5 stories to celebrate pilots this Indian Air Force Day
They say the sky's the limit, and for every pilot, that is the reality! Scaling high every day, our pilots make us proud every day, and today we celebrate them with these stories
“If there’s one thing that has excited me the most as a kid, it was planes! Whenever I’d see them, flying high in the sky, I’d be in awe! I was 8 when I first sat in one, after we landed, I told Papa, ‘One day, I’ll be a pilot!’ He just smiled at me and ruffled my hair. I think he didn’t take me seriously then. But I had decided I wanted to work in the air force.
And so, after my 12th, I went back to Papa and repeated, ‘I want to be a pilot.’ This time, he paid attention to me. He asked me, ‘Are you sure?’ When I nodded, he said, ‘Go for it, beta. The sky's the limit!’ We took a loan and finally, my training began.
2 years of putting my heart and soul in my training later, I finally got my pilot license. My dreams had gotten wings, I was ecstatic! Soon after, I landed a job with Air India, the national carrier. I still remember my first flight–it was from Bombay to Delhi; I was so nervous. But the moment I sat in the cockpit, I felt at home and flew confidently.
Papa was so happy! Whenever any relative asked, ‘How will she settle now?’ He’d reply, ‘Meri beti udne ke liye bani hai!’ He’d hype so much in front of others, especially after I became one of the first few women pilots for Boeing 777. Papa was on cloud nine!
And I loved my job–I loved watching terrains change from up above. But I wanted to do more than just travel. And so, when the pandemic hit and the Vande Bharat rescue mission came into being, I volunteered to be a part of it! Naturally, Maa and Papa were worried. But when I explained how important the mission was, they reluctantly agreed.
My first rescue flight was to Shanghai. Our aim was to bring back all the Indians stuck there. I will never forget that flight – while going to Shanghai there was tension. China being the hot spot of Covid, everyone was distressed. We all wore hazmat suits through the course of the flight, I flew it wearing one. Even when we onboarded people, we were being extra cautious. When we finally landed in India, the passengers gave us a standing ovation. One little girl came up to me and said, ‘I want to be like you!’ And I told her what Papa told me, ‘The sky's the limit!’
After that, I did 3 rescue missions in a month. The flights were long and wearing hazmat suits made it tough, but I had a responsibility towards all those Indians who were stuck. They kept me going. Once, I even flew to bring medical aid to India. That was the strangest flight – instead of passengers, we travelled with hundreds of carton boxes.
That was the 1st year of the pandemic, we are in the 3rd year today – Mission Vande Bharat is still pretty active. In fact, tomorrow I’m flying out to Newark to bring those stranded back. Papa says he is proud of me. He recently told me, ‘I used to tell you the sky's the limit. But you’ve scaled even that! Keep flying!’ And that’s what I’m going to do… Keep flying!
“My husband’s a pilot with an erratic schedule. So when passenger flights stopped operating during the lockdown, we finally got that ‘quality time’. We did all the ‘quarantine couple’ things. We binge watched Money Heist, worked out and played Ludo–the winner could ask the loser to do ‘one thing.’
But one morning his airline called for volunteers to fly a cargo flight carrying essentials and medical equipment. The cases in our area had doubled and I wished he wouldn’t go. But he was itching to help. When he said ‘Nothing would make me happier than doing my bit’, I couldn’t be selfish anymore.
I couldn’t sleep the night before; not knowing whether airports would shut, or flights would be grounded without any notice, leaving him stranded. The next morning I put on a brave face for him. When I saw him don his captain’s uniform, I broke down; I was proud and scared. The next 24 hours were a nightmare. He took off at 5:30 AM but had forgotten to give me his tracking details. I was worried sick. When I finally got in touch with him, I screamed at him for forgetting! To calm me down he played Ludo with me during the halt, and after I lost, he begged me to sleep as his prize.
But his flight didn’t land at 2:30 AM like it was supposed to. I had no way to contact him. I panicked. ‘What if he’s stranded?, and worse–’what if he has to be quarantined?’ Finally, he returned home at 4:30 AM in the morning, safe and sound–I could breathe again. After a few weeks, he was called back to pilot a flight during the Cyclone–my fears multiplied but he helped 181 people reach home to their loved ones and that’s what’s important.
He’s operating domestic flights now. When I’m scared, I think of the relieved passengers who get to go home because of him! I’ve always had the deepest respect for those fighting on the frontlines, but now I empathize with their loved ones. The uncertainty of not knowing where they are, what's happening and whether they’ll come home or not is crushing. So while we salute our unsung heroes, let’s take a minute for their loved ones as well. Because for every fighter on ground, there’s a parent, child and spouse out there fighting their worst fears.”
“I was 3 years old when an Indian Air Force pilot put me in an aircraft. That was all it took for me to know that I also wanted to fly for India someday. Let me start from the beginning – I joined the National Defense Academy in 1956–I was an Air Force Cadet. After being commissioned to fly in 1960, I began serving in the IAF. During the Gulf war, I was involved in rescuing Indian refugees from Jordan to India. I served during the 1965 war with Pakistan and was even on the sidelines watching a failed coup attempt to capture Saddam Hussain.
I’ve had quite a few close shaves in my time – once, I’d been flying a lot, so a colleague insisted on flying in my place; he crashed and passed away. I was devastated, but this made me more resolute to serve for him and me, for the years to come.
I have had the honour to survive two major air crashes. We were in Iraq when 2 fighter jets collided – I can still remember the feeling of elation my fellow officers and I had, knowing that we’d survived to fight another day.
Whether it was supplying guns to our troops during the Indo-China war, or acting as a commercial pilot when there was a shortage of pilots, I’ve done it all. My first commercial flight was with Former Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi and on my last flight, I had the honour of flying Atal Bihari Vajpayee Ji.
I retired in 1998, and after that all my time belonged to my wife. I remember, we’d just gotten married and on our first wedding anniversary I was away at training while she was at her parents’ house. The house was 700 miles away from my training base but to surprise her, I flew over her house while she was on the terrace. Now, I wanted to fly with her–so we began travelling the world together.
I spent the majority of my life up in the skies. 38 years I flew for India, that has been my biggest privilege. The youth today must know that privilege–we fought to protect you, and now, we’re handing over the baton to you. What are you doing to serve your country today?”
“I was 4 when I saw the inside of a cockpit for the first time. Dad was the captain of our flight and the entire journey, I kept saying, ‘Do you know who’s flying this plane? My father!’ When I saw the cockpit after, I knew I wanted to be in the pilot’s seat; wearing that uniform.
Over the years, dad told me tales of his travels — the places he’d seen, the people he’d met, how he overcame bad weather and other incidents. I was always so fascinated. Even though I knew early on that I wanted to be a pilot, I participated in all kinds of events and competitions.
In college, I participated in ‘Times Fresh Face’ and won the title. A lot of modelling offers poured in, so I took it up along with my studies. Yet, I never gave up on my one ambition — to become a pilot.
But when I told people that, they’d put me down with comments like, ‘Why don’t you stick to modelling?’ or ‘You’ll have to study a lot; beauty and brains don’t go together.’ Their comments hurt me, but I knew the reality of the aviation industry, so I learnt to ignore them.
My parents also pushed me to prove to the world that I could be both. So I moved to Canada to train for a year and a half, where we were just 4 girls in a batch of 20. I trained harder than anyone else — being on the simulator, studying older cases and of course, talking to dad!
And it paid off! I did my first ‘solo flight’ after only 25 hours with the instructor! The first time was nerve-wracking. I had to do everything by myself — right from the controls to the manoeuvring. But as I soared higher, my confidence grew and I couldn’t believe I was flying! I video called my parents straight after! Dad didn’t say much, but his eyes were gleaming with pride.
All through my training, I was driven by two things—to make my parents proud and to shut the haters up. So the day I donned my pilot’s uniform, I shared a picture on social media to let the haters know I didn’t have to pick between being ‘beauty’ or ‘brains’ — I could be both.
Still, the comments haven’t stopped — from doubting my ability to fly because it’s a ‘male’ dominated space to questioning my family values, I’ve heard things like, ‘Girls shouldn’t stay out of their house at night,’ or ‘If you have kids, who’ll look after them?
I don’t understand the pressure society puts on us because we’re women. Why aren’t we still treated the same? So here’s my answer to those who keep telling me, ‘Don’t try to be the man of the house.’ Guess what, I’m not. I’m the woman of the house, and I can wear the pants at home too!”
“Dad used to say, 'It is the journey that matters, not the destination.' At 24, he was the youngest fighter pilot in the Mirage 2000 squadron; he truly was top gun of the Air Force! Aman, my brother & I grew up hearing stories of his bravery; we decided to become pilots early on!
In 2009, I joined an Aviation school. I remember our train ride to RaeBareli. Dad helped me set up. With him, it was easy. We could talk about anything; be it my relationships or studies. He’d always tell me, ‘Do whatever you want, just put all your heart into it’ And that’s what I did; whether in aviation school, or when I flew my 1st plane; I gave it all!
Dad beamed with pride & for a few of my flights, he was with me in the cockpit, not operating. Having a legend like him sit behind me would get me a little nervous to give my best but I always did well; he had my back. Like, during a training session in Lithuania, I was instructed by a Russian man who spoke broken English. I couldn’t understand him. I called Dad right away & for the next few nights, he helped me get through the curriculum!
Things were going well & I had no reason to feel it won’t continue doing so. Years had gone by...Mom & Dad were travelling the world together. Seeing their photos, I was happy to see them get their much-needed getaway.
But 2 weeks after their trip, Dad’s health reports reflected some blockages. But we were glad to have detected it in the earlier stage. We were waiting for a small procedure to install a stent before he’d be back on his feet. On the morning of the operation, we had breakfast, spoke about the regular & walked him to his hospital room. We were hoping to see him soon but…a few hours later, the doctors came out & said, ‘Due to some complications, he had a cardiac arrest.’ And just like that, he departed. It wasn’t easy. We were shattered. He was just 60.
But together, as a family, we chose to live by his words; we celebrated his journey! Even today, 2 months later, his Air Force buddies come over & we talk about him as a strong commander & a loving father. And that’s how we want to keep it; to ensure that he always lives through the memories he created for all of us.”
Being India’s largest storytelling platform, Humans of Bombay is all about bringing you extraordinary stories of ordinary people. Today, on Indian Air Force Day, we bring you these inspiring stories of our brave pilots to remind you how much they do for our country every day! If you’d like to read more such stories, check out our book and dive into the diverse tales of Bombay.