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Manmeet Singh Narang is a high flyer – in quite a literal sense of the word. While other people dream of working on the 80th floor of a high rise, Manmeet goes to work daily at 32,ooo feet. The 26 year old fighter pilot talks about his life and his job with the Indian Air Force.

Indian AIr Force Pilot

How did you decide to join the Indian Air Force? Have you always dreamt of an offbeat, unconventional and cool career such as fighter pilot?

Not really. After Class 10, I’d prepared for engineering entrance exams. I’d also written the NDA exam on a whim because I was tired of my engineering studies. Later on I got through some NITs, some architecture courses, and surprisingly the NDA. Now I was faced with a difficult choice. My rank in the NDA was pretty good and I got through to the air force. I wanted to try out something new – all my friends were going on to study engineering or medicals or CA. I thought maybe I’d give flying a shot!

What was life at the National Defence Academy (NDA) like?

I’d joined the NDA with some trepidation, and I was right. A lot of people who have been trained there have at least once wanted to leave. It’s unrelenting. (laughs). It’s not the physical part, grueling as it is. Eventually you get used to the physical demands the course puts on you. But mentally, life at the NDA can be very taxing. There is one thing you always fight against- time. Your biggest concern at times is whether you’ll get today’s breakfast or not – if you’re late in the slightest, you don’t. Moreover, you’re completely cut off from the outside world – at least in the initial few semesters of training; except the few day outs called as ‘liberty’, which mostly is spent in eating out and watching movies, enjoying the ‘civil life’. We actually used to communicate through letters with our near and dear ones! And believe you me, no other communication media can come even close to the warmth letters possess! In those letters, you really don’t want to tell your parents about the difficult life, because NDA teaches you to bring smile on others face irrespective of the challenges. To deal with those challenges, you have your course mates and seniors – your brothers in arms.

NDA pushes you till you reach your actual physical limits and then it starts widening your mental limits and horizons. The life here can be quite an intimidating situation for an 18 year old, especially in the first term. But it’s needed. You need to toughen up the young men who go there, because they’ll be doing a job like no other. At 21, you’ll be leading men to a race between life and death. NDA breaks down your ego completely. Irrespective of who you are and where you’re from, you’re treated exactly alike – you dress alike and your hair is removed the first day you arrive in the academy. You could have been a hotshot at school, but here nobody cares. They slowly build back your ego when you’re more senior- in the right sense. Your entire personality undergoes a transformation in those three years. You become men from boys.

The NDA also helps create better understanding between the Air Force, the Navy and the Army because future officers study together here. Understanding the sister services’ limitations is as important as fixing your own.

Did you immediately start flying after graduating from the NDA?

No, it was in NDA when I flew my first aircraft. The NDA doesn’t focus on the flying bit till initial two years, because training pattern for army, navy and air force cadets is the same. We only start flying in our last term. Once the NDA stint was over, Air Force pilots were sent to Hyderabad, where they undergo a basic jet training – handling an aircraft, flying it, getting used to it. For fighters, it was followed by training in another place in Hyderabad where advanced maneuvers and flying techniques were taught. Side by side, there are a lot of exams that we keep writing. Once we were done, there’s a grand passing out parade and flight cadets become officers. The fighter pilots are then moved to Bidar where the real fun starts – we study combat- aerial and ground attack. We learn how aerial combat works, how to fire guns, bombs- all the cool stuff. Then I went to Pune to learn the specialization of my aircraft – one of the meanest machines in the world and definitely the meanest fighter jet of India. This aircraft is very demanding and the least forgiving of all I’ve flown. You can’t afford to make any mistakes. The training is understandably rigorous. Once this was done, I was posted to North East India.

What’s it like there?

Once you’ve learnt ground combat and aerial combat, there’s more to do. Fighter aircrafts have become incredibly sophisticated. Now we have missiles that can fire much longer distances than they earlier could. You can refuel in the air and the aircraft can travel distances it never could earlier. There are different techniques for flying in mountains, in deserts, and so on. You keep learning these new techniques. More so, fighter pilot skills are considered to be extremely perishable because you need to yield very high performance in high stresses in extremely small reaction times. Thus, regular practice of all of this is a must. Apart from the tactics, we need to keep practicing different scenarios – how you’d perform in a fight in an actual war. We assign roles and play out strategies. Flying is more of a game of chess- a very rapid one though. There’s tons of strategies and tactics involved. The side with the best weapons may not always win.

What’s it like to fly an aircraft? What was your personal experience like?

The first time I flew a plane, I was terrified. It’s not because I was afraid of heights, or was afraid of flying. It’s just that you’re scared of doing something wrong. What happens if I press a wrong button by mistake? But by the end of the first few sorties, that phase went away. Once you get used to it, flying becomes completely natural, almost like driving. Leave alone getting used to it, you start getting addicted to it!

Flying a fighter jet does have its own set of privileges. You are exposed to experiences that you can’t have access to normally. The thrill and the adrenaline rush is unmatchable. And I have done enough traveling and adventure sports to be able say that with conviction. Then, there’s something called an aviator’s rainbow – when you’re flying over clouds, and there’s a ray of sun cutting through your canopy, it creates a halo of seven colours on the clouds below you, around your aircraft. Your aircraft is entrapped in a rainbow that moves along with you. It’s breathtaking. And I can go on and on.

What’s your average day like?

Oh it’s quite busy. It’s very normal to work for more than 8-10 hours. It isn’t abnormal to work on some weekends and holidays. We take around an hour or more to prepare for a mission. Complex missions can take days. Then there’s a mission brief which is carried out. Preparing for takeoff is around 45 minutes. The actual sortie lasts around an hour or so. Now once the mission is done, we do extensive analysis. We have lots of data that’s stored regarding any sortie. We come back and analyze it, look over what happened. This takes up a lot of time. And it is necessary because debrief is what teaches us what went wrong or what could have gone wrong, and how to prevent getting us killed out in the air.

To unwind, we normally play sports – and there are lots of options. Stations are normally in small towns, so your life is usually restricted to your base. Then there’s always television, reading books, good music and stuff. We can’t drink before flying, so that’s restricted mainly to the weekends.

How has your life changed since you joined the NDA? Something as intense as this must’ve changed you in some way.

Definitely. It has made me extremely calm. I rarely get angry, and never on small issues. The training at the NDA had made me incredibly mentally strong. I’m prepared to face anything. This academy has pushed me to my physical and psychological limits. Now when I see the challenges in the world faced by people- I know nothing is really impossible. Everything is easier than what I have already gone through.

Then you also get a sense of responsibility. There’s country that’s depending on your actions. Your subordinates are looking up to you. It’s not your life your worried about. You must do the right thing to save a lot of others’ who depend on you. Then obviously, it has expanded my horizons – you become a lot more broadminded. I’ve seen people here from really conservative villages and backgrounds, who’re now okay with the concept of inter-caste marriages, inter-religion marriages – which I think is a huge step.

Would you recommend this to other people?

Hmm. Look, the perks and the pay are good but not exceptional, given what we do. An IAS or similar counterpart makes more money. But the quality of life is amazing. The kinds of amenities we get are hard to get elsewhere. Majorly, you get to spend your life with really smart, upstanding people – and that’s a reward in itself. Also, if you have kids, their lives are pretty sorted in terms of kind of good people they grow up with, the kind of fresh air they breathe and extra curricular activities they can avail of. Their education and growth is taken care of, even if you’re out of town for weeks or months – they don’t call us brother-in-arms for nothing.

Also, you can’t always follow logic. If you’re given an order, you must follow it unquestioningly, even if it doesn’t make sense to you right then. You can always put up a point and it will be discussed. But you cannot disobey the order, just because you feel it might not be the right decision at that point of time. You just have to agree that it has been well thought of by the rest. And in most cases I’ve analyzed later, that was indeed the case. I’ve never felt even once that the order was immoral. But this also means that to bring about change in the way things are run is a bit slow process.

We get sufficient leaves, but it doesn’t mean you’ll always get them when you need them. Service does come before self. In the last 8 years, though I’ve managed to attend most of my important family occasions, I haven’t spent a single major festival at home. For a country to sleep at home calmly, someone has to be working.

But I guess I would definitely recommend this to people as a profession. Those 1-2 hours of flying are absolute bliss. The quality of life is unmatchable. I’d happily put up with managing with fewer resources, listening to less thankful people outside our community and other things, just to experience that rush in the air. If someone says, “I want to do a job where people will ask me, “Do you really get paid for that,” I guess they should go for it.