Two women pilots of the Indian Air Force flew into history last month when they carried out landings at two of the most challenging military airfields in the world. Meet the new poster girls of the IAF --- squadron leaders Teji Uppal and Veena Saharan.
While Uppal has reserved a slot for herself in the air force’s hall of fame by touching down her Russian-made AN-32 cargo plane at the Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) airstrip, the highest advanced landing ground in the world at 16,200 feet; Saharan landed the jumbo IL-76 military transport plane at the Leh airbase.
The 2.1-km sand-and-gravel DBO airstrip in northeastern Ladakh --- not too far from areas illegally occupied by China and Pakistan --- was reactivated in 2008 after 43 years. The air force is aggressively pursuing a plan to ramp up its strategic airbases in Ladakh for better troop and logistics support.
Three airbases, including Fukche and Nyoma, located at vertigo-inducing altitudes ranging from 13,000 ft to 16,200 ft have been made operational during the last four years.
Both Uppal and Saharan were commissioned into the air force in December 2002. Uppal honed her flying skills by piloting difficult missions in India’s northeast where she touched down at military bases close to the Chinese border more than 100 times.
The air force is laying an elaborate network of radar systems and advanced sensors along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China in Ladakh to fortify its air defence capabilities. It is acquiring special mountain and low-looking light weight radars as part of reinforcing its operational infrastructure in the sensitive northern sector.
The air force is inching closer to deploying fighters at the Nyoma airbase in Ladakh, barely 20 km from the LAC.
The IAF wants to expand the Nyoma airstrip, located at a height of 13,300 feet, to 12,000 ft. The air force’s Sukhoi-30 MKI fighters have been modified for high altitude operations. The starting cycle of these fighters has been lengthened to deal with decrease in air density at higher altitudes.