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19 July 1999 National War Report

With Flying Colours

Flying Officer Gunjan Saxena creates history as she becomes the first woman to conduct sorties in the operational zone
With Flying Colours

WHEN Flying Officer Gunjan Saxena conducted her first sortie into the Kargil zone last week, she created history in defence. She became the first Indian woman to fly into combat zone, thereby opening up a vista which till now has traditionally been a male preserve.

"I could not wait to be called," says Saxena, based in Udhampur, but currently stationed at the operational zone in Srinagar. In the 10 daring sorties

she has undertaken during the past one week on the Cheetah helicopter of the Indian Air Force (iaf), she has dropped vital supplies to troops at higher points in the Dras and Batalik sectors, picked up the dead and wounded from jagged mountain edges where flying a chopper requires an inordinate amount of skill, all while escaping Pakistani gunfire and missiles from below.

The real challenge, according to her, was to go into operations which the IAF gave her a chance to do. "There is no problem about gender as all of us get the same opportunities. Initially the people were a little stunned," she recalls with a laugh, "but now they are used to it."

Saxena has been having a good share of the action in the last two weeks. And the Cheetah she has been flying has had a key role in the operations because of its manoeuverability. "That is the advantage with Cheetah. It is such a light chopper that it can virtually land and take off from anywhere," she points out. But operating choppers can be tough business in the mountains. For one, going into such combat entails the danger of the chopper being shot down. Saxena is prepared for that. On board she carries an AK assault rifle and a smaller pistol.

"There is an element of thrill and challenge in this that is not possible in commercial flying," says Saxena, who at 24 has already spent three years in the airforce. After graduating from Delhi's Hansraj College, the air force was enlisting women pilots and Saxena, whose father and brother are in the army, opted for what seemed like a natural vocation. Thus in 1994, she became one of the 25 young women comprising the first batch of women iaf trainee pilots.

Saxena has already logged 650 flying hours including 400 hours as captain and the rest as co-pilot and trainee. While on training, the recruits had the option to go in either for choppers or for transport planes. Saxena opted for the former. "This was a new area of work and it fascinated me."

Her ambition? To keep on flying, logging in more and more hours and going into combat whenever duty calls. Kargil was just the first test case she succeeded in. And how.

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