It’s a story that has been forgotten in the fanfare of India’s first women fighter pilots being commissioned into the Indian Air Force earlier this year.
India’s first women combat aviators went into a war zone 17 years ago, during the Kargil War. And while Flight Lieutenant Gunjan Saxena and Flight Lieutenant Srividya Rajan never flew fighter jets, they did fly through an area where Pakistani soldiers fired bullets and missiles at virtually any Indian helicopter or aircraft that they could spot. Their tiny Cheetah helicopter was unarmed and entirely defenseless against enemy fire. And yet, like so many of their male counterparts, the two young women soldiered on, flying dozens of sorties directly in harm’s way during the 1999 war in North Kashmir.
Back then, women pilots were still new in the Indian Air Force and there was always a sense that they had to work extra-hard to prove to be equal to their male counterparts.
Today, 17 years later, Gunjan tells us that missions where she evacuated injured Indian Army soldiers were her biggest motivation during Kargil. “I think it is the ultimate feeling that you can ever have as a helicopter pilot. That was one of our main roles there – casualty evacuation. I would say it’s a very satisfying feeling when you save a life because that is what you’re there for,” she said.
Flight Lieutenant Gunjan Saxena never had the opportunities that young women in the IAF now have. As a short service commissioned officer, her tenure ended after seven years. But her association with the IAF has never ended. Married to an Indian Air Force Mi-17 helicopter pilot, Gunjan says it’s wonderful that women pilots can get a permanent commission now – “I think inducting women in the fighter stream is a very, very big and a positive step on part of the Air Force. Being a pioneer, I would say, it feels great and I would only say that I hope these women who’ve come into the fighter stream now give their 100 per cent and really, really touch the sky with glory.”