Guwahati: A posting in Northeast is a must for military aircrew, believe three female pilots of the Indian Air Force who had successfully landed for the first time at the Tezu Advance Landing Ground (ALG) in Arunachal Pradesh.
On December 28 last year, the all-women crew of Hornbills (59th Squadron) under Eastern Air Command flew the Avro-HS 74 in one of the transport operations of the unit in Northeastern skies.
Wing Commander Tima Mathew, Squadron Leader Jaya Singh and Squadron Leader Kavita Prabhu were part of the mission, in which seven aircraft of the 59 Squadron took off from Guwahati, and landed at different ALGs the same day.
The 59 Squadron recently celebrated 60 years of happy landings at the Air Force Station, Borjhar in Guwahati. Hornbills was raised in November 1959 at Jorhat in Assam, equipped with the DHC-3 Otter aircraft. It moved to Guwahati in 1987 and now operates the KD series Dornier and Avro aircrafts. The unit is presently engaged in providing air support to inaccessible locations in the hills as a Logistic Air Support (LAS) squadron, and acts as a bridge to the various ALGs in Arunachal Pradesh — Walong, Tuting, Tezu, Ziro, Pasighat and Mechuka.
“This mission was carried out to give exposure to all young pilots of our squadron. We are ready to accomplish any given mission. There are many ALGs in Northeast that are yet to be explored,” says Squadron Leader Jaya Singh.
With 3,000+ flying hours, Singh speaks about her experience in the Northeast, saying it exposes them to a new dimension of flying.
“The mountainous terrain and weather in Northeast poses bigger risks than flying in the rest of India. Weather remains unpredictable and you need to be prepared for any diversion or emergency at any time.”
The pilots feel that the Tezu runway, measuring 5,000 feet, is short for landing an aircraft like the Avro. The load capacity for an Avro is 3-4 tonne and the aircraft can carry a maximum of 40 passengers at a time and 21 stretchers.
“Not all the ALGs in Northeast are suitable for landing an aircraft yet, but as they provide many advantages during operations, the IAF is planning to operationalise many of them. A runway of at least 8,000 feet in length is adequate. You need real skills to land at Tezu and other ALGs. But as part of the training, we practise short-field landing techniques and are aware of the dangers,” says Singh.
The Advanced Landing Ground at Tezu is perched at a height of about 500 feet with hills in one direction and vegetation on the other side.
“We were greeted by locals upon landing in Arunachal. People in Northeast are very sweet. There is a calming energy around,” says Squandron Leader Kavita Prabhu, who is on her fifth posting in Northeast.
The three ladies are among 41 pilots in the squadron. While opportunities are growing, and there is no gender barrier, women still make for a very small number of air force pilots.
“Female officers are often few in number in any squadron. But doors are opening up for everything… It is just a matter of time,” says Wing Commander Tima Mathew, who observes that the same effort goes in to train women to become military pilots.
Mathew and Singh are mothers, married to air force pilots. They say it is challenging amid the tough work schedule, but with support from family and friends who live as a small, close-knit community, they are happily married to pilots in the same squad.
Singh met Squadron Leader Nishit Tare during her training, and they fell in love. The couple got married in 2010 and were blessed with a daughter, Nishka, who is one-year-old now.
“I was back to flying nine months after my daughter was born. My family has been very supportive. We had discussed before marriage that we would pitch in for each other. It helps when your husband is from the same profession. Nishit has been very understanding.”
Her husband takes pride in her work, and also takes care of their daughter when his wife goes flying.
“Jaya has been able to handle both the home front and office effectively. I am proud of her. She has achieved what others have not been able to at her age,” says Tare.
Wing Commander Mathew and her husband, Wing Commander Karan Kapoor, who’s a C-17 pilot, have been happily married for 10 years and have a six-year-old son.
“We are course mates. My husband is at Hindon (air force station), and my son is under his care while I am stationed here. Karan can look after the home and the kid just as well when I am not around,” says Mathew who is celebrating her wedding anniversary on Valentine’s Day.
These brave aviators also have an advice for young girls. “Dream big and never stop chasing it. Gender never defines success or failure, but hard work does. So step out of your comfort zone. There is nothing unachievable, not even the sky.”