In the last few decades, the Indian Defence forces have made quite a few moves to become more gender inclusive. An all-women Indian Navy crew recently circumnavigated the globe successfully. The Indian Army and Air Force have been increasingly appointing women officers. But it is only over time that these gender barriers have been broken, and we managed to track down one of the first women to have experienced working in the Indian Air Force, Mumbai-based fashion designer and life coach Cheryl Dutta Mishra.
Appointed in 1995, she was officially the first female helicopter pilot in the Indian Air Force, and flew with it for 10 years, retiring in 2005. Now, she opens up to Homegrown, almost 25 years later, about her experience – she looks back on her time training, her first commission, and what it means to be the first female helicopter pilot in the Indian Air Force, a community which at the time was highly dominated by men.
Cheryl’s career in flying began in 1990, when she joined the Mount Carmel university programme with the National Cadet Corps, years before the IAF had even begun to consider letting women join the forces. “I was always keen on flying but I never got the chance because I was just 17 at the time and also because it was expensive. When I heard about the NCC I thought – Okay, here is my chance to fly,” states Cheryl, when asked about her beginnings.
Having graduated with not just an instructor rating in flying hand gliders, but also a Bachelors in Arts, Cheryl admits never going to classes at all and spending all her time at the airfield. In 1993, the IAF began to recruit women, and she began training with them to fly transport aircraft, and eventually, helicopters. Finally, in December 1995, Cheryl was posted to Saharanpur along with 9 other women officers as part of the first female squadron in the IAF.
“For me, IAF training was a piece of cake because I had already done 100 hours of flying. But suddenly I also needed to learn physics, chemistry and maths. Having graduated in Arts, that was the hardest part,” she recalls. On the subject of her first appointment, Cheryl says, “To my surprise, I graduated first in my course so by default I became the first women helicopter pilot of this country.” In Saharanpur, Cheryl and her squadron flew the Allouette and the Lama, French helicopters manufactured in India and nicknamed the Chetak and the Cheetah, respectively, by the Air Force. They flew in the Himalayan region, completing search and rescue missions, casualty evacuations, and carrying supplies.
At the time, the significance of her achievement didn’t fully sink in. For Cheryl, her appointment didn’t feel so monumental. “That time, it didn’t feel like a big deal. Yes, it got a lot of press coverage but I was just relieved that I was finally getting commissioned as an officer. The fact that we were the first women pilots did not really sink in at the time.”
She remembers how some of her male colleagues were unsure of how to behave around a female officer. “I was the only women with maybe 200 men. Sometimes I used to go on detachment and I would be the commander with 10 men under me. The senior airmen who had been in the air force for 20 odd years didn’t know how to take orders from a 25-year-old, especially from a 25-year-old woman. They were confused about whether to treat me like a lady or to treat me like an officer. But I have to say, there was never any insubordination or discrimination. Our training, our lifestyle, was the same as any other officer.”
Some of Cheryl’s most memorable moments in the IAF are her experiences of flying through beautiful yet challenging terrains. She recalls her excitement of getting to fly in the desert while she was posted in Jaisalmer, though she states that flying above the mountains and the glaciers in the Himalayas were some of her greatest experiences.
However, the most memorable incident of her career is a search and rescue operation from her first posting. “We once rescued a soldier – a bomb had detonated in front of him and his face and arms had been damaged. We carried him in the helicopter and took him to the army hospital. I thought he was going to die, but after 10 days he called me and said ‘I just want to tell you that I survived.’ You never forget things like that. It was very rewarding.”
Though she might not have felt so at the time, however, looking back Cheryl says, “I am proud that I was part of the beginning of having women in defence forces. This is a much-deserved career path that the country is giving to our women. I’m so glad that I got to be part of that whole movement.”
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