September 2, 2020
“The machine will not know whether a man is flying it or a woman is flying it.” This verbatim belongs to our Kargil Girl- Gunjan Saxena who flew the Cheetah fighting against all odds saved lives, and made history. Flight Lieutenant Gunjan Saxena, was the first Indian Air Force woman officer who went to war.
Gunjan Saxena- The Story!
Presently, Gunjan Saxena stays with her husband and her daughter in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. Her dream of chasing the skies took flight 40 years ago in Pathankot. “My father was in the army. We moved bases often. In Pathankot, my school was inside the air force station. As I watched flights take off and land, I knew I wanted to be a pilot one day. And not fly paper planes, but the actual ones,” says Saxena, whose supportive family, like any other Indian family had only one concern: “What’s your plan B? What if you can’t be a pilot?” The doubts were obvious because back in the 1980s, being a pilot wasn’t a celebrated career choice for girls. Like all relatives, even hers wanted her to settle down with a hotshot eligible bachelor. Life tested her aspirations but finally showed colours when the Indian Government in 1992 approved the induction of women in flying branches of the Indian Air Force. Three batches later, there was our girl who joined the academy with five other girls and faced a new battle each day. She combated the hard training which tested her caliber, endurance, and patience. They prepared her for the day no one knew of! She knew the underlying challenges and the opportunities this path had.
Equality at the base:
On the question of gender equality at the base, she says, “Apart from our physical appearance, you can’t differentiate between male and female trainees. We trained together — same schedule and location. Our male trainees helped us feel comfortable, and honestly, it was also a challenge for them to be comfortable having women around them.” To sum up in one line she says, “If you had the will and the skill, both genders got the same opportunities.” And three years later, opportunity in the garb of duty knocked at her door. In 1999, the ex-aviator was posted at Udhampur’s 132 Forward Area Control (FAC) Flight. She was training for different methods of landing, practicing new flying techniques every day, spending hours up in the air and learning to ace casualty evacuation until one day when her commanding officer posted her in Srinagar. “We had a faint idea of the conflict raging in Kargil but never expected to be summoned. It was out of the blue.” She called up her parents and informed them that she’d be out of reach for a few days. “We weren’t allowed to divulge any details. And my parents didn’t ask. They understood.”
Rise of the Kargil Girl
It was time for her to show her patriotism and render her services to the nation. The sky was painted with fear and danger. Yet she remained undaunted flying high and performing her duties with utmost sincerity. Each sunrise came with one question in mind, ‘will I live to see another sunrise?’ This, however, did not deter her from her mission to save lives. “I was 30% nervous, but 70% excited,” says Saxena. With an INSAS assault rifle and a revolver by her side, she walked into the territories and took charge of the sturdy Cheetah helicopter. The next three weeks, she flew across the most dangerous places where the enemy legion was firing at everything at sight. She air-dropped supplies to troops in the Dras and Batalik sectors. During these missions, she also flew to rescue stranded jawans and the martyrs at the battlefield! The sight took a toll on her but there was something, maybe the sheer desire to serve her nation, that kept her going. “To serve the country and honour the uniform is of paramount importance. We are never forced into defence. It’s our choice to live this way of life. Everything else takes a backseat. Besides, I must say women are emotionally stronger than men any day,” says Saxena.
Three weeks later, ‘wheels down’ was announced after a regular sortie. She didn’t know it was her last flight. The war was finally over.
The Aftermath of Kargil Vijay:
The result of Saxena’s flight has inspired millions across the nation. Today, there are over 1,600 women officers in the Indian Air Force and more than a thousand dreamers in the queue. While many believe in having a backup plan for their career, she believes in having one aim and never losing sight of that goal. “Flying has taught me that you cannot lose focus even for a second. That’s the way to live life. Find your dream, make it your goal, and always give your 200%. Never let distractions get the better of you,” says Saxena.
When she watched the film with her family, she stunned everybody as she sobbed watching her story being narrated to the world filled with emotions, “I don’t show my emotions, so he (my husband) couldn’t believe it. Watching your story from a distance is a different kind of thrill. I really hope my journey inspires more and more girls to follow their dreams,” says Saxena.
So, catch her story on Netflix and get ready to get chills down your spine. That’s how much she inspires everyone by her story!
Cover Picture Courtesy: Janhvi Kapoor