch of Chetak and Cheetah chopper pilots," she says. Adding in a matter-of-fact tone that they had to undergo gruelling physical and written tests before they were selected from 10,000 applicants. The 18-month-long training period had them learn how to handle emergency situations like flood-relief, hill and rescue operations. 

"And then, when we joined, the men didn’t know what to expect. Or how to treat us—like ladies or what," she recalls, sensitive to the unease her presence sometimes evokes at the base. Like, at lunch one day. A sarcastic quip from a male colleague had him wishing he were a woman: "I could have got off afternoon duty to be photographed." Provoking a terse offer: "Why don’t you try it sometime?" 

Not that there would be many takers. For being a pilot is tough. And being a woman pilot even tougher. Conventional attitudes, male resentment and a host of reservations have to be combated before the skies can be conquered. Notions that dismiss women as useless security personnel to logistical problems of separate accommodation. To the unease felt by their overprotective male colleagues, most of whom confess to feeling more comfortable when with male co-pilots.

 "It’s nice not to have to worry about the safety of women in life and death situations. After all, how many women can withstand the difficult conditions in Siachen?" asks one of Cheryl’s male colleagues bluntly. Not unexpectedly, others express reservations regarding women’s ability to keep long-term career commitments. "Marriage and babies change things," they state.

Which is perhaps why Cheryl and her colleague Simran Sodhi are both engaged to pilots. "Another man wouldn’t understand that I have had a hard day and my back hurts. A night camp somewhere might just have another man, say a businessman, focus on the fact that I am spending the night with a male colleague rather than the hard work involved," she explains.

But even in the forces, social engagements see the women pilots assume gender stereotypes. Mixing with the Air Force wives, Cheryl makes small talk and looks on at the male bonhomie during tam-bola evenings. The men enjoy being chivalrous. The women enjoy the attention. And Cheryl seems a little awkward with both. She is reluctant to be photographed reading the tambola numbers. "It would draw too much attention," she says summarily. 

Cheryl doesn’t want to stand out. Certainly not because she is a woman. She is much like the men at her daily routine. A 7.30 am mass briefing is followed by breakfast in the mess. A time of easy camaraderie before the serious business of flying. Then, on most days, practice sorties. The day’s flying is usually over by noon; then there is some administrative work. Subsequently, jogging in the evenings

But life at the base can get to be a bit tedious sometimes. "I miss the ice-cream parlours, fast-food joints and the cinema halls," she confesses wistfully. Instead, she indulges herself in long telephone calls to her family. And watches television. In fact, she often finds herself waiting for those tambola evenings and that odd cultural programme. Visiting friends in the married quarters also helps break routine.

 "The base is like a tight-knit family. More so because there aren’t too many of us here. Strong friendships and relationships are formed," Cheryl explains. Of course, it helps to have her fiance at the base. For one, she says, she misses her family less. A retired Air Force officer, Cheryl’s father lives in Bangalore. Her sister, Lara Dutta, is a Gladrags supermodel.

But for Cheryl, success means a life-time commitment to her calling. "Flying gets into your blood," she says, "I’ve got to see places I hadn’t. It’s not just a job—flying a machine. It’s exciting. It’s a challenge...." And, of course, the sky is no limit. n

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