Suman Sharma, daughter of a retired Indian naval officer and an army colonel's sister, became the world's first woman to fly the mighty Russian MiG-35 fighter jet at the Aero India international air show in Banglore.
The 30-year-old also became the first civilian woman to co-pilot the American-strike fighter F-16IN of Lockheed Martin two days before the biennial event took off at the Indian Air Force (IAF) base at Yelahanka, about 20 km from Banglore.
“The Russians confirmed from Moscow that I was the world's first woman to fly the Mikoyan fourth generation twin-engine multi-role fighter aircraft (MiG-35) Friday (Feb 13) with MiG Corp test pilot Mikhail Belyaev for over 40 minutes cruising at 0.9 Mach speed and pulled 7G above 20,000 feet,” an elated Suman told IANS on the sidelines of the air showpiece.
A qualified pilot with a stint in IAF as a commissioned officer and currently a flying instructor with the Indian Military Academy (IMA) at Dehradun, Suman flew in the single-engine F-16 with Lockheed test pilot Paul Randall. They touched 6G while flying 90 miles southwards into interior Karnataka.
“I had the privilege of taking controls in both the fighters for a while to perform loops, barrel and side rolls, stalls, dives and 360 degree turns. Though I was alert and fit, breathing at such altitudes and speed is a bit difficult. Yoga practice came to my rescue,” Suman recalled.
In the run up to her mid-air adventures onboard the supersonic fighters, Suman had flown to the US by a Boeing commercial jet (737) for 15 hours non-stop from New Delhi to Chicago in January 2008 on a familiarization trip to Lockheed factory where she got a feel of the Falcons in a simulator and a first-hand exposure to the latest aerospace technologies.
“During my IAF service, I co-piloted transport aircraft AN-32 and IL-76 and flew civilian jets subsequently. The experience came handy in conditioning to fly the fighters. In addition, yoga practice, jazz dance and diet control made me remain lean and fit to wear the G-suit and participate in aerobatics at different G force,” Suman noted.
Unwilling to make a comparison between the American and Russian fighters and her preference, Suman said while F-16 was a lighter, lean and mean machine to super cruise, MiG-35 was certainly heavier with tremendous power and thrust to go full throttle.
“It is unfair to compare as both (fighters) are a class by themselves. It all depends on how they are used and by whom. Being fly-by-wire with latest avionics, flight controls, radars and other navigational aids, it is the level of our alertness and reflexes that makes the difference in flying them,” Suman affirmed.
Asked whether she applied to the IAF to fly in one of its Sukhoi (Su-30MKI) fourth generation fighters, Suman said though she did to co-pilot a Su-30 and its latest Advanced Jet Trainer (AJT) Hawk, she was yet to get a clearance.
“As a rule, IAF does not allow women warriors to be taken as prisoners of war (POW) by the enemy though women pilots in the US and Israel fly combat aircraft. Though the Russian air force is not averse to fair-gender flying fighters, there are no women fighter pilots yet,” Suman pointed out.
Suman, however, is hopeful the IAF would change its rule sooner to allow women pilots to fly fighters in light of a recent proposal to recruit about 800 women commissioned officers in combat flying.
“The IAF recruits women through the service selection board for various positions, including piloting transport aircraft and choppers,” she said.
Daughter of Commodore (retd) H.P. Sharma and younger sibling of Colonel Rajesh Sharma of the Dogra Regiment, Suman is passionate to fly solo to connect herself with God in the infinite space.
“Given the opportunity, I would love to fly all kinds of aircraft, especially fighters, and hope to do by participating in other international air shows,” she added.
The New Delhi-based Suman wants to inspire other women, especially girls, to take up flying as a profession and compete with men as there is nothing that one can't understand in a magnificent flying machine.
“It is not a rocket science or so difficult to grasp. With good academic and science background, any girl or woman can take to flying even a combat aircraft,” she said.