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Woman on a high

Planes fascinate Flight Lieutenant Bhavana Mehra, co-pilot and commentator on the Suryakiran team

— Photo: Bhagya Prakash K.

Flt. Lt. Bhavana Mehra: `Mettle is about taking out fear. Once in, just do it.'

FLIGHT LIEUTENANT. Flying completely vertical, up or down, in circles, spins, manoeuvres, cobra or otherwise, at hundreds of kilometres an hour is the world of a different high, exhilaration, conquest. The cockpit is different from the commentary box. Flight Lieutenant Bhavana Mehra of the Indian Air Force (IAF) has to straddle both worlds: she is a co-pilot on the Suryakirans and then commentator on their manoeuvres. From cockpit to ground zero and ground zero to cockpit. Now, isn't that exciting?

Flt. Lt. Bhavana has been with the IAF for nine years. She always saw herself there. A dream. She passed the Service Selection Board interview that has a battery of physical, psychological and medical tests. Once through, the candidate gets to spend a year at the Air Force Academy, Dindugul. "I find aircraft fascinating. That got me going. And my parents never discouraged me from a career in the armed forces. They respect my independence. To the extent that they don't bother about me!"

Co-pilot, commentator

Flt. Lt. Bhavana, who was part of the commentary personnel at the just-concluded Aero India 2005, flies in the Suryakiran aircraft as co-pilot during practice and training sessions of the aerobatic exercises. She takes the G-pull that comes with such flying. "I sit on the left, and the aerobatic pilot on the right. I am expected to do specific things. I operate the undercarriage lever, flaps, and change the RT channels. The flights help give me the manoeuvre feel. The cockpit experience makes the commentary on the Suryakiran show convincing, forceful. Also, I have to be in co-ordination with the Suryakiran team. The flight tells me how much I should describe, and when and what manoeuvre I should describe as being different from another. And importantly, I can relate to, should in fact, to the pilot."

As Administrative Officer, she travels with the Suryakiran team for eight months, taking care of requirements for displays in different parts of the country. During the remaining four months, training happens, flying particularly, and strategy sessions with pilots on working out new manoeuvres.

Flt. Lt. Bhavana does skydiving too. No fear there? "You have to be man enough not to feel fear. The dive is all about mettle. Fear is face-to-face when you need to jump out of a moving plane. When you decide to jump, jump. No turning back. Or else it's like turning your back in battle. You only think on the ground. Once up there, you don't. Got to be absolutely clear. That is what we are trained for."

What about the fearsome manoeuvres by the Suryakiran jets? "It is exhilarating. Flying at high speeds in different manoeuvres pumps adrenalin into your blood. You get high. I have never experienced fear, because we have highly trained pilots and instructors monitoring us." She points out that the jets fly at 300 to 500 kilometres an hour and just three to five metres apart. "Sometimes I fly with newly trained pilots too. And at high speeds anything can happen. But I have tremendous faith in them because of the training they get and their own faith in themselves. I've got used to it now."

The chosen ones

What does it mean to be one among the few women co-pilots and personnel in the entire armed forces in the country? "It is nice. One does feel proud."

She is in the administrative branch and not the flying branch. "But that is because, I am two inches short of requirement. I would love to be a combat pilot, but I have to meet requirements of height," explains Flt. Lt. Bhavana, who quickly adds that there are more than a hundred women pilots who fly transporters and copters on their own.

The Suryakiran exercise is an effort, she says, to offer the civilian populace a glimpse of IAF's capabilities, and by way of that, motivate youth to join one of the prestigious air forces in the world.

Flt. Lt. Bhavana leaves us with something to think about: "Mettle is about taking out fear. Once in, just do it. You are supposed to do it." Would the day not be too far off when women will be flying combat aircraft?

PRASHANTH G.N.

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