This article was originally published by Usha Ramanujam Arvind
Please tell us about yourself
The cutting edge world of aerospace engineering has traditionally been a male dominated bastion but not anymore, as gender stereotypes are being constantly eroded.
Among the newest crop of graduate aviation engineers with sky-high ambitions is a talented Indian Australian youngster Komal Sangha. And her career is already off to a flying start with the Royal Australian Navy, thanks to a Defence University sponsorship.
Lieutenant Sangha was among the few from her batch at Monash University to bag the lucrative sponsorship. She applied for the undergraduate defence sponsorship while in her second year, and after a series of interviews and selection processes, joined the Navy in her third year of Aerospace Engineering.
The sponsorship included the payment of remaining HECS fees and all study material, as well as a salary while studying. In addition the programme also offered work experience opportunities, mentorship and the ongoing support of the defence services infrastructure.
Aviation, Komal emphasised, is a very intense but enjoyable niche field with manifold opportunities to grow and evolve as an engineer.
“I have always been passionate about all sorts of flying machines; whether an aeroplane, helicopter or even a remote controlled flying contraption,” Komal told Indian Link. “I owe my keen interest to the various trips my family made all over the world since I was a child.”
The 24-year-old, whose eyes light up when talking about aviation, is particularly passionate about rotary wing systems in general and specifically Seahawks.
Having recently spent ten months learning all about the Seahawk as part of her training, Komal has conducted regular maintenance-related investigations, provided recommendations to the command, delivered daily engineering briefs on the aircraft, planned squadron detachments and provided advice on weekly squadron flying priorities.
Tell us about your work
“The Seahawk,” Komal explains, “is a Sikorsky helicopter operated by the Royal Australian Navy to conduct missions primarily in coordination with the ships. It has been designed to take off and land on pitching and rolling ship decks and to operate effectively in salt-laden environments.”
“The helicopter is fitted with one of the world’s most advanced anti-submarine warfare capability to search and hunt submarines,” she added enthusiastically. It is also capable of transferring troops, winching operations, stores replenishment of ships and day-night search and rescue operations.
“Of course, I am biased towards the rotary side of aviation, mainly because I have always worked with helicopters since completing my degree,” confessed Komal.
“Helicopters are quite complex systems, and as you start understanding the basics of this machine, it just keeps getting more and more interesting,” she added.
It is this passion for complex rotary systems that prompted Komal to choose the Navy over the other defence forces.
“The opportunity to work with complex machinery really appealed to me. I opted for the Royal Australian Navy because of my strong interest in helicopters and ships. The Navy provides the opportunity to witness the integration of ships and helicopters and I was quite keen to be a part of this experience”.
For Komal, working with real flying machines is very much like a dream come true.
“Although they are quite a sight in the blue skies, a lot of hard work and ground labour goes into each flight. In order to provide a safe flight, maintenance staff spends hours troubleshooting and servicing the aircraft, before it is declared airworthy. The sense of achievement from fixing these machines and seeing them take off into the open skies is a key motivating factor that has literally kept us going on various cold, windy and rainy days,” she revealed.
“The last two years have already been a very steep and enjoyable learning curve for me and I can only see my career going up,” she added happily.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
Although Komal has always been passionate bout flying objects, it is quite by accident that she strayed into this field. Like most other “Indian” teenagers, her sights were initially trained on the medical pathway.
“My parents have always given utmost importance to our education and ensured we got the best,” she explained. “My mother was a pre-medical instructor in India, preparing students for medical entrance exams. Being brought up in a house where ‘medicine’ was the only talked about profession, I had always thought about pursuing health sciences after graduation.”
Her family moved to Australia in April 2003, when young Komal was in Year 11. “Considering I was already a term behind everyone else, I took up seven subjects in Year 11, including biology, chemistry and physics. I also studied Hindi on Saturdays for the duration of VCE”.
The academically motivated student soon transferred to a Selective high school, which she believes, gave her the additional push to perform her best.
“Although I gained the required ENTER score for medicine, I did not get a sufficiently high score in UMAT,” Komal admitted candidly. “So I joined Physiotherapy with a view of transferring into Medicine after the first semester. This did not work out as planned, as I did not feel passionate about analysing body parts, learning about diseases, etc. That’s when I made a decision to transfer to Aerospace Engineering and joined Monash University as a mid-year entrant.”
Komal of course, had the full backing of her parents when she made the decision to switch careers mid-course and more importantly, join the defence forces. “Quite a few members of my extended family have served or are currently serving in the Indian defence force; therefore we were always aware of the lifestyle commitments involved,” she said.
So, have there been gender stereotypes to contend with?
How was the experience at Monash University?
“Interestingly, out of a class of 30, we had only five female engineers studying aerospace,” Komal said, adding, “I believe the main reason for such few female numbers is because of a reduced awareness amongst the students.”
According to her, aeronautics is not much different to Mechanical Engineering. “The branch is still evolving and gradually we are seeing more and more females opting for Aerospace Engineering”.
And this is why she has taken on the mantle of brand ambassador. “I have been very lucky to have been offered a tailor made career pathway and I would like to be a role model for many more youngsters, particularly girls, to choose this profession,” stated Komal.
“From my experience, the defence undergraduate scheme has benefitted me in a number of ways. During my university years, my financial requirements were completely covered. This eliminated the need to search for a part time job and helped me focus entirely on my studies,” she emphasised.
“Additionally, I doubt I could have gained such an enormous amount of experience had I taken up a similar kind of job in the civilian world. I enjoy working for the Australian Defence Force as it allows me to contribute to society, while providing me with job security and satisfaction. As I move further in my life, I intend to follow what I am passionate about, which is helping people and contributing to society in whatever way I can.”
Your advice to students?
Komal Sangha has since visited many schools, motivating students.
“These days there are various career paths available to school graduates from which they can choose. Regardless of what field they wish to pursue it is vital they research the study requirements, workload and future job opportunities. Those seeking more hands-on experience, prior to a full time commitment to study, should look at apprenticeships and traineeships,” recommends Komal strongly.
“Some institutions also offer mid-year entry to high school graduates who wish to take a break prior to commencing tertiary studies,” she added.
Komal also hopes to inspire migrant kids to diversify their career portfolio.
“It is very easy to get distracted in today’s rat race where competition to perform well is so extreme. It is time for us to divert away from the stereotypical career choices considered suitable for migrant kids. We should start looking at the bigger picture and allow for creativity and progress to stem from everywhere. Remember, success is not the key to happiness; happiness is the key to success,” she remarks with a far-sightedness that goes beyond her age. She is no doubt inspired by Gautama Buddha’s sagacious words of wisdom: If you love what you’re doing, you will be successful.
Likewise, Komal’s exposure to the Australian Defence Forces has undoubtedly toughened her up physically and mentally. “The initial training phase is structured in such a way to push you way beyond your extremes in order to get the best out of you. Not only does it give you a better awareness of yourself, it motivates you to perform even better,” she commented.
Komal also firmly subscribes to the core defence values of “courage, professionalism, loyalty, integrity, innovation and teamwork”. As a member of the defence force, it is vital to believe in its organisational values and apply them in everything they do. The initial training assists in teaching the significance of these and how they can be incorporated into everyday life.
What are your plans?
After completing initial training as an Aerospace Engineer in the Navy, Komal gained a competency certificate (which she explained is equivalent to Graduate status with Engineers Australia). “As a qualified Aerospace Engineer you can be working in a variety of roles ranging from technical to project positions or even in out-of-category jobs such as human resource management,” she explained.
Currently, a trainee Aviation Engineering Officer at 816 Squadron, Komal has been a part of various squadron detachments operating from Perth, Bundaberg and Caloundra.
“I was given the opportunity to experience helicopter operations in the maritime environment during MIDPAC 2011, a joint exercise involving international navies, conducted at Pearl Harbour,” she revealed. “As part of this, I was flown to Hawaii and sailed back to Brisbane on HMAS Sydney.”
While career fulfilment is obviously her top priority now, the fledgling engineer is also aware of the Navy’s family-friendly approach. “I understand that the Navy attempts to assist service families in every possible way. Members with dependants are given careful consideration with their posting preferences and the Navy endeavours to work towards the satisfaction of its employees, without compromising work requirements,” she described. Her next posting is to Melbourne as the ship’s Aviation Facilities Engineer, which, she explained, “oversees the appropriateness of aviation facilities on ships to suit our helicopters”.
Komal also hopes to return to Nowra to complete her squadron requirement of two years prior to getting promoted to a Lieutenant Commander. “With the acquisition of new LHDs and a fleet of helicopters, the navy scene is currently hectic,” said Komal. “This will open up further exciting opportunities for aerospace engineers with a possibility of sea postings as well.”
Meanwhile, this enterprising young woman has also charted long-term prospects, which include a Masters in Structural Engineering in the UK.
Firmly rooted in her strong Indian values and identity, Komal always finds time to visit temples. “I find that it keeps my sanity under control,” she quipped. Socialising, exercising and dancing are some of her other interests. Equally passionate about other cultures, particularly their history, cuisine and language, Komal has taken up advanced Italian and is just back from a hectic, but fulfilling trip to this ancient land. Scuba diving is also on the agenda.
But for now Komal is off to Mumbai to attend her friend’s traditional Maharashtrian wedding while her travel diary for next year includes Pakistan and British Columbia.
Lt Komal Sangha is certainly one high flier for whom the sky is the limit.