One more gender barrier fell to the determination of women as Squadron Leader Veena Saharan became the first woman co-pilot to fly one of the mightiest and heaviest aircraft of the Indian Air Force - the Russian-built Illyushin-76 (IL-76).
She will first co-pilot IL-76, renamed by the IAF as Gajraj (Elephant), and after 40 hours of flying she will become the pilot.
“It is a great achievement. I have just finished my solo flight of the IL-76 aircraft. Now I am looking forward to the second step of gaining expertise on this aircraft… It is good that the IAF is creating more opportunities for women officers,” an elated Saharan told IANS on Wednesday.
Saharan, 27, hails from Jaipur and is a second-generation defence officer. Her father, a colonel in the Indian Army, is also proud of her.
She completed her two-month ground training for the aircraft at the Agra air base last month and has now moved on to Nagpur for further training.
After flying IL-76 for 40 hours Saharan will complete her conversion from AN-32 transport aircraft to the largest transport aircraft of the force.
Saharan has done her graduation from Delhi University in Physics. "I had applied in the third year itself and got selected in the first attempt," she said.
The IAF operates 25 IL-76s for military transport duties such as tactical and strategic airlift, at all operational levels. The IL-76 is a strategic air-lifter with a payload of 95,000 pounds and a range of over 5,000 km.
“My parents are very happy for me. Even though I was in the army wing of the NCC (National Cadet Corps), I decided to join the IAF as I wanted to fly,” Saharan said with a smile.
Commissioned in the IAF in December 2002, Saharan's story is of hard work and sweat. The opportunity to fly IL-76 was always there for the women pilots since their induction into the IAF a decade and a half ago but it is only the best who get a chance. So far Saharan has flown four types of aircraft.
“I started with the two-seater HPT-32 aircraft and then moved on to Dornier transport aircraft. I have also flown AN-32 and now will be flying IL-76,” she explained.
Saharan has done sorties over Jammu and Kashmir, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and the northeastern sector.
“This (the aircraft squadron) is the elite group of aircraft and is an asset for the IAF. For induction the pilot has to meet certain qualifications. And it feels good that I have met all the requirements,” she added.
The IAF, which has completed 75 years, currently has 784 women officers who work in all branches, barring the fighter stream.
In January this year, its first woman navigator Flying Officer Kavita Barala created history of sorts as she saluted Pratibha Patil, the first woman president of the country, at the Republic Day parade.