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She came out of the blue, flying down from the skies and handed over a bouquet to the Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa. To be precise, from 8,000 feet height. At that height, where a huge Mi Helicopter appears slightly bigger than a match-box from the vast sandy expanse of the Marina down below, Flight Lieutenant Bhavna Mane, Indian Air Force helicopter pilot and part-time para jumper, looked no bigger than a small dark dot in the bright blue skies, indistinguishable from the many `specks’ that appeared to be out on a different kind of stroll up close to the heavens. The specks — all part of the Indian skydiving team named Akash Ganga, based in Agra — came together for a brief while to showcase their talent high above the cloud line before parting company to open their South African-made parachutes. For Bhavna, if she is not wearing the helmet and the blue overalls to steer a bird around, she is busy jumping out of one. For, piloting is her job while `flying’ aided by a parachute, her passion. R.K. Radhakrishnan caught up with Bhavna Mane on the sands of the Marina, just as she was packing up to head back home.
What do you do?
I AM NOT a para trooper,” she informs us as we head to meet her at the Marina where she has landed. “Jumping is my passion. By profession, I am a helicopter pilot,” informs Bhavna. A passion like that for a girl who might pass of as a college student? Might be a wee bit difficult to understand for an outsider. But not for anyone in the Forces.
Bhavna says she grew up looking at the skies as a child, as her father whizzed around flying sorties after sorties at Indian Air Force Stations around the country.
As a child, Bhavna wanted to be part of the Force that she knew so well from an impressionable age; be part of the People in Blue, and be part of the stories that the future generations would narrate. One small hitch was that the IAF, back then, did not admit women.
How did you become a chopper pilot? How did you end up in a daring, unconventional, offbeat and cool career such as this?
But that door seemed to magically open even as young Mane was making a career decision — a policy decision at the highest levels of the Indian Government made it possible for many women like Mane to contribute to the Indian Armed Forces from within.
So, in 1995, the girl from Bangalore, a science graduate headed for the Hyderabad Air Force Academy, having been selected as an officer-cadet. She had her basic training in the HPT-32 aircraft (all pilots go through this flying) and then moved to the Helicopter Training School, Hakimpet, for qualifying in the rotary wing aircraft. She graduated with flying colours.
Thereafter began her quest to prove herself as a frontline IAF helo pilot.
She served in IAF helo units mostly in the northern and western sectors and is currently based in Udhampur in Jammu and Kashmir. Bhavna flies the single engine Chetak/Cheetah helos which have been the mainstay of both the IAF and the Army in difficult terrain including The Glacier.
How does it feel flying in dangerous terrain where the threat is more from the militants down below than the air pockets?
Well, you follow the standard operating procedures; adhere to the instructions and fly, just as you fly anywhere, she says.
She has a few words of advice for those looking at the IAF as a career option: Nothing can give you better satisfaction. But come prepared to meet the challenges. It’s no bed of roses here.