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Gunjan Saxena: Story of India’s First Woman Combat Aviator

Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl Story

Gunjan Saxena Story: “A war zone is a place for protecting the country and not about giving equal opportunities”- very true and accurate. A battleground is about life and death, and we cannot risk lives on the name of giving equal opportunities, but what if the people asking for the opportunities are worth it?

All the talks about women’s empowerment are incomplete without the name of this woman. She is the one who along with fighting patriarchy also became the first-ever Indian woman to be a part of a war-zone, and she was not just asked for this opportunity, she proved to be as good as any other men besides her. This is the story of Flight Lieutenant Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl who flew in and out of the Kargil like a heroine.

Family

She was born in 1975 in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh in a family consisting of faujis. Both her father Lt Col (retired) Anup Saxena and brother Anshumann Saxena were in the Indian army. She is now married to an Indian Air Force MI-17 helicopter pilot and they have a daughter Pragya who was born in 2004.

Early Life and Inspiration

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In one of her recent interviews, Saxena shared that she saw the cockpit of an aircraft for the first time when she was merely five, because of a cousin of hers who was a pilot with Indian Airlines. From there, she knew what she wanted from life, she wanted to fly, and her father wanted her to fly too.

Education and Flying Training

She did her graduation from Hansraj College, University of Delhi, New Delhi. And along with that, she joined the Delhi flying club at Safdarjung airport in the 90s from where she learned the basics of flying and her take-off as a pilot initiated.

Indian Air Force Career

Gunjan joined the Indian Air Force in 1994 as a part of the group of 25 women. This was the first-ever batch of women trainee pilots recruited in the IAF. Saxena’s first posting was in Udhampur, Jammu, and Kashmir, as part of the 132 Forward Area Control (FAC). And from there started her actual journey towards a revolution in the forces and towards writing history in the war. And this was not a bit easy.

The women recruits had to face many gender-based challenges like adapting to makeshift changing rooms until new ones were built for women, apart from the men in the job not being able to accept the sudden rise of women in the forces. However, she recalls that the male pilots accepted the situation rather faster than she expected.

Kargil War (May to July 1999)

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With the increasing tension on the LOC with Pakistan, in May 1999, Gunjan Saxena got orders to move to Srinagar and with her fellow Flight Lieutenant Srividya Rajan, both became first Indian women to fly Cheetah helicopter in a war-prone zone.

When the situation worsened, and with four helicopters positioned at the Srinagar Air Field, Gunjan was one of the ten helicopter pilots stationed there and was the only woman among the ten. Later, when the conflict escalated and the assignments were considered dangerous, she was asked by her detachment commander if she had any problems operating in the area, to which she said she doesn’t and continued to fly, refusing the option to move out of Srinagar and the danger zone.

And with this at the age of 25, she became the first woman in Indian Armed Forces to fly a Cheetah helicopter into a combat zone and also became the first and only woman in Indian Armed Forces to be the part of any war. She was the part of Operation Vijay, which was the name of the Indian operation to clear the Kargil sector.

Her duties were ranged from evacuating the wounded and martyred Indian soldiers to transporting and dropping supplies to troops in the forward areas of Dras and Batalik, and surveillance roles such as mapping enemy positions. She flew hundreds of sorties with her team during the war, evacuating over 900 injured casualties, dealing with makeshift landing grounds, flying at heights of 13,000 to 18,000 feet, and facing enemy fire.

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Gunjan flew unarmed Cheetah and flew very close to the Pakistan dominated territories in Srinagar while dodging all kinds of air attacks. Once she narrowly missed an attack by an enemy missile. While flying she always carried a fully loaded INSAS assault rifle and a revolver showing that she did not fear one-on-one battle and was prepared for the worst-case scenario. Despite all these horrors of war, she continued her duties without hesitation. She also was one of the first few pilots to scout the Kargil-Tololing-Batalik area.

Such was her valor. She broke barriers and crossed boundaries. This real-life heroine was a short commissioned officer and retired in 2004 as a flight lieutenant after 7 years of service.

Talking to NDTV in one of her interviews, she says it was the evacuation of the injured Indian Army soldiers that motivated her most during the war. “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.

Shaurya Chakra

She was the first Indian woman to be awarded Shaurya Chakra gallantry award (an Indian military decoration peacetime award for valor, courage, and sacrifice while not engaged in direct action with the enemy to both serving individuals and civilians).

This was the goosebump-worthy story of our Kargil-girl. Gunjan Saxena proved that instead of blaming the patriarchy and sexism, women should just work on and prove their abilities, and the world including the men will accept and remember them forever as equal to men. Keep reading and sharing.

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