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Wing Commander SK Minhas
First woman Cat Aye fighter controller, 19 years of service

How did you end up in IAF,The Indian AirForce?

Joining the IAF was an obvious choice for Minhas, whose father was himself an engineer in the Air Force. Her father’s last posting was in Chandigarh, where Minhas first began to dream of a career in flying. It was the lure of the uniform and the fact that she belonged to a generation that grew up fascinated with Tom Cruise in Top Gun.

What do you do?

“I was young and impressionable, and everything looked so cool,” Minhas reminisces. “I knew I could not be a pilot because I did not have the perfect eyesight, but the prospect of being a fighter controller really excited me. It is a specialised branch that looks over the defence of the entire Indian airspace. This involves control of all ground-based artillery weapons, aircraft interceptors in the air… you might have seen similar screens in Hollywood movies,” she explains.

How was the experience in IAF?

Minhas joined the IAF in 1997 as a pilot officer and found herself in Barmer, near Jodhpur, during her first posting. “It was an intense time for me because I had to study a lot for the first 5–6 years. We had physics, math, radar tech details, etc. I had to work very hard to train and to try and get into the system. You are working in the ops room and you are the only officer. You have to earn the respect of the team of airmen working under you,” she says. “When you join a technical branch like ours, nobody in the unit differentiates a lady officer from a man,” says Minhas. “But the first thing that hit me back then and it is something that I continue to realise even today after 19 years of service is that there are mostly only men around.”

Being around men has made an impact. “I have begun to think like a man. It is hard for me to relate with women now! In the Air Force, you are an officer first, then a lady. Men treat you like an equal, although they do exercise restraint in your presence; they don’t used foul language, for example,” she says. “If a cuss word does slip out from them, they apologise immediately. This is the least they can do, given that they are in the majority,” she laughs.

Is she aware of the awe her being an air-force officer commands outside of the forces? “I do realise it sometimes. Like when I go through security at a civil airport, the guards look at me like they would at any other passenger till they see my ID card. Then a warm smile spreads across their face. It is very gratifying.”